The tragedy and crisis of initiation (ulwaluko) eMzansi

2015-07-09 13:04

Gareth van Onselen (GVO) wrote a scathing attack on initiation (ulwaluko), concluding that ‘Initiation belongs to another time and place, not a modern, constitutional democracy.’ Of course there is a crisis within the practice of initiation currently but this is an erroneous and unconstitutional conclusion. Cultural rights and customary law are well integrated into the South African constitutional democracy. The usage of ‘modern’ is explicit in questioning the civilisation of those who still partake in initiation. Simply put GVO is saying initiation is a barbaric act belonging to a historic era of ‘traditional society’ which must be displaced in our today’s ‘mature modern’ society. I disagree with that view as it intends to universalise cultural acceptable norms, playing in the same choir of essentialists and orientalists who reject African and Eastern traditions respectively.

The practice of initiation can only be incompatible with the South Africa we are building if it undermines the provisions of the constitution and the high moral standards we set ourselves. Our constitution guarantees the right to life. Anything that so threatens and undermines this right needs to be dealt with. The deaths and many hospitalisations happening across the country because of botched circumcision and illegal (and illegitimate) initiation schools land the nation in a crisis – one that has been ongoing for too long now. The province of the Eastern Cape is most affected with 21 deaths recorded in this initiation season alone. Of these, 13 of them occurred in the OR Tambo District. The hotspots of deaths are known, the areas of crisis are known but we have not intervened properly nor diagnosed the problem sufficiently.

Attacking initiation as primitive and savagery will not solve the problem. To demonstrate GVO’s lack of nuance consider this statement, ‘Central to much of this [initiation] is tolerance for pain (hence the ceremony is often held over winter).’ How reductionist can one be? There are a variety of reasons why most initiation schools are during winter (some still occur in summer). Winter is just after harvest in most areas, boys can afford to be away from home unlike in summer when the first round of weeding maze occurs around December needing all family labour present. In summer humidity, heat and heavy rains can make it difficult to setup camp in the mountains. The point is, winter is preferable for many reasons either than characterising the tradition as one of sadists and masochists.

Of course there is the other attack of initiation being the breeding ground for patriarchy. Dealing with patriarchy does not necessitate obliterating all its agential structures. It needs us to infuse at times teachings that are within the outlooks of gender equality in the very structures that are seen as perpetuating patriarchy. Arguing the universality of certain traits such as responsibility, leadership, integrity etc. does not mean we cannot have multiple sites of their implementation, taking heed of contexts in which they must be applied. For example, teachings of ‘manhood’ in areas where both men and women have a seat in lobola negotiations and in areas where only men have a seat cannot be seen as uniform in approach.

By their nature of subjectivity, cultural norms and traditions have many trivialities to outsiders who do not share them. However, it is impossible to have universal cultures. That would undermine heterogeneity amongst human beings bestowed on them by geography, ethnic groupings, race, socioeconomic backgrounds etc. Just as we continue to have hen parties/bridal showers and bachelor parties as cultural events that separate genders (no one says these must be killed) or baby showers that exclude men, we cannot on the basis of their gender composition, deem initiation schools to be an antithesis to the ‘modern’ world. We continue to have brutally physical boot camps being fashionable. What we must interrogate is the substance of these initiation schools. What is being practiced, what is being taught? Is bodily integrity violated? Is human life threatened? Are the teachings contrary to the South Africa we wish to build etc.? I say this because we have initiatives in this ‘modern’ society that specifically target men, 'brothers for life' 'boys to men', which are essentially groupings with specifically coded and conceptualised teachings to build gender equality and dismantle patriarchy. For this reason, initiation schools cannot be easily disparaged to be unconstitutional.

There are well respected initiation schools in Matatiele and the Port St Johns-Mthatha areas that host 100s of initiates and barely encounter botched circumcision and/or fatalities. We must dig deep as to what is the problem here. Some say dehydration and lack of wound care. These are just symptoms of the problem. The problem lies in that, in some regions the cultural practice of initiation is faced with a crisis from within. People no longer respect the practice as sacrosanct, we have bogus surgeons and guardians (iingcibi namakhankatha), schools without consent from local izibonda, chiefs and Kings. We have people taking under aged children to these initiation schools and we have an elimination of parents - especially single mothers – from consultation processes. This is the crux of the problem, the waning of respect for the tradition for it to be done the right way.

Initiation has two components, circumcision and teaching. The former is largely medical and many believe it should be left to hospital doctors. Reality is that even there a botched circumcision can be done. Much like home births, some people still choose to do certain medical procedures at home, safely and with diligence. Circumcision is one such procedure. Circumcision is not genital mutilation, a botched circumcision is genital mutilation, and we must not paint initiation as a tradition of genital mutilation. The problem here is that this cultural practice is faced with a credibility and legitimacy crisis.

It is not outsiders who are impugning it. Past initiates are the ones being imposters as surgeons, a clear indication that they did not imbibe the teachings imparted on them during their own initiation periods. Or we are being alerted to another crisis - that the teachings by initiation schools are in fact not universal and some people receive none. This is a dilemma that necessitates a cultural response. We cannot bury our heads in the sand and pretend as though some initiation schools are not dagga and alcohol paradises, providing some form of arenas for debauchery away from home. We cannot pretend as though some initiates do not go back to their homes much more defiant to parents and especially women, unwilling to be part of the household and receive instructions. These are real things, they are happening and they need to be stopped.

Yet, there are successful initiation schools, still hosting proper teaching lessons, taking care of the initiates and protecting their bodily integrity at every turn. However, we have reached a moment of crisis that perpetuates tragic deaths that are avoidable. There is a crisis of leadership within our South African communities. We easily turn a blind eye to deaths and hardly ever assist law enforcement agencies to bring to book perpetrators of wrongdoing. However, the initiation crisis is not for law enforcement per se. Remember, you are looking for proactive responses rather than reactive ones once the crisis has occurred. How do we turn back to initiation being viewed as a sacred practice respected by all – for none to desire to be imposters as surgeons and guardians?

I would call – especially in the Eastern Cape – for traditional leaders to put a year or two yearlong moratorium in place on all initiation. In this time period there would be proper community consultations and the enactment of documented and certificated initiation sites. Every village in the Eastern Cape has isibonda (headman) or should have one. In each village there should be a committee put in place to monitor and search for any illegal initiation school whether iphempe or ibhodlo. There is a need to devise a stringent way of ensuring that initiation schools’ teachings have resonance with our societal ideals everywhere and are intended towards producing individuals that are committed to building a South Africa that espouses all our constitutional values, especially the bill of rights.

Initiation schools are not an antithesis of our constitutional democracy. The crisis lies in the waning of moral values within communities insofar as they view initiation. This practice meant to be celebratory and filled with festivity has become a site of extortion and manipulation of culture – from within – in some areas. This is the core crisis. To get out of this tragic rut we need sound moral sociocultural leadership.

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