Boys from the Xhosa tribe who have undergone a circumcision ceremony are pictured near Qunu in the Eastern Cape on June 28 2013. (Pic: AFP)

Circumcision: South Africans should stop allowing our boys to be butchered

In my village in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa, a male who has not undergone circumcision is called ‘inkwenkwe’ – a boy.

A young man who has undergone this rite of passage takes great pride in it. If he has not, he is not considered an adult, and will not be respected by men and women alike. He won’t be able to sit with the village men during ceremonial functions or important discussions. He’ll be shunned and told that his foreskin smells. Women who date him will also be looked down upon for dating an ‘inkwenkwe’.

As a young girl growing up in Mbizana, Eastern Pondoland, every year I looked forward to the celebrations at the end of each circumcision season. I had thought this was the way things had always been done here among my Pondo people, but in his book Faku: Rulership and Colonialism in the Mpondo Kingdom, Timothy J Stapleton writes: “Sometime in the mid-1820s, Faku prohibited circumcision, which was the customary initiation for young men in Xhosa-speaking societies… Oral informants in the early twentieth century stated that circumcision frequently made the initiates ill, probably through infection.”

The reason our King prohibited circumcision in the early 19th century is increasingly evident; over 180 boys have been admitted to hospital and 35 have died so far since the initiation season started this year alone, many due to botched procedures.

As the mother of an 11-year-old boy and responsible for his health, I have to question: is this practice justifiable in the 21st century? In a society that shuns those who are not circumcised, does my son really have a choice about keeping his penis intact or will he just have to submit to having part of himself amputated because ‘it is the way things are done here’.

We celebrate our cultural practices, yet we silently bury the dead, and the victims who live continue to suffer at the hands of the men who cut them.

Boys from the Xhosa tribe who have undergone a circumcision ceremony are pictured near Qunu in the Eastern Cape on June 28 2013. (Pic: AFP)
Boys from the Xhosa tribe who have undergone a circumcision ceremony are pictured near Qunu in the Eastern Cape on June 28 2013. (Pic: AFP)

As a mother with a duty to protect my son, I find I can no longer celebrate this customary rite of passage. I am now faced with the daunting task of speaking to my family about this. As mothers, we are told to stay out of it because this is a sacred rite of passage that boys must go through. Do I have a right to say no when it comes to my child?

The entire subject is deeply taboo. We passively accept that scores of young men in our country will inevitably die each year after being circumcised and that many more will be permanently maimed. Many young men end up losing the one thing they ‘go to the mountains’ to attain: their manhood.

It is not only the surgical side of the tradition that is cause for concern. Boys in my village go through initiation to get a pass to drink alcohol in front of and with the elders. Often we have seen these boys change from polite and well-behaved into abusive, violent, drunken young men. My cousin came back from initiation severely beaten, and a friend so badly beaten that he couldn’t walk for months. A neighbour’s son came back permanently mentally disturbed by what he had experienced.

I am angry at the complacency of our men and the silence of our women in the face of this horror. So many young mothers are appalled by the prospect of their sons being circumcised, yet tell me they feel powerless to stop it.

It is recognised that some deeply entrenched harmful cultural practices need ending with legislation. In some areas of the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, for instance, young girls were legally abducted and raped in a traditional marriage practice called ukuthwala. Today it is illegal.

Likewise, female genital mutilation is now outlawed in eighteen countries, including South Africa. An estimated 100–140 million women worldwide have suffered FGM, and about three million girls and women continue to be mutilated every year. As awareness spreads and opposition grows, however, attitudes are changing. A spotlight is being directed on the shame and secrecy surrounding FGM, and more and more people are starting to appreciate that there is no developmental, religious or health reason to mutilate any girl or woman.

We must appreciate that cultures evolve, and we must leave harmful practices behind. Can we really say that if we decided to stop the circumcision of our boys we would lose our essential sense of identity as black South Africans? If we have banned the genital butchery of girls, why do we allow it for boys?

Fezisa Mdibi is a freelance journalist and poet. Follow her on Twitter: @fezisa. This post was first published on the Guardian Africa Network.

26 comments

  1. Henriques Nzeza says:

    Im Angolan but the truth is ifn us here in Angola this tradition is still. Let us like African black respect our tradition. The penis wit is circucision and the one wt is not is verry differente.

  2. Carol says:

    As a mother to a son I couldn’t agree with you more. Your article is articulate and enlightened!!! I had to fight my husband on the circumcision issue, thankfully he saw sense and is grateful we spared our previous son from this barbaric act.

  3. Thobs says:

    Its been more than 15 years since I have been to circumcisions school, my experience tells me different reasons why there is so many deaths.

    1 You can never take a child to the mountains, child is not about age, its about maturity and knowledge of what is the process that you are about to embark on.
    2. Health status of the initiate, this is the most important.
    3.Climate change, 1900’s are different to the 2000’s, without giving more, today is too hot than it was in the 90’s and this plays a huge role in the wellness of umkhwetha (Initiate)
    4. Experienced Amakhankatha (Initiate Nurses) This is very vital, as the progress and the well being of the initiate depends on this individual. From my family, it has always been a rule that we take a family member or trusted experienced person to conduct this process. You cannot take just anyone because they are man.
    5.Family support-Family members are there to guard against ill disciplined young man who seems to go and settle scores with the initiates, men will know what I’m talking about here. I
    6. Physical abuse should not and never be allowed at all.

    If the above simple basics are followed we will not see death, I then conclude my sister, this practice cannot be abandoned. I have 3 younger brothers who have followed the path after me, and they came back being proud and healthy, because we as the family ticked all the boxes before they went. From where I come from, there were only 2 deaths that occurred in the early 90’s and they were both health related.

  4. MaIsh DK says:

    I agree with Fezisa’s article 100%,you really give me hope that in the near future more mothers will stand up and speak for their son’s rights to genital integrity.Parenting is not a father or mother’s only job,it takes both parents to raise a child and when it comes to mutilating boys penises,women should get a say in it too.

    • Mthimkhulu says:

      I am a Xhosa man… In my village we’ve never had an initiate die, and such we will not stop this tradition, times change or evolve, but. For other people not us.I respect women, but in my culture I can’t speak this with woman.. Not all cultures are Pondo like, don’t generalise about this, you’re a pathetic writer.

  5. Mosa says:

    The writer may have valid concerns, but she seems to forget that she is a Pondo from Pondoland. Her observation is about the Mpondos in Mpondoland.

    I am not a Mpondo and not in anyway prepared to allow a concerned and frustrated Mpondo woman to dictate what must happen to my culture. She must make her calling about the Mpondos and their so-called “circumcision culture”. I cannot validate or reject the claims about the Mpondos, because I don’t know what they do. I watch television news and documentaries like everyody.

    Even this one of the so-called “Sotho Perspective” the “city man” is as tjatjarag as the Mpondos that likes to appear on televisions. He must not claim to talk for the Sothos and has no right to do so. To show he has no knowledge of what he claims, the Sothos don’t do all the things he seems to claim are similar. These “modern” men and women will mislead everyone if we are not careful, especially the young ones.

  6. Anita says:

    Why is it more important to keep cultural practices, then protect our children? I heard a story that in some tribe young men had to go and kill a lion to become a man. They abolished this rite because the become aware that the lions need to be protected in these days. Also the Chinese stooped bind the feet of women like it was a tradition for century, because they learned that it is cruel. People are evolving and when you look back rites and traditions always changed with evolution. We should go trough live with open eyes and an open mind to try to make the word better, you can only do that by questioning things rites and traditions. That doesn’t mean to trow away all traditions, just change them to better.

  7. Thiba Pula says:

    I went to initiation school at the age of 14, it might be different for Sotho’s as it is for Xhosas, especially abaThembu, because we do share food with Amahlubi . . . What I wanted to say is that, different people have experienced different things with the initiation school, thus no woman or non-initiated person should tell us that it should be banished. . .
    Going to the initiation was the best thing that has ever happened in my life, and it still is, I have more than 20 close relatives that have went after me, none of them died, and it increased our understanding of one another perspective and our respect and approach for one another. I am not saying that people should be forced to be initiated, but those willing to go should be allowed. . . . This is one of the few things that South Africa still has that connects us to who we really are as men, put a stop to it and we will become so liberalized that we can’t find ourselves . . .

  8. Cobus Viljoen says:

    Why beat about the bush? It is not “South Africans” but rather black South Africans! Political correctness gone crazy again!

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