Initiation within the black community is a cultural imperative or rite of passage. With the initiation season barely started, so far this year the death toll already stands at 23. Foremost amongst the various trials that the initiates undergo is a circumcision by a traditional healer. The number of penectomies – the amputation of the penis – has not been recorded and never is as it normally merely included under the figure of disfigurement and other serious injuries. In any other society there could even result in the downfall of the government but in South Africa it only rates a mention on page three or five of the newspaper.
The use of an initiation to induct a member into a society, club or institution has a long history across all civilisations. The form of initiation which subjects the initiate to physical pain, mental torture or death has been severely circumscribed within most of the first world over the past few decades. Within South Africa’s black society on the other hand, it appears still to play a significant role especially within rural communities.
Main picture: Initiates or amaKwetha covered in white clay and the traditional knobkerrie
My first exposure to this practice was as a child living in Port Elizabeth. During the initiation season – the winter months – the initiates or amaKwetha could be seen in the bushes along the road to Schoenmaker’s Kop clad only in a covering of white & red clay and rough pair of underpants made from sacks. Armed only with a long pole, their gaunt woebegone bodies could be seen within the bush line. Supposedly they were not allowed to be able to be viewed by non-initiates. This troubled me as I could not fathom why they would contravene the rules of their initiation. It was only years later that I rationalised that they were probably hoping for sympathetic motorists to provide them with some food. Instead they starved which forms part of the ritual.
It has now come to light that nobody has yet ever been prosecuted for the deaths of an estimated 1000 black males since 2010. Apart from the occasional rant by a prominent politician and the closure of numerous illegal initiation schools, no action has been taken. Perhaps this inaction is a result of the government’s reluctance to take action against traditional black activities. Tellingly and logically, inaction indicates connivance. Given the fact that the Zuma administration actively advocates a black nationalist outlook and even sometimes an overtly Zulu Nationalist tradition, this presumption is not implausible.
From the latest reports about the rescue of 22 initiates at a Soweto initiation school, it appears that criminal elements have now infiltrated this traditional practice. In this case, the organisers of the school were demanding R 2500 per boy from their parents in return for not ill-treating their children.
Today’s Sunday Times [dated 12th July 2015] even runs a story of a traditional healer who has resulted in the deaths of three boys again performing circumcisions.
The sole punishment meted out is the closure of the initiation school as if this is sufficient.
The one positive consequence of the countless penectomies arising every year is that South Africa has achieved a world first: a penis transplant. Even more startling is that the recipient has impregnated his girlfriend.
This is not the solution to this problem.
Mindful of the cultural sensitivities of this issue, I am nevertheless dumbfounded that cultural imperatives take precedence over human life. It is quite out of keeping with South Africa’s constitutional value system.
Just as crucially, dissembling statements, wishful thinking and outright lies in this regard can no longer be tolerated. To state that bold action needs to be taken by the relevant authorities is not a gross misstatement of the future course of events.
Sadly the fiction will be maintained that it is only illegal initiation schools are culpable and that sufficient action is being taken.
To protect these youngsters from harm is a fundamental duty of the authorities.
They should no longer desist from prevaricating and act forthwith.