Nelson Mandela in his autobiography The Long Walk to Freedom recounts his childhood experience during this rite of passage from boyhood to manhood. He writes:
“When I was sixteen, the regent decided that it was time that I became a man. In Xhosa tradition, this is achieved through one means only: circumcision. In my tradition, an uncircumcised male cannot be heir to his father’s wealth, cannot marry or officiate in tribal rituals. An uncircumcised Xhosa man is a contradiction in terms, for he is not considered a man at all, but a boy. For the Xhosa people, circumcision represents the formal incorporation of males into society. It is not just a surgical procedure, but a lengthy and elaborate ritual in preparation for manhood … as a Xhosa, I count my years as a man from the date of my circumcision.”
Traditional fundamentalists today continue to uphold this traditional practice of guillotining foreskins with a blunt assegai in the bush in the absence of acceptable sanitary conditions. Traditional societies pressure young boys to become men before their time. The Constitution protects individual cultures. Everyone has a right to practice their culture freely and within the ambit of the law. There are, however, limitations to all these wonderful rights enshrined in the Constitution. It has become evident that the preservation of such harmful traditions, such as sending young boys to the bush in freezing weather, is harmful and poses a risk to their lives. Countless young boys end up dead during their traditional quest to become men. Some of those who have been fortunate to escape the blunt guillotine alive have had to undergo penile amputation, which permanently impairs their human dignity to their end of days.
The notion that a young boy by virtue of having had his foreskin chopped off under unnecessarily dangerous conditions makes him a man is beyond ridiculous. This practice may have had some cultural significance in ancient times but it carries no significant weight and meaning in modern times where societies have moved on. Shaka Zulu put an end to the practice among Zulu men in the 19th century. Zulu warriors were no lesser men than those they conquered during their period of thuggery and theft of land from their neighbours as a consequence of Shaka’s decree. However, many years later Goodwill Zwelithini decided to reinstate traditional male circumcision as he did with the practice of ukhweshwama, where a bull is brutalised to death. We may not have had frightening incidents of botched circumcisions in KwaZulu-Natal but it does not justify the continuation of potentially harmful traditional practices.
The picture in the Eastern Cape is starkly different and frightening. The rite of passage to manhood often marks an end of life for a desperate initiate. The proliferation of initiation schools does not appear to be driven by cultural but rather monetary consideration. The Eastern Cape is one of the poorest provinces and the rate of unemployment is staggering. Entrepreneurial traditionalists have exploited cultural shame placed upon uncircumcised boys to position themselves in the mainstream economic activity. The motive to profiteer supersedes the sentimentalism of traditional fundamentalists who are troubled by the need to preserve their archaic and harmful practices. Initiation schools have become a human abattoir where young boys are mere commercial commodities for greedy traditionalists.
Preserving this harmful practice has not benefited society in any manner. Initiation schools are not necessarily producing model citizens who inspire others to greatness or advance society to a better place. Staunch advocates of this dated and harmful practice often tell us of the lessons of manhood that they are taught in the bush. Such lessons have not necessarily made a valuable contribution to society. Instead we receive reports of horrible gender-related crimes committed by men in those areas where this particular tradition is upheld. The Commission for Gender Equality raised a concern at the increasing number of child rape statistics in the Eastern Cape. Gender violence is a serious problem in some of these rural areas. What good are boys taught at these initiation schools? We are no longer hunter-gatherers. Teaching young boys stick-fighting, hunting and making fire is not going to propel society to its greatness. We live in a transforming society that demands abandonment of traditional values that serve no meaningful purpose. Cultural practices that continue to reinforce patriarchal social norms need to be discarded.
The banning of this traditional male circumcision would be the most imaginative step forward. Attempts by government to mollycoddle traditional fundamentalists are not serving society. Political expediency ahead of the welfare of society, the protection of life and human dignity of young boys who fall victim to the blunt assegai and traditional opportunists is a betrayal of the Constitution. We have hospitals that perform male circumcision under hygienic conditions. There is no meaningful purpose to send anyone to the bush. A young boy without a foreskin remains a boy until he reaches an age of maturity. We campaign to save the rhinos. We can equally campaign to save young boys from unnecessary death or penile amputation. Female circumcision has been accepted as criminal. Unlike female genital mutilation and virginity testing, traditional male circumcision has so far enjoyed exemption from criminal sanction. There is enough evidence to declare traditional male circumcision as a harmful cultural practice that needs to be outlawed.
Government needs to stop talking and do more to save lives.