Let state run rite of passage to manhood

22 August 2015 - 09:14
By William Gumede

Every year hundreds of young men and boys die at initiation schools, either from botched circumcisions, assault or dehydration.

But the government, traditional and "cultural" authorities have done very little to intervene.

The lack of outrage - and immediate action - from the government and traditional and "cultural" officialdom over these needless annual deaths is disturbing.

Many political, traditional and cultural leaders have increasingly been using supposedly African culture and traditions to excuse their personal wrongdoing - for example, President Jacob Zuma said corruption is a "Western paradigm".

Self-serving leaders have invented African customs, traditions and cultures to shield themselves from criticism or to shore their political support base to distribute patronage among the poor, uneducated and uninformed communities.

Ordinary blacks refusing to support black leaders who are incompetent, corrupt or enriching themselves with public money are frequently dismissed as un-African or "trying to be white".

Given that we are living in uncertain and unstable times, characterised by social upheaval including broken families, unemployment and poverty and failures in public services, many are increasingly finding an anchor in tradition and culture.

But corrupt, self-serving traditional leaders and authorities have abused the people's desire to anchor themselves by hoodwinking the poor, the gullible and needy out of their money or to secure their political support.

Circumcision in some African communities (and of course in many other non-African communities too) is seen as a rite of passage into manhood.

In many African communities, men who did not undergo circumcision are not seen as "real" men and are bullied and made to feel worthless.

Unsurprisingly, many young men risk death to attend initiation schools to be seen as "real" men. Many of the "traditional surgeons" (iingcibi) are not trained to perform circumcisions, are not registered with health authorities, and do not uphold basic health standards.

Corrupt traditional leaders are exploiting the fact that young men are culturally "obliged" to undergo the custom of circumcision.

Unscrupulous traditional surgeons abuse the fact that the custom is often ruled by secrecy. Initiates are discouraged to talk about their experiences.

Mothers are not allowed to get involved and make sure their children are treated properly.

That political and traditional leaders are at worst silent about these atrocities and at best ineffective in their actions to curb deaths makes incredible claims to be custodians and guardians of African culture.

No doubt traditional and cultural leaders and authorities fear that publicly criticising circumcision practices will be an acknowledgement that they are not performing proper oversight.

They fear that the yearly deaths of initiates is ample grounds for the initiation ceremony to be taken out of the hands of traditional authorities and given to government.

African cultural practices that undermine individual human dignity, value and rights must either be abolished or reformed.

The debate about what are appropriate African "traditions" must be taken away from those who argue culture for opportunistic reasons and to prop up their influence and bank balances.

The department of cooperative governance and traditional affairs must regulate initiation schools, formalise them and set appropriate standards for them.

The schools must be properly monitored by government, communities and civil society. Teachers at these schools must be qualified.

The curriculum for initiation schools must be transformed. Manhood must be based on democratic, moral and behavioural values enshrined in our constitution.

The curriculum for initiation schools should be adapted to grapple with contemporary challenges, including the need to promote gender equality, safe sexual behaviour, the notion of "public" service and discouraging the dominant "macho" perception of maleness.

The secrecy around the custom must be broken so that initiates, their families, communities, and civil society organisations can hear and monitor first-hand what goes on in these schools.

Illegal initiation schools must be closed. Traditional surgeons who run them and who are responsible for illegal circumcisions, injuries and deaths must be prosecuted.

Ideally, the best reform is for circumcisions to be done by health institutions rather than by traditional authorities.

The government should take over the practice of circumcision given that traditional authorities are unable or unwilling to regulate the custom.

The challenge remains for all communities in South Africa to honestly re-examine all their cultural, traditional and religious assumptions and practices.

This call should not be reduced to something like a battle between so-called modernists and traditionalists; Western "civilisation" versus African "backwardness"; or as an attempt to "denigrate" African cultural beliefs. To do so would be simply disingenuous.

The South African constitution is very clear that cultural, traditional and customary practices that undermine human rights, life and dignity are undemocratic. We should abolish such practices.


Gumede is chairman of the Democracy Works Foundation. He is the author of "Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times"