Motshekga on initiation: Constitution must take precedence

“We cannot continue to say that this is a man only affair and that safety and health of our youth is a matter between the unscrupulous traditional surgeons and men alone. The best interests of the young initiates are their constitutionally guaranteed right to life must take precedence over cultural and religious considerations”.

 Dr Mathole Motshekga

Chief Whip of the Majority Party
29th May 2013

It is with heavy hearts that we gather here today to focus on the loss of innocent and courageously valuable lives of 29 young men aged 13 to 21 years old in the eastern Mpumalanga province during this year’s circumcision ritual. Another 6 died in the northern Limpopo province. As the ANC we share President Jacob Zuma’s and the country’s shock and outrage at the unnecessary loss of life and believe that not only was this avoidable but that those responsible for this tragedy, must face the full might of the law as speedily as possible. One can only imagine how the bereaved families must feel at having their loved ones cut down in the prime of their lives and robbing them of their future which lay before them.

In 2010, The Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Rights Commission released one of its research reports, titled: Public Hearings on Male Initiation Schools in South Africa, and reported that between 2009 and 2010, 145 boys died because of complications related to their circumcision, and another 1,200 were hospitalized. These are alarming statistics and despite the practice having survived many generations, we may have to re-examine the ways in which it is carried out in this modern age.

To understand why male circumcision is important in Xhosa and other cultural groupings one needs to truly appreciate the reasons why the practice of circumcision has been carried through from generation to generation, and its impact on young men as they enter adulthood. As our foremost icon, Nelson Mandela stated: “On Robben Island… Not all debates were political. One issue that provoked much discussion was
circumcision. Some among us maintained that circumcision as practised by the Xhosa and other tribes was not only an unnecessary mutilation of the body but a reversion to the type of tribalism that the ANC was seeking to overthrow. It was not an unreasonable argument, but the prevailing view, with which I agreed, was that circumcision was a cultural ritual that had not only a salutary health benefit but an important psycho­logical effect. It was a rite that strengthened group identification and inculcated positive values.”

Despite being mindful of all the associated risks, the African youth choose to undergo traditional circumcision as it is regarded as a sacred rite of passage and also speaks to one’s family honour and standing in our society. Given our country’s fractured past, the intolerance and subordinate status given to African culture and its practices in apartheid South Africa, we must be mindful to educate and sensitize those who wish to demean the practice completely.

Whilst the deaths of initiates during these rituals and the scarring and sub-standard medical procedures they are exposed to cannot be condoned and must be vehemently denounced, we must also pay heed to the cultural and spiritual significance of the act. In whichever way we proceed to engage on this issue, let us ensure that we do so within the spirit and letter of our progressive Constitution, which calls for respect and tolerance of the diverse cultures and the right of individuals, communities or groups to practise and enjoy these rights, while observing and respecting the rights of others. More significantly, we must acknowledge that there is still significant support for the practice of the ritual within African communities.

Our icon, Nelson Mandela, expressed the significance of circumcision as follows:
“In my tradition, an uncircumcised male cannot be heir to his father’s wealth, cannot marry or officiate in tribal rituals. An uncircumcised Xhosa man is a contradiction in terms, for he is not considered a man at all, but a boy. For the Xhosa people, circumcision represents the formal incorporation of males into society. It is not just a surgical procedure, but a lengthy and elaborate ritual in preparation for manhood. As a Xhoscircumcision. … It was a sacred time; I felt happy and fulfilled taking part in my people’s customs and ready to make the transition from boyhood to manhood.”

It is easy to see why Madiba felt this way and why many others who practise this tradition believe in it so completely. This rite of passage is not just an individual occurrence or experience. It is that of the entire community for it guarantees the continuation and legacy of the values, ideals, norms and mores of the community.

Madiba correctly observed that African initiation schools have both a spiritual and cultural significance. The spiritual underpinnings of African initiation schools were never appreciated because under colonialism and apartheid African religion was regarded as a superstition and suppressed. Institutions and rituals were despised and forced underground. The transformation of African initiation schools cannot be separated from the broad social transformation that includes the revival, mainstreaming and harnessing of African religion for moral, cultural, social and economic development. It is therefore necessary to share with those that think that there is nothing called African religion what this belief system is all about.

Madiba said that African religion is no longer a superstition that must be replaced by other religions. When I grew up in Bolovedu, the Land of Queen Mudjadji, I was taught that the universe and humanity were created by the Prince of Light called Khuzwane or Kosana. And that Muhali Muhulu, the wife of Khuzwana introduced female initiation called biale or vyale, derived from Muali.
Thobela, the son of Khuzwane and Muhali Muhulu introduced male initiations called Bodika and Buhwera. These gods were spiritual beings who lived on earth in physical form after the creation of the universe and humanity. Khuzwane left footprints on certain rocks when they were still soft. These footprints are still there today and are symbols of
Before they ascended to heaven these gods introduced initiation schools and laid down the rules governing them. From time immemorial, therefore, initiation schools were governed by spiritual and cultural values.

The Balovedu and Bapedi, for instance, generally had initiation ceremonies that  comprised of two stages – a circumcision school (Bodika) and brotherhood (Buhwera) school which completed the status change and marketed the formation of a brotherhood or regiment. This brotherhood has both spiritual and military aspects.

In its spiritual aspects initiation into this brotherhood, like girls initiation, is governed by the Bird of Mohale, which symbolize the Queen of Heaven (Mwari we Denga). The boys were circumcised in order of precedence and then secluded in the lodge for about three months.

Here the brothers (Bahwera) were taught a number of secret formulas and songs and instructed in the physiology of sexual relations, the dangers of intercourse with a woman in a state of pollution and in the absolute necessity for obedience to the political authorities. These were accompanied by inter alia, ordeals and food taboos or abstinences to drive the lessons home. These painful forms of discipline ended with a
military raid, or lion hunt.

The brotherhood (Bodika) was generally arranged by the King or Queen and Councillors, who appointed a Master of Ceremonies and his deputy to oversee the school and also as specialist circumciser (Thipane or Incimbi) to perform the actual operation. A day was announced and boys from all over the kingdom, accompanied by their mothers and with shaven heads and new loincloths, flocked to the royal court.

There was a special mystery (Koma), the fire (Fura) mystery, in which both boys and girls combined in a ritual symbolizing the importance of political authority, which involved lightning a fire (Fura or Faro) by drilling fire (Hu Tsika Mooto) on a floating raft of reeds or rubbing two sticks. My surname Mutsika (Motshekga) comes from this exercise. This ritual also symbolized the divinity or holiness of sexual union between man and woman. Last but not least, the boys and girls were presented to the Queen of Heaven (Mwari we Denga or Bird of Mohale), and then washed and annointed with red ochre to confirm the sacred or spiritual nature of initiation.

The socio-economic challenges and resulting poverty dysfunctionality of families, single mothers, child-headed families, incidences of HIV/AIDS and opportunistic diseases and moral decay and cultural confusion in some traditional communities requires a social dialogue on these challenges and their impact on initiation schools. Such a dialogue would educate the public and aid the transformation school systems.

It is quite clear that we need national legislation that provides for norms and standards, pertaining to age limitations, health requirements, participation of the mothers of initiates, prohibitions of harmful practices in these schools and harmonization of regular and initiation school calendars.

This transformation process could start with a Ministerial task team, not a commission of enquiry to identify critical issues for dialogue and transformation.

In general a father would decide that the time had come to circumcise his son and would typically arrange with other homestead heads, with sons of about the same age, to establish An initiation lodge or school and engage a specialist circumciser (Thipane) to perform the operation.
Permission to establish the lodge or school had to be obtained from the King or Chief first. The initiator was termed the “Father of the Lodge” and it was he who acted as Master of Ceremonies throughout the seclusion period. When sons of chiefs were initiated their fathers fulfilled this role, and it was a great honour for a boy to be a member of a lodge at which a royal child was initiated. Such a son always took precedence among initiates, who were otherwise regarded as equal. On the day of the
commencement of the rites the boys gathered at the home of the lodge where a sacrifice was made of an uncastrated bull or ram, to inform the gods and ancestors of what is taking place. Both the bull and Ram were symbols of God. At this ceremony the initiates were addressed by older men on how to conduct themselves while in the lodge and exhorted to put away all childish things. They must henceforth speak and act with the dignity of men. As the foreskin of each initiate was cut he addressed the circumcisor (i.e. traditional surgeon) with the words “I Am A Man” (i.e. Ke Monna). Eliciting the response “You Are A Man” (i.e. O Monna), a ritual formula that signaled the moment of status change. The operation had to be endured with stoicism and cry out was a great

In general initiation rituals exhibited the tripartite structure of rites of passage all over the world. These rites are directed towards a change of social status. These initiation schools took place in winter (May to August). The timing of these schools was appropriate because they took place after the harvest when there was plenty of food and it was cold enough to enhance the healing of wounds after the cutting of
foreskins of the initiates.

The initiates were looked after by two or three men, called “Guardians”, who visited them daily and checked their health. The initiates kept fit by holding of special public dances by initiates dressed in elaborate costumes of reeds and palm leaf and vying with each other in the galvanic abundance of their performances.

Finally, at the end of the seclusion period, there was a rite formally marking the full integration of the initiates into adult life. Here, the symbolism was one of purification from the taint of childhood, expressed in the linked, but opposed, metaphors of water and fire.

At the end of their initiation period the initiates ran down to the river where they carefully washed off the white clay of childhood, and replaced it with the red clay of adulthood. These colors corresponded to water and fire respectively. They then proceeded slowly back to the lodge site, surrounded by the singing multitude, holding their hands
before their eyes in a characteristic gesture that symbolized respect to the ancestors.

The initiates were given special sticks and exhorted to behave like men and instructed in their new responsibilities.

Among the Balovedu, Bavenda and Bakone, for instance, the initiation school called Brotherhood (Buhwera) was linked to a mystic being called the Bird of Mohale in Khilovedu and Senkonkoyi among Bakone. This mystic bird is popularly known as the Bird of God (Shiri ya Mwari). The initiation involvement of this bird provided a dynamic linkage between the initiation schools, ancestors and God. It is abundantly clear
therefore, that circumcision in hospitals cannot be a substitute for initiation schools. What we need are modern health interventions in initiation school, not the abolition of these schools.

The Secularisation and Commercialisation of Initiation Schools Individuals who are not guided by African spiritual and cultural values underpinning initiations of both male and females have secularised and commercialised initiation schools with impunity. Cultural alienation has contributed to moral decay which has extended to initiation schools.
The tragic deaths of initiates in Limpopo, Mpumalanga and Eastern Cape have awakened us to the urgent need to transform initiation schools. To restore the spiritual and cultural integrity of these schools we should tap into diminished and marginalized African cultures and religions mainstream and harness them for moral regeneration and social development. The current approaches to moral regeneration are largely
informed by Western culture and religions which do not reach out to traditional communities which are adherence of African culture and religion. Some members of traditional communities practise Western Culture and religion during the day and practise African culture and religion during the night. This cultural confusion eloquently testifies to the needs for social dialogue for the decolonization or emancipation of African culture and religion in order to restore the integrity of initiation schools, enhance moral regeneration and social development.
The desired transformation of initiation schools must be an integral part of our national social transformation agenda. This matter needs a social dialogue involving religious leaders and traditional leaders and healers and traditional communities,. The success of such social dialogue will require cultural and religious tolerance cooperation. The
discrimination against African culture and religion on the parts of some imported religion are a cause for concern because they will hinder our efforts to create a socially cohesive nation.
It is abundantly clear, therefore, that we are not considering the abolition of initiation schools but the restoration of their integrity and underlying spiritual and social values to make them safe family and nation building institutions. Calls for the abolition come from
ill-informed social activists who have not made effort to understand Africa, her indigenous cultures and religions which have a great potential for building the African family communities and the nation.

The death of more than 40 youth in Mpumalanga Province is a painful wake up call for us to embark on a holistic and national transformation of our initiation schools. These schools cannot be allowed to become slaughter houses. There must be national norms and standards that they adhere to. The health challenges of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and other opportunistic diseases facing us today did not exist in ancient time when these schools were introduced.. Today we require stringent health interventions, parental and community participation to safeguard the lives of our young people.

We cannot continue to say that this is a man only affair and that safety and health of our youth is a matter between the unscrupulous traditional surgeons and men alone. The best interests of the young initiates are their constitutionally guaranteed right to life must take precedence over cultural and religious considerations.

It is therefore necessary that society as a whole should be involved with the Constitution and to address the challenges facing modern society. It is quite clear that we need national legislation that provides for norms and standards, pertaining to age limitations,
participation of parents, health workers, prohibition of harmful substances, qualification of officials of initiation schools and the harmonization of the calendars of initiation and mainline schools.

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