FILE - In this photo taken Saturday, June 30, 2013 A Xhosa boy covered with a blanket and smeared with chalky mud sits in a field as he and others undergo traditional Xhosa male circumcision ceremonies into manhood near the home of former South African president Nelson Mandela in Qunu, South Africa. At least 60 males have died at initiation schools in eastern South Africa since the start of the initiation season in May, health officials confirmed. Thirty of them died in the Eastern Cape in the last six weeks, and 300 others were hospitalized with injuries. (AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam, File)

Mthetho Tshemese asks: Are initiation schools still relevant in the 21st century?


In January a Dutch medical doctor, Dingeman Rijken, started a website www. that reflects on the deaths, physical abuse, torture and other complications related to ulwaluko (initiation).

Commenting on the role played by traditional leadership, Rijken remarks: “The incompetence and indifference of the traditional leaders is shocking.

“These self-proclaimed custodians of the ritual call for one “urgent meeting” after the other. They fail to act… They place emphasis on minor problems seemingly outside their sphere of influence; such as illegal initiation schools, bogus traditional practitioners and pre-existing medical conditions. They are quick to play the blame game and fail to address real issues.”

In his paper “Tradition, Hindrance or Inspiration?” philosopher Paulin Hountondji suggests: “In examining a given tradition, two temptations should be resisted: first, the temptation of contempt (for the tradition) and second, that of an overall justification (of the tradition”.

Reacting to Rijken’s website Prince Burns Ncamashe reportedly remarked “If I had the power, I would send the officials to arrest this doctor immediately” while Nkululeko Nxesi of the Community Development Foundation, an NGO running initiation rescue centres, is quoted as having said the website is “an embarrassment to the ama Xhosa nation” and that “this embarrassing thing he has done assumes that there is nothing being done to curb this” and that it “will undermine the work being done by traditional leaders and government…”

Every initiation season the Eastern Cape Province is under the media spotlight for what has become known as “botched circumcisions” and the subsequent hospitalisation, penile amputations and deaths of youths who want to become men.

Such media attention is important and should be commended for highlighting the lack of safety of young men during ulwaluko.

However, three key questions are never fully addressed in the public discourse on ulwaluko.

Firstly: what is the purpose of ulwaluko? Secondly: does it achieve what it was set out to do? Thirdly: Is it still relevant in the 21st century?

According to Prince Burns Ncamashe, ulwaluko “has a moral obligation and customary duty to produce accountable and responsible citizens of society fully committed and dedicated to the value of nation-building”.

This view is shared by many of those who practise ulwaluko and they see it as part of the core of who they are as a people.

Anthropologist Professor Lamla Masilo suggests ulwaluko introduces initiates to “new adult discipline” and that as full members of society young men are expected to uphold their customs and traditions. Furthermore, all those who have undergone ulwaluko are expected, among other things, to provide for and protect their families.

They need to give practical expression to ubuntu: be kind, merciful, compassionate, decent, and be helpful wherever they can or whenever there is a need.

However, recent research on ulwaluko paints a disturbing picture which betrays the intentions of ulwaluko as suggested by Burns Ncamashe and Masilo.

Some of the teachings have been nothing short of criminality, promotion of alcohol and drug misuse or abuse, as well as promotion of gender-based violence, especially sexual violence against women.

When young men complete ulwaluko they are pressured to have sex to test whether their newly circumcised penises “work” properly or not.

Some of them bet with their peers on who will have sex first.

Usually, some of the new men rush into having sex while they have not healed fully.

Furthermore, there seems to be widespread anxiety among initiates that after successful completion of ulwaluko they have isinyama (extreme bad luck) which must be cleansed by sleeping with a “random woman of a lesser value”.

Initiates are taught, wrongly, that their post-initiation first sexual encounter should not be with their significant lover as that would bring bad luck into their relationship and cause it to not last longer.

The risks of HIV and other sexually transmitted illnesses cannot be overemphised.

Initiates are also taught how to spot and identify “fake” men, that is, men who may have gone to hospital or used western instead of traditional medicine in dressing their wounds.

Those found to not be “authentic” or “real” men usually become victims of ridicule, psychological abuse, societal rejection, and sometimes are beaten, stabbed or shot.

In return, some of these so-called “fake” men would fight back and ongoing gang-like fighting would ensue.

All the above “teachings” are not what is meant to be taught to the young initiates.

It is clear that more focus has been on reporting the deaths and injuries of initiates to a point that we have spent less time interrogating what is being taught at initiation schools and who is teaching it.

On average ulwaluko lasts between three and five weeks by which time a young boy needs to have healed the circumcision wound and transformed psychologically, from a minor into a responsible adult.

Realistically, it is an anomaly to expect complete transformation of all boys who undergo ulwaluko in such a short space of time.

Historically initiates spent three to 12 months in the bush.

Enough time was spent on wound management after which more focus would be on the teachings about responsibility and manhood in general.

As it is currently practiced does ulwaluko achieve the purposes for which it was designed? Granted, tens of thousands of newly graduated men successfully complete the process and go home.

Are they men in accordance with ulwaluko’s intentions as suggested by Burns Ncamashe and Masilo?

One can boldly answer that not all men who undergo ulwaluko live up to what is expected of them. Simply put, being circumcised does not make one a man and many of those who underwent ulwaluko fall short to be considered men.

Perhaps we need to rethink how we go about the educational component of ulwaluko. It may be worth considering earlier introduction of boys into the conversations about what it means to be a man, the societal privileges we have as men which we do not question.

Without putting an extra burden on teachers and their curriculum there could be a way in which we incorporate targeted and developmentally appropriate gender studies at school where we focus on justice, gender equality, human rights and responsibilities.

Furthermore, we need to critically re-evaluate whether the current teachings of what it means to be a man should continue to punctuate and amplify provision for and protection of family as the main markers of masculinity.

In all honesty, the masculinity narrative of gender-segregated functions is obsolete and initiation schools should be responsive to the need to develop well-rounded and well-adjusted human beings whose identity is more than just their functions in society.

The continent of Africa in general, and South Africa in particular, has many social ills such as violent crime, war, gender-based violence, intergenerational sex, alcohol and drug abuse, HIV and Aids, etcetera.

Mostly, men are perpetrators of these social ills and women, children and men are victims.

If initiation schools are to be relevant in the 21st century they need to be responsive to helping us find solutions to current social ills.

At the core of such responsive solutions is the need for initiation schools to deliberately promote healthy masculinity.

We need to develop men whose sense of being strong does not equal being violent, men who embrace their virility without taking that to mean promiscuity or recklessness.

It is time initiation schools developed men who rejected the masculinity narratives which define our identity as men to equally mean subjugating women.

Given the hardships (poverty, unemployment and inequality) faced by the majority of South Africans, initiation schools need to harness and enhance resilience development among men.

We would know that we have done our job in developing healthy masculinity when men are able, on a large scale, to take responsibility for their emotions and are able to walk away from toxic relationships without having to resort to violence and aggression to sort out differences and manage conflict.

Until we can guarantee the lives of all young men who undergo ulwaluko, we cannot hide behind silencing and/or “othering” those, like Rijken, who are enraged by the deaths and injuries of our young men even when their interventions reflect what we perceive to be contempt for ulwaluko.

Instead, we must hold each other accountable and we must see consequences when young lives are maimed and/or lost due to our negligence.

After all, our rituals are meant for health and not to kill us. When they kill and maim us we cannot embrace that as “our culture”.

For as long as we cannot guarantee the safety of all our young boys we must answer Rijken’s piercing question: “Why do we sustain a ritual that slaughters boys in their prime and physically and mentally scars many others for life?”


* Tshemese is a clinical psychologist at the Nelson Mandela Academic Hospital in Mthatha. He is a PhD candidate at the Nelson Mandela Metro University focusing on ulwaluko and healthy masculinity.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Sunday Independent