No short cut to honour

2010-07-24 11:20

At a time when initiation schools are being lambasted for butchering young boys who undergo traditional circumcision, Percy Mabandu has made a strong point against the ­tradition (“A cut above the rest”, City Press, July 18 2010).

He explains that instead of ­going to the mountain, he went to a medical doctor to be circumcised. But, he declares, this did not make him a man. After all, for him the procedure “was merely a hygienic imperative”.

Mabandu opens his article with a somewhat derogatory remark, questioning how anyone “could subject themselves to the hand of a blade-wielding old man in the bush”. Is he insinuating that all traditional ­surgeons are clueless about what they are doing? Does he have an ­issue with age? Is he surprised that many young men go to the ­mountain to undergo traditional ­circumcision?

Well, many are doing exactly that. And it might not be that they are, as could be interpreted from reading between Mabandu’s lines, ­uncivilised or ignorant. Rather, it could be that they are following an ancient tradition.

Let us also not forget that ­circumcision, despite the very ­tragic deaths and illnesses of young boys in Eastern Cape, is safely practised across the ­country and continent.

Mabandu, however, makes an ­important point in stating that few can declare “purity” exists in their ethnic identities. Hybridity, he argues, is not necessarily a loss of ­identity.

I am aware that young men like Mabandu are not necessarily looking for a deeper meaning attached to ­circumcision.But they are puncturing the belief that once you have cut your foreskin, you will ­mystically arise as a “real” man.

However, in this debate, there is a point that is sorely missed. Circumcision, according to ­African traditions, is not an end in itself.

It is rather a custom ­intrinsically bound to a series of comprehensive rites which loses its meaning if it is performed in isolation.

There is a strong need to ­upgrade our notions of ­traditions and cultural rituals. And within Mabandu’s argument is the ­important message that culture is not static.

Rituals must respond to ­relevant needs at a particular time. Ceremonies must be meaningful beyond their ­generational ­continuum.

Young African men, more than ever, need to be part of a process where they leave boyhood ­behind, as there is abundant ­confusion about what African manhood ­constitutes.

A pan-African identity must be promoted within this rite of ­passage. We need sons of the soil who have a sense of ­African self far beyond limiting group ­identities.

Mabandu’s message should not be lost on us. We sometimes ­insist so vehemently on tradition but forget its substance.

We expect lobola to be settled ­before a marriage can be ­accepted but have lost the ability to help the couple to stay ­married. We say that as Africans we hold women in high esteem but ­statistics on rape and abuse tell a different story. African culture is not a celebration of ­attributes. It is a spiritual pact with our ancestors to carry on our ­legacies with pride.

But it also expects us to submit to an order of meaning and ­transformation for the good of our communities. Under this ­order, circumcision cannot be seen as a short cut to manhood.

Graduates from initiation schools must become improved and relevant men – great role models for the next generation.

Buntu is executive ­director of ­Ebukhosini Solutions in Johannesburg and founder of SHABAKA, a ­developmental ­programme for young men

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