The politics of circumcision in South Africa

The deafening silence of political, traditional and cultural leaders, who have in the past positioned themselves as the guardians of African culture, on the atrocities arising from circumcision, is surprising.

Every year hundreds of young men and boys die at initiation schools from botched circumcisions, assault or dehydration, yet government, traditional and “cultural” authorities have done very little to intervene.

The lack of outrage – and immediate action – from government and traditional and cultural officialdom over these needless annual deaths is itself disturbing.

Many political, traditional and cultural “leaders” have increasingly been using supposedly “African” culture and traditions to excuse their own personal wrongdoing. For example, President Jacob Zuma claimed that corruption is a “Western paradigm”.

Furthermore, new African “customs”, “traditions” and “cultures” have increasingly been invented by self-serving leaders to hide misdeeds, shield criticisms or to shore up their political support political base – and so their ability to secure patronage – among poor, uneducated or uninformed communities.

Ordinary blacks refusing to support black leaders who are incompetent, corrupt or enriching themselves with public money are frequently dismissed as un-African, or accused of trying to be “white”, racist or colonial.

We are living in terrifyingly complex, uncertain and unstable times. Broken families, individuals and communities are increasingly the norm. Levels of poverty, unemployment and public services failure are high. Government, democratic institutions and political parties are increasingly failing the people. It is therefore not surprising that many ordinary citizens seek answers in traditions, customs and cultures to find a sense of self, anchor and safety in confusing times.

Corrupt, self-serving “traditional” leaders and authorities have abused this hankering to use African traditions to anchor themselves, and to hoodwink the poor, the gullible and needy out of their money, and secure their political support.

Circumcision in some African communities (of course in many other non-African communities also) is seen as a rite of passage into manhood. In many African communities men who did not undergo circumcision are not seen as “real” men, and made to feel worthless and bullied.

Not surprisingly, many young men risk death to attend initiation schools to be seen as “real” men. Many of the “traditional surgeons” (iincibi) are untrained to carry out circumcisions, are not registered with health authorities and are not hold to basic standards. Corrupt traditional leaders are exploiting the fact that young men are culturally “obliged” to undergo the custom of circumcision to enrich themselves handsomely.

Furthermore, they are abusing the fact that the custom is often ruled by secrecy. Initiates are discouraged to talk about their experiences. Mothers are not allowed to get involved and ensure that their children are treated professionally.

The deafening silence of political, traditional and cultural leaders, who have in the past positioned themselves as the guardians of African culture, on these atrocities done in the name of African culture, traditions and customs is surprising.

No doubt traditional and cultural leaders and authorities are fearful that publicly criticizing the circumcision practices will be an acknowledgment that they are not performing proper oversight; and that the yearly deaths of initiates is ample grounds for the initiation ceremony to be taken out of the hands of traditional authorities, and given to the government.

The bigger truth is black lives appear to have little value even for black leaders, traditional and cultural authorities – who purportedly are batting on their behalf. Yet, these are the very people who are quick to rail (often rightly) against ‘white’ and Western disregard for black lives, or against the Western media portraying black lives as less valued as white ones.

We must confront the inconvenient truth that black governments, leaders, traditional and cultural authorities have become desensitized to black deaths. Furthermore, the deaths of poor and not highly politically connected blacks are likely to be ignored by governments, leaders and traditional and cultural officialdom.

This is a phenomenon which can also be seen in many other African countries as well as on other continents. African leaders are quick to condemn Western imperialists and former colonial powers’ disregard for black lives, but themselves brutalize blacks under their regimes.

For example, take the case of Robert Mugabe who attacked the wrongs of former colonial powers, and then brutally attacked blacks in his own country. Or very recently when African leaders en mass showed solidarity (and rightly so) with the victims of the Paris terrorist attacks, but have never done this when blacks are butchered in African countries headed by their peers.

Unless black power structures – leaders, governments,agencies and traditional and cultural authorities – value the lives of other blacks, little progress will be made in developing African societies.

Unless each and every individual black death caused by other blacks – whether through government agencies, traditional authorities or gangsters, elicits outrage and immediate action we can forget about progress.

Respecting all black lives equally – no matter that some may not be immediate family, politically connected or rich – is a prerequisite for African development.

But African cultural practices which undermine individual human dignity, value and rights must be either be abolished immediately or reformed. The debate over what constitute appropriate African “traditions” for our times must be wrested away from those who argue culture for purely opportunistic reasons, such as self-enrichment and to shore up their own influence and bank balances.

The Department of Traditional Affairs must properly regulate initiation schools, formalizing them, and setting appropriate standards for them. The schools must be properly monitored by government, communities and civil society. Teachers at these schools must be properly qualified.

The curriculum of initiation schools needs to be urgently transformed. Manhood must be based on the democratic, moral and behavioural values enshrined in our constitution. The curriculum for initiation schools should be adapted to grapple with the new challenges of our time: including the notion of gender equality, safe sexual behavior, the notion of ‘public’ service and discouraging the dominant ‘macho’ perception of maleness.

The secrecy around the circumcision custom must be broken, so that initiates, their families, communities and civil society organisations can hear and monitor first-hand what’s going in these schools.

Illegal initiation schools must be closed down. There must be prosecution of “traditional” surgeons and those running illegal and unregistered initiation schools, which are responsible for illegal circumcisions, injuries and deaths.

Ideally, the best reform is for circumcisions to be carried out by health institutions, rather than by “traditional” authorities. In fact, the government should take over the practice of circumcision, given the fact that traditional authorities are unable or unwilling to regulate the custom.

Another challenge for all communities remains: for people of whatever color in South Africa to honestly re-examine all their cultural, traditional and religious assumptions and practices. To reduce such as a call to an all-or-nothing battle between so-called ‘modernists’ versus ‘traditionalists’; or Western ‘civilization’ versus African ‘backwardness’; or as an attempt to ‘denigrate’ African cultural beliefs, is simply disingenuous.

The South African constitution is very clear that cultural, traditional and customary practices that undermine human rights, life and dignity are undemocratic – and we should abolish such practices.

*This article first appeared in print in the Sowetan on 18 August 2015 and in and Pambazuka NewsIt ran under a different title in the Rand Daily Mail and Sowetan Live

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

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