A cut above the rest

2010-07-17 11:33

As far as circumcision goes, I really don’t

know how ­anyone could subject themselves to the hand of a blade-wielding

old man in the bush. The tribal affinity debate doesn’t yield enough meaning to

convince me, though, I must admit, I don’t hold any puritanical tribal


The context of my upbringing did not emphasise any particular

ethnic heritage that required my exclusive loyalty. This is because my sense of

ethnicity has been shaped by multiple native heritages simultanenously.

My father was born of a Venda woman and a Mosotho man, and my

mother is of Tsonga extraction. I claim all of these bloodlines with equal

fervour because they all find expression in the way our family’s life continues

to unfold. Further, I was educated and socialised in ­Setswana.

I grew up in the cross-border township of Ga-Rankuwa, northwest of

Tshwane. The township has had an unresolved identity ever since I can remember.

It exists as part of both Gauteng and North West, and is never fully a part of

­either one.

The result has been a hybrid ­sociocultural upbringing that can

easily be described as post-tribal and neo-ethnic. The lingua franca that

evolves out of this experience is an organic blend of all the ­ingredient

languages represented in the area.

This is perhaps a uniquely ­Gauteng feat, where no single ­tribal

group can claim hegemony – unlike other “cultural heartland” provinces, as is

the case in ­Mdantsane in the Eastern Cape, where everybody speaks one ­language

(isiXhosa) or Mafikeng in North West, where everybody speaks Setswana. isiZulu

is the ­exclusive dialect of the townships in KwaZulu-Natal’s black


Gauteng, however, is by design a hybrid province. The largest

­township, Soweto, cannot be ­described as exclusively Ndebele, Zulu, etc.

Soshanguve in Tshwane, for instance, is named after its ­ethnic mix. The

township’s name is an acronym for the tribal ­identities of its citizens:

So-(Sotho) Sha-(Shangaan) Ngu-(Nguni) Ve-(Venda).

This hybridity is not new to ­Gauteng. In fact, the very tribal

identities that we claim with puritan pride are themselves mobile hybridities of

earlier identities.

Xhosa, for instance, is an Nguni dialect that borrows its clicks

from the Khoisan. Though it is hybrid, it has been essentialised as


The southern Sotho speakers too owe their clicks to a similar

evolutionary blend. Even the Zulus were once a spread of different clans – the

Khumalos, the Mthethwas etc – before being shaped into their current form. That

identity will certainly keep evolving too.

For me, embracing this flux does not represent an abandonment of

culture; it points to ways of thinking about identity as process, identity

sinewed in heterogeneity.

Sure, I did not go to the bush to get my foreskin severed; I went

to a medical doctor.

However, this has never precluded me from drawing affirmation from

being called “son of the soil” by affectionate elders in my


In fact, on my return from the surgery, I shared a laugh with my

old man about the whole thing. ­After all, for me the procedure was merely a

hygienic imperative. I had no expectation of a Damascus ­moment meant to

transform me ­into the proverbial “man”.

I didn’t scream “ndiyi ndoda, I’m a man” as the doctor’s surgical

blade went through my flesh.

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