Johannesburg - In a dimly lit boardroom atop a hill overlooking KwaMhlanga township, Mpumalanga Health MEC Candith Mashego-Dlamini stuttered through a statement about the shocking deaths of initiates.
Flanking her were senior Ndebele traditional leaders, imposing in their regal jackal and leopard skin costumes. Unless you were acquainted with the protagonists on the platform, you might easily have mistaken Mashego-Dlamini for an ordinary scribe performing an errand while big brothers watched. She tried to exert her authority, but that soon faded.
“I can’t really move beyond tradition and the (circumcision) schools,” she admitted when asked whether her department would consider shutting some illegitimate circumcision schools.
Just days before, Mashego-Dlamini had to fend off a barrage of criticism about this powerlessness to intervene in the ingoma (traditional circumcision schools). Now, she reaffirmed her stance: the ingoma was uncharted territory for her.
“There are issues that are cultural – that don’t need me,” she said.
Mashego-Dlamini is not the only public official who has found herself in this unenviable position. Since reports of the deaths of initiates surfaced, the police, too, have proved toothless. Culture, it seems, takes precedence over the law when it comes to the centuries-old ritual of ingoma.
As the head of the House of Traditional Leaders in Mpumalanga, Kgosi Mathibela Mokoena, told Independent Newspapers, the police are persona non grata in the ingoma – unless they have been circumcised and initiated.
“Uncircumcised policemen are not allowed to enter the ingoma. It doesn’t matter whether you are a brigadier or a major-general. Your firearm and your handcuffs will be taken from you and handed to your superiors until you come the day the ingoma is finished,” he explained matter-of-factly.
The ban, it seems, is not restricted to uncircumcised police officers. That no arrest has been made – despite the findings of an Ingoma Forum indicating that there were almost 30 illegal circumcision schools in Mpumalanga – seems proof that the police’s powers do not extend into the circumcision schools. This has made a mockery of statements that murder cases were being investigated.
The Ndebele have managed to cling to their ceremonial circumcision ritual, maintaining a measure of unbroken orderliness and jealously guarding it as a secret.
“Who are you to ask about the ingoma? Have you been circumcised yourself?” retorted a police officer in KwaMhlanga’s neighbouring town of Kwaggafontein, when asked whether he knew any relatives of the dead initiates.
“Even the things that you hear or see on TV are being shown by mistake,” he added.
If his response was rude, then his tribesmen were colder.
Any question pertaining to the ingoma was met with frowns and sharp glares, especially from the women.
“Do you want to get me into trouble? I can’t talk about that. I don’t want to be hauled before the head kraal,” protested one woman, walking away.
If you thought this veil of secrecy around the ingoma was disturbing, spare a thought for the parents and relatives of the initiates who die at the circumcision schools.
They are supposed to keep the death a secret and the burial is usually a strictly private affair, held at night.
“A delegation of elders from the ingoma will be sent to convey the sad message. It will be a delegation of tried and tested elders,” explained Kgosi Mokoena.
The same messengers, he added, must also convey the deaths to the king so that he can give the bereaved family whatever support they need.
How do the families receive the tragic news?
“Acceptance differs. In the olden days, the parents used to accept the deaths easily and there was no malice. Of late, there are those parents who would blame themselves and say: ‘Why did we take our child there?’”
The elderly Ndebele must have been stoic. Then, the tragic news of the death of their sons would be kept a secret until the last day of the ingoma, when the initiates return home. A more chilling reality was that the mysterious death would be announced through the smashing of a calabash next to their gate, leaving only shards scattered around.
“We said as the amakhosi that we need to change with time,” said Kgosi Mokoena.
“Unlike before, the families have to be informed immediately so that they can prepare and decide whether to conduct a private funeral or not.
“But many parents still prefer to bury their children secretly and privately at night. Part of the reasons is the fear of ‘black magic’. They think that if people know that the grave belongs to an initiate, they might dig it up and play some tricks.”
Circumcision is also widely practised among the Xhosa, Pedi, Shangaan and Vhavenda in Limpopo and by some Batswana in North West.
Parents who are in favour of the ritual say it prepares their children for adulthood and makes them responsible people who can raise their own families.
Those opposed argue that it is unsafe and unhygienic and has lost its relevance as it has become commercialised.
But its proponents received a boost when medical researchers indicated that it reduces the chances of contracting HIV/Aids.
Despite the widely reported deaths of initiates, the ingoma remains popular among the Ndebele. There were calls, amid the wide condemnation of fatalities, for preparations for the next circumcision season to begin in earnest.
“The preparations for the next season must start immediately after these boys (initiates) come back. That will assist us in guiding the parents of those who want to go to know the dos and the don’ts,” said Thembinkosi Mahlangu, an executive member of the Ingoma Forum.
In Ndebele culture, the circumcision for boys is a two-month-long ritual process. The current ingoma is due to end on July 7, having started on May 7.
The ingoma is part of the king’s absolute power and he is the only one who can pronounce it. He must, however, do so in consultation with the amakhosi and the amakhosana (junior traditional leaders or headmen). The minimum admission age used to be 18, but it has been lowered to 16, according to Kgosi Mokoena.
“We expect a certain level of maturity. However, there would always be younger boys who slip in. Once you are in, you can’t go out.”
These days, the prospective initiates are supposed to go through a medical screening process.
The initiates in the settlements within the immediate radius of the king’s palace get circumcised first, followed by the rest a day later.
Parents would, however, still be allowed to take their sons to the ingoma until the first four weeks have passed.
Although attending the ingoma is not compulsory, the uncircumcised face contempt from their peers and elders. They are seen as lessor men and often get ostracised
“If you haven’t been circumcised, you will be subjected to scorn and ridicule. That is why if someone says bad things about the practise, he will be reported to the king. If you haven’t been circumcised, you will be taken there,” said Kgosi Mokoena
“Otherwise, you will be fined in monetary terms or a cow or goat. But the good thing about it is that you will be part of the people enjoying that meat.”
What does this rite of passage mean?
“There is nothing extraordinary about it. A person who is well schooled through the initiation school will display a certain level of maturity in behaviour. He can’t just walk past elders without greeting. Every elder person becomes his parent. You will also see it in how he conducts himself in meetings and other public spaces. ”
While admitting the problems besetting the ingoma, including bogus traditional surgeons and neglect by some amakhosana, Kgosi Mokoena said the isolated incidents should not be used to abolish the heritage.
“We accept that we have these challenges. My appeal is that this mustn’t give people who are against our tradition ammunition to start lambasting it and calling for its abolishment. This practice is a treasure to us as black people. It’s our pride,” said Kgosi Mokoena.
“We agree that it has some methods that are outdated, but we appeal to our people to indicate where it can be improved because no culture is static. This is our entrenched culture and we must jealously guard it.”