How South African boys are initiated into adulthood, an age-old subject of debate

Ismail Akwei July 17, 2018

Many South African men of the amaXhosa tribe and some Nguni speaking people have gone through the sacred Ulwaluko initiation rite which ushers boys into manhood. The ancient ritual includes traditional circumcision and weeks of seclusion to teach boys about their history, culture and responsibilities as men.

The controversial ritual has resurfaced in many communities where boys of all ages and as young as seven years old are enrolled in initiation schools at various locations during the winter season in late June/early July or late November/ early December.

The controversy is aligned with the number of deaths and accidents recorded over the years as some boys die out of botched circumcisions while others get their penises severed by incompetent practitioners at illegal initiation schools.

In December last year, 16 boys died in Eastern Cape alone at initiation school where boys are also prevented from taking Western medication or risk being stigmatized by their peers.

The boys normally go through the rite in a group and are confined to a hut in the first 7 days and restricted from eating certain foods. The second phase takes between two to three weeks when the boys are looked after by the ikhankatha (a traditional attendant) who takes them through traditional lessons during which the ingcibi (traditional surgeon) surgically removes their foreskins.

Per tradition, no one is supposed to speak of what happens at the initiation schools else they risk being assaulted. The huts and initiates’ possessions are burnt at the end of the ritual and they are given new blankets after they wash down in rivers depending on their location. They are then called men and not boys.

Regardless of the age, if an amaXhosa man does not go through the Ulwaluko initiation rite, he is still considered a boy. However, Twitter user Mmakobo Thage’s young son will not be considered a boy since he had just returned from the initiation school.

He happily tweeted: “My son was there too…came home safe”. This was in response to a tweet about the return of scores of initiates after weeks in the bush in Mpepule Village, Bolobedu Limpopo.

The tweet started a whole debate about the initiation rites and why it should be banned. Other Twitter users supported the rites and argued that the issue of deaths are mainly from some areas and they need to be checked.

The Eastern Cape is heavily affected by deaths of initiates every year and the government has cautioned against enrolling children in illegal initiation schools that are springing up in the country.

Early this year, another controversy emerged around the initiation ritual after the award-winning film ‘Inxeba’ was released to portray the experiences of homosexual men during Ulwaluko.

There were protests against the film and calls for it to be banned in the country as Xhosa traditional leaders said it undermined their culture and exposed their hidden traditions.

Despite the controversies, the initiation rights continue and the only problem expressed by many is the number of deaths from improperly done circumcisions by illegal traditional surgeons.

Here are diverse views of South African men on the initiation rites.

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