For hundreds of years, teenage boys and young men from South Africa’s Xhosa and Ndebele groups have followed a sacred, secret coming-of-age ritual that culminates in ritual circumcision by a traditional surgeon. Initiation, as the practice is called, is part of the rich fabric of South African society.
But in recent years, as dozens of young men have died during the process each year -- most from exhaustion and dehydration, but some from botched surgeries -- it has also become a legal and cultural minefield.
Both the practice’s traditional defenders and those agitating for reform agree on one thing: No more boys should die. But how exactly they will get there is a question no one can answer.
This year, amid reports of more than 25 deaths during the recent initiation season, South Africa’s Commission for the Promotion and Protection of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities called for the immediate suspension of initiation schools in the Eastern Cape province, where most of the deaths occurred.
That call has earned the ire of the gatekeeper of this tradition, the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa. The group’s president, Kgosi Mathupa Mokoena, said he agrees that schools that have seen deaths should be investigated, but that a ban is not just foolhardy, but futile.
"We totally disagree with the call from the CRL, because unfortunately, we were never consulted when they made this call," he said from South Africa’s eastern Mpumalanga province. "Unfortunately for them, even if they had made a call or even forced parliament to legislate to do away or ban the running of initiation schools, unfortunately it is not enforceable. Therefore we’ll just advise them, nicely, to say, ‘come, let’s sit down and talk about this.’ Because If you legislate on something you cannot then enforce, it is as good as wasting public funds."
‘Life is more important’
While the independent, government-funded group has called for suspensions in previous years, this year their call was backed by a powerful men’s group. Ntando Yola is Chairman of the South African National AIDS Council’s Men’s Sector. The organization supports the suspension, and is pushing for an open conversation about the practice.
But, he stresses, he isn’t against the ritual itself.
"It’s a practice that is held in high regard, that a boy grows up looking forward to doing that," he told VOA from Johannesburg. "And I think that is fine. I have gone through that myself and I went through it willingly. However, we have got to put measures to make sure that it does not cost life. Life is more important — is equally important as the ritual."
The fine line between tradition and change
Civil society groups have proposed several changes, such as tightening regulations on the schools, which can cost between $35 and $70 -- a large amount in a nation where a minimum wage worker can make as little as $250 a month.
They’ve also called for more medical supervision over the two- to four-week retreats. In recent years, Zimbabwe has integrated medical circumcision into its initiation schools, leading to a drastic reduction in deaths. Mokoena said that is not an option for South Africa, though traditional leaders allow doctors to intervene if initiation leaders call on them.
"How they do it in Zimbabwe, it’s foreign, we don’t even know why, don’t understand why, they do it that way," he said. "It’s still allowed for that medical doctor to go to the mountain and assist. But unfortunately, you cannot do it in the mountain and again in hospital. It’s never done that way. That is no more an initiation school; it’s something else.”"
But maybe it’s time for change, Yola said. His group is also floating the idea of giving women a voice in the process. When it comes to initiation, the women in these boys’ lives are forbidden from having any oversight or authority. And while the group isn’t suggesting anything as radical as letting women witness or learn more about the process, he says the fact that they are left completely in the dark seems unfair.
"One of the things that happens with the secrecy that is happening around the practice is the fact that women who are mothers or who are carers to these young men have to just sit and wait until the son comes back from there and they have no role or no part in it," he said. "And women, sometimes they're able to call out, to cry out around this and say ‘this is unacceptable that I raised a child, and oftentimes as a single mother, and then there's just this period in the life of my child where I have to not be involved in any way, and just wait and hope that my son comes alive.’ So it's really a range of all of these issues that we're really calling out against."