NOTE: This article is part of a nine-part sequential narrative series on initiation practices in SA. Answer the question at the end of the article to continue with the narrative or view the full series at The Perilous Path To Manhood.
Boys without close male relatives who regularly check on them at initiation schools can often fall victim to abuse, assaults, drugs, and medical complications such as dehydration and septicaemia.
Kwanele Samuel, an orphan raised by an aunt who works about 50km away, could potentially face this risk.
Researcher Mmampho Gogela, the head of the Centre for Learning and Teaching Development at Walter Sisulu University, attributes many of the more than 1,100 initiate deaths over the past 12 years to complications following botched circumcision procedures.
“There are also frequent reports of dehydration and physical violence in initiation schools,” Gogela found in her 2018 study.
Now the Eastern Cape legislature women’s caucus is demanding more direct participation in the initiation custom which Gogela says is shrouded in secrecy and excludes women from a secretive set of rituals.
“The participation of women in ulwaluko is considered taboo among amaXhosa. The Congress of Traditional Leaders of SA has in the past rejected any suggestion of women’s involvement,” Gogela says.
Women are also vulnerable to a practice called ukukhupha ifutha, or ukosula. This encourages newly initiated men to have sex with any woman who is not their girlfriendMmampho Gogela
“Women cook and prepare for the related ceremonies while men are responsible for the customary practices and the decisions required in the process.”
Gogela’s study found that although women embrace and celebrate ulwaluko as a rite of passage, they also view it as a practice that perpetuates patriarchy. The study also noted cases of women seen close to initiation schools who were accused of practising witchcraft, some of whom have been killed.
“Women are also vulnerable to a practice called ukukhupha ifutha, or ukosula. This encourages newly initiated men to have sex with any woman who is not their girlfriend as they believe this will cleanse them of any bad luck they may have acquired during the initiation,” Gogela states in the study.
Women’s caucus chair ANC MPL Bukiwe Fanta blames men for initiate deaths, stating they had turned the custom into a “grisly slaughterhouse” and a “sanctuary to groom criminals and women abusers”. She said they want to ensure the custom is restored to nurturing men of good standing.
“If I may ask, what are the causes of all these horrific beatings at the initiation schools? Who said torturing these boys is turning them into good men?” she asked. Fanta says all men, not only traditional nurses and surgeons, should be held responsible for initiate deaths and injuries because they were culturally obliged to visit initiation schools to ensure the tradition was properly carried out.
“Where were men when these initiates were tortured, ill-treated, got sick, when the first initiates died? Season after season, we count bodies. How many initiates must die before men stand up and prevent initiates from being slaughtered?” she asks.
Fanta says while they understand that women are not allowed in initiation schools, they at least want to have a say in what the boys eat.
“We cannot go to the mountain, but we prepare their food. We need to have a say in that at least,” she said.
While they appreciate attempts by initiation monitoring teams to expose and rescue initiates from illegal circumcision schools, Fanta charges that “men failed us, they failed the nation”.
Where were men when these initiates were tortured, ill-treated, got sick, when the first initiates died? Season after season, we count bodiesBukiwe Fanta
“Our boys perished right under their noses. Now, we as women want to reclaim our space. Mababuye bephila (They must come back alive). Nobody must die. The stories of beatings and torture of initiates are horrific,” she says.
Earlier this year, female traditional leaders charged that under male traditional leaders, the rite had been turned into a “mockery and slaughterhouse”.
If Kwanele Samuel's male relatives visit him regularly, he would more likely be spared the violence that is often perpetrated by illegal initiation schools. But family homework is required beforehand to ensure that he is in the best hands possible during his traditional initiation.