One on one with Festival writers

2010-03-17 00:00

THANDO Mgqolozana came originally from the Eastern Cape and has a nursing degree from the University of the Western Cape. Having worked as a data analyst and then as a researcher for the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), he now works in marketing and publicity in the research office at the University of KwaZulu-Natal on the Westville campus. A Man Who is Not a Man was published by UKZN Press last year, and was reviewed in The Witness by Thando Mgaga. His review can be seen on The Witness website at


MvK: What made you write this book? Did you feel a need to break through the wall of silence that surrounds topics­ such as circumcision?

TM: What I am trying to do is not be for or against the whole thing. I give credit to my readers to make up their minds. But every circumcision season, people die in hundreds, and no one says anything. If a white person says something, they are racist; if a woman, then it’s man’s business; if a Zulu, it’s a Xhosa matter. The only people who can deal with it are circumcised men, and if you start to talk about it, your manhood is questioned. It’s not a book about botched circumcision. It’s bigger than that: it’s something we need to talk about. The question that I am really asking is whether circumcision has lost its old significance. It was the traditional transformation from boyhood to adulthood, and it was useful because it was the only way black people­ could do this — they weren’t going to school or anything like that. But with time came other ways of socialising­ people.


MvK: I am fascinated by your book, but hesitate to comment on the practice because it is something far outside my own cultural experience. Can you elaborate on the question of significance­?

TM: You could say that traditional male circumcision is unconstitutional in the way it is going on now. In the Bill of Rights, we are guaranteed the right to life, access to health care and our dignity. People are dying here, and no one says anything. In the nineties there was a case of a boy who refused to be circumcised, and was abducted by his family and forced to undergo the ritual. Afterwards he took them to court, but the judge threw the case out and said that the family must resolve it among themselves. The boy was ostracised by his community. And last year, another boy opened a case against his parents because he said that circumcision was against his Christian principles. But if you are uncircumcised in traditional society, no one will give you the hand of his daughter. You get very little respect.


MvK: What has been the reaction from traditionalists to the book?

TM: When it was launched at Wordfest in Grahamstown, the first person to ask a question was this huge guy who said that he was a traditionalist. I was tense — there were Xhosa women in the audience and white people. He said that his instinct was to smack me, but he had realised that I have a point, and that the work of opening up debate is important. All the people who have been hostile to me are people who have not read the book. Although I did hear that the head of the House of Traditional Leaders in the Eastern Cape wanted the book banned. But that is hearsay.


MvK: Did you worry about the reaction before the book was published?

TM: Well, I wasn’t thinking about assassination, or anything like that. I knew it would make people uncomfortable, but that’s the purpose of art. If art doesn’t make people uncomfortable, what’s the point? Breaking the silence will cause discomfort, but I have told the truth. And maybe I have saved someone’s life.

It is important to make this noise, but we have to be systematic about the way we do it. If you go to the top of a mountain and scream, no one will listen. I have taken it more carefully, written about it. Maybe Xhosa men will sit down and acknowledge the problems, look at how to move forward and keep the practice, but make it compatible with modern norms.


MvK: You have made the points. Now, how do you get the message out there, and see that the book is read?

TM: I’m part of a group of South African­ writers who are setting up Read South Africa to encourage South Africans to read local books. We’ve got various ideas — to work through school visits, competitions, Facebook and so on. We’ll try any means to get people interested. But there is a lack of booksellers and libraries in certain areas. People have no access, and this is vital.

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