Sentletse Diakanyo
Sentletse Diakanyo

Deadly circumcision and initiation practices should be outlawed

Nelson Mandela in his autobiography The Long Walk to Freedom recounts his childhood experience during this rite of passage from boyhood to manhood. He writes:

“When I was sixteen, the regent decided that it was time that I became a man. In Xhosa tradition, this is achieved through one means only: circumcision. In my tradition, an uncircumcised male cannot be heir to his father’s wealth, cannot marry or officiate in tribal rituals. An uncircumcised Xhosa man is a contradiction in terms, for he is not considered a man at all, but a boy. For the Xhosa people, circumcision represents the formal incorporation of males into society. It is not just a surgical procedure, but a lengthy and elaborate ritual in preparation for manhood … as a Xhosa, I count my years as a man from the date of my circumcision.”

Traditional fundamentalists today continue to uphold this traditional practice of guillotining foreskins with a blunt assegai in the bush in the absence of acceptable sanitary conditions. Traditional societies pressure young boys to become men before their time. The Constitution protects individual cultures. Everyone has a right to practice their culture freely and within the ambit of the law. There are, however, limitations to all these wonderful rights enshrined in the Constitution. It has become evident that the preservation of such harmful traditions, such as sending young boys to the bush in freezing weather, is harmful and poses a risk to their lives. Countless young boys end up dead during their traditional quest to become men. Some of those who have been fortunate to escape the blunt guillotine alive have had to undergo penile amputation, which permanently impairs their human dignity to their end of days.

The notion that a young boy by virtue of having had his foreskin chopped off under unnecessarily dangerous conditions makes him a man is beyond ridiculous. This practice may have had some cultural significance in ancient times but it carries no significant weight and meaning in modern times where societies have moved on. Shaka Zulu put an end to the practice among Zulu men in the 19th century. Zulu warriors were no lesser men than those they conquered during their period of thuggery and theft of land from their neighbours as a consequence of Shaka’s decree. However, many years later Goodwill Zwelithini decided to reinstate traditional male circumcision as he did with the practice of ukhweshwama, where a bull is brutalised to death. We may not have had frightening incidents of botched circumcisions in KwaZulu-Natal but it does not justify the continuation of potentially harmful traditional practices.

The picture in the Eastern Cape is starkly different and frightening. The rite of passage to manhood often marks an end of life for a desperate initiate. The proliferation of initiation schools does not appear to be driven by cultural but rather monetary consideration. The Eastern Cape is one of the poorest provinces and the rate of unemployment is staggering. Entrepreneurial traditionalists have exploited cultural shame placed upon uncircumcised boys to position themselves in the mainstream economic activity. The motive to profiteer supersedes the sentimentalism of traditional fundamentalists who are troubled by the need to preserve their archaic and harmful practices. Initiation schools have become a human abattoir where young boys are mere commercial commodities for greedy traditionalists.

Preserving this harmful practice has not benefited society in any manner. Initiation schools are not necessarily producing model citizens who inspire others to greatness or advance society to a better place. Staunch advocates of this dated and harmful practice often tell us of the lessons of manhood that they are taught in the bush. Such lessons have not necessarily made a valuable contribution to society. Instead we receive reports of horrible gender-related crimes committed by men in those areas where this particular tradition is upheld. The Commission for Gender Equality raised a concern at the increasing number of child rape statistics in the Eastern Cape. Gender violence is a serious problem in some of these rural areas. What good are boys taught at these initiation schools? We are no longer hunter-gatherers. Teaching young boys stick-fighting, hunting and making fire is not going to propel society to its greatness. We live in a transforming society that demands abandonment of traditional values that serve no meaningful purpose. Cultural practices that continue to reinforce patriarchal social norms need to be discarded.

The banning of this traditional male circumcision would be the most imaginative step forward. Attempts by government to mollycoddle traditional fundamentalists are not serving society. Political expediency ahead of the welfare of society, the protection of life and human dignity of young boys who fall victim to the blunt assegai and traditional opportunists is a betrayal of the Constitution. We have hospitals that perform male circumcision under hygienic conditions. There is no meaningful purpose to send anyone to the bush. A young boy without a foreskin remains a boy until he reaches an age of maturity. We campaign to save the rhinos. We can equally campaign to save young boys from unnecessary death or penile amputation. Female circumcision has been accepted as criminal. Unlike female genital mutilation and virginity testing, traditional male circumcision has so far enjoyed exemption from criminal sanction. There is enough evidence to declare traditional male circumcision as a harmful cultural practice that needs to be outlawed.

Government needs to stop talking and do more to save lives.

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    • @chiefthabo

      I couldn’t have said it better,

    • http://yahoo connie heuer

      It is obvious that this illuminating account has been read by very few youg people or their parents. It might have given hem much food for thought, and resulted in fewer lives lost.

    • michael

      Sentletse, i agree with you fully but i am afraid you are going to be hammered by the fundamentalists.

    • Lesley Perkes

      Needs to be said. Needs to be shouted. There are traditions also among other peoples like Jews (of which I am one) and of other religions and cultures that have similar and sometimes such risky and harmful practices and ideas. They should, I agree with you, be rejected – we need to be practical and imaginative, make new ceremonies, ideas that help us. I never knew that circumcision was such a business opportunity either – thank you for this well considered piece.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Since the traditionalist so like to quote, or mis-quote, Sol Plaatjies, let me quote for you what he had to say about the re-introduction of the circumcision ceremonies into his Barolong tribe, which is one of the many who had actually abandoned the practice in the 19th century, including in Pondoland (part of the Xhosa Transkei Homeland) and Shaka Zulu’s Kingdom (Zululand). This is from an article Sol Plaatjies wrote in his own newspaper, Koranta:

      “In some pity we record that during this, the fourth month of the third year of the twentieth century, the Barolong have revived than ancient circumcision rites that had long since gone down….Scores of young men have during the week been taken away from their profitable occupations into the veld to howl themselves horse and submit to severer floggings than is usually inflicted by the Judges of the Supreme Court. The fact that in the year A.D. 1903 the sons of Montshiwa can safely solomise a custom, the uselessness of which was discerned by their father, and which the rest of Bechuanaland has for years relegated to the despicable relics of past barbarism, shows that someone has not been doing their duty.”

    • James Loewen

      Your article expresses a great deal of very well considered observations about this issue Mr. Diakano.

      Your fourth paragraph is dense with revealing information about the real motivations for the continuation of this abusive practice.

      The parallels between initiation schools for youth in South Africa and the big business (1 billion dollars per year) cutting infant males in the USA are obvious. A significant portion of that billion dollars is spent trying to correct botched circumcisions. Likewise in America greedy doctors who make a lot of money cutting the genitals of healthy children use shame and encourage ridicule and prejudice to maintain their sordid business.

      You have deftly and succinctly touched on all of the truths about this particular form of child abuse Mr. Diakanyo and how it impacts your society and mine. Thank you for this brilliant and revealing article.

    • Patrick Smyth

      It is good that this primitive custom is now being questioned by more and more people. So many lives have been cut short needlessly and others who have survived live in torment. So many young people in this world look to their elders for guidance and the benefit of experience and instead they are dispensed ignorance and bigotry.

    • Ron Low

      A truly brave young man is the one will stand among his initiate peers and proclaim: “This is superstitious pleasure-reducing ritual and I will not part.” We need leaders such as this.

    • Michael Glass

      Sentletse Diakanyo’s appeal to end the practice of bush circumcision is well expressed. Culture isn’t frozen in time. It changes and adapts to increased knowledge and new conditions. Are the Chinese less Chinese because they gave up foot binding? Are the Indians less Indian because they gave up sacrificing widows on their hushands’ funeral pyres? It is a disgrace that dozens of boys lose their life every year because of bush circumcisions. This custom must change or die.

    • Juan José

      Congratulations for your article, clear and corageous. Or, as we say around here, ‘¡olé tus cojones!’

    • Ruralrockstar

      #Salute Sentletse for this insightful article.
      Any mortality & morbidity via african traditional circumcision is unacceptable in this day where medical circumcision is an option from birth for various reasons.
      As a mother of a beautiful son, I made a decision that mine will do medical circumcision irrespective of cultural expectations which I argued in the case of initiation schools have become an enterprise parallel to a cult like existence,the practice either kills our sons or maims them, Sentletse is right-outlaw them if they won’t adopt medical circumcision.
      As a sexually active woman, let me say this, your schlong is cute circumcised yes for fallacious reasons, where or when you did it dear man, doesn’t interest me one bit, the condom may give a hoot but trust me I don’t.
      So dear parents following this clearly archaic and morbid practice, I blame you & if I were the law, I’d charge you for voluntary manslaughter 1st degree.
      No culture should condone manslaughter, ever.

    • http://bloghome Chris2

      Very good piece. However, it is necessary to examine more cultural impediments to the proper functioning of a modern society which can compete in the global village. One example is the feudal traditional “chief” aura assumed by many in higher office.

    • mark

      Surely if this right of passage is so important, african culture should be dynamic enough to adopt new techniques or safer medical procedures in thisright of passage to manhood. There is nothing wrong with having the ceremonial aspect that has ties to years gone by, but the actual act of circumcision is performed by a medical doctor in a hygenic sterile environment with appropriate equipment such as scalpels.

    • Una


      This area that comes out all the time in the papers with high numbers of dead or botched circumcision initiates called Mbizana is in the region of amaMpondo. AmaMpondo used not to practice circumcision. They only reintroduced it after 1994. A tradition they stopped practising almost a century ago. I agree there are serious problems with how they do things in this particular area and that needs a government that is awake in the Eastern Cape.

    • Jackinoe

      Thank you for this excellent article. There is a huge need for someone to step up and stop the coerced mutilation of young men.

    • Tofolux

      @Sentletse, can I ask a stupid question maybe? should I conclude that as per you, this practise is barbaric in african cultures only? If this is so, then clearly not only is your assumption contradictory it is quite hypocritical. The narrow argument that you make is that even if the constitution protects those practise their traditions, there are limitations. Clearly that is not only an arrogant statement it is quite debillitating because who sets the limitations? Are we to reel from one intellectual to another because they deem that their ”limitations” are absolute. Firstly, your conclusion is totally incorrect. Yes, as per the comments above it is notable that none of these practise traditional african practises. I would suggest that you take seriously what the Health Minister has concluded. He insists that these practises have been taken over by those who are driven by greed. He insists that those who do this to our aspiring ”adults” have very little training, do not understand the different aspects in different cultures and that the after-care is bad. He insists that those who have been trained properly, those who are registered with the proper authorities do a sterling job. The problem lies both with parents and these ‘fly-by-nights’. Some parents send children when they are too young and some do not do the proper investigations. Some are driven by discounts. To blame the whole tradition follows that age-old line of afro-pessism.

    • mark

      @Tofulux, criticism of any culture (afro-pessimism in your words) stems from the world wondering why a specific culture is unable to maintain its key tenets but move forward and adapt with the times. Surely the fact that the state is getting involved in response to numerous and regular injuries and deaths points to the fact that it is more than a “fly by night” issue. African culture will not be imapacted negatively in any way if surgical steel replaces the blunt assegaai and the place where the ritual takes place is sterilised. Culture is dynamic.

    • fraud

      It’s hardly surprising that those black fellas with their foreskins still intact would join in the imperialist voice that seeks to enforce a certain way of living on us. The deaths are indeed a worrying crisis, especially the manner in which they occur. Many communitites though have demonstrated, and continue to do so, that when this custom is practised properly within its regulations and those of the health department, initiates can easily survive it. To prove this point, you’ll notice that more than 90% of these deaths take place in the same areas(s). After careful inspection, you’ll also notice that these areas had previously never had this custom as part of their culture and thus find themselves doing something they know nothing about, and therefore endangering young boys. The challenge is to stop these illegal initiation schools, and enforce harsh sentences on the culprits. All other interventions will be discussed with the appropriate people, at appropriate forums. Those who are not part of this custom are free to give their views, but they should refrain from trying to dictate our way of life.

    • Charlotte

      @ Sentletse. Another outstanding article – articulate, rational. and meaningful.

      The year is 2013 – not 1302. We are living in a rapidly advancing scientific, medical and technological age.
      Circumcisions should only be performed by someone medically or specifically qualified to do so. Jewish baby boys are circumcised at 8 days old – if they are well. I have never heard of a death as a result.

      The government pussy-foots around year after year to get around this practice of anyone with a knife – rusty or not – being able to perform this operation.
      It should be outlawed with all other superstitious brutality, covered up under the cloak of ‘religion’, ‘culture’ or ‘tradition’. (including ‘ukhweshwama).

      @ Ron Low I endorse what you say:
      ‘We need leaders such as Sentletse Diakanyo.’

    • James Loewen

      @ Chalotte: All surgery needs to have the FULLY INFORMED CONSENT of the person on whom its being performed!

      Cutting the genitals of children is almost NEVER necessary. The fact that you have never heard of a death from infant circumcision is not surprising, even though it happens all the time. Deaths from circumcision are almost always covered up, attributed to some other cause, with all of those in the cutting culture helping to obscure the facts.

      Over 100 deaths from infant circumcision in the USA every year. 15 deaths in the New York City area every year from “metzitzah b’peh” oral suction of the wound after cutting!

      Any surgery on children must have pressing need, and all other less invasive method of treatment should be thoroughly exhausted first!

      Cutting the genitals of children does not pass this criteria, there is no condition to treat. The genitals of a child is not an illness or condition that needs immediate surgery!

    • Charlotte

      @ James Loewen.
      Problem is, a baby can’t ‘give consent’. So consent is given on their behalf.
      But I think you are right in what you say and what you say is well said:
      ” …… Cutting the genitals of children does not pass this criteria, there is no condition to treat. The genitals of a child is not an illness or condition that needs immediate surgery.”

      Thank you for an insightful comment.

    • Tofolux

      @Mark, when commenting on issues that affects blacks in general but African in particular, one should be mindful that are interrogating our issues from a ”white” perspective. It cannot be that when you sit and comment about particular issues, you are adamant not to be swayed by our day to day realities. Not only is this patronising, it is quite arrogant.

    • Sipho

      Indeed let’s ban anything that has a potential to end life, such as driving, salt and sugar intake, alcohol, guns, smoking …. Yes let’s turn earth into heaven.

    • Mark

      @Tofulux, the same can be said of you and all your posts about white culture, which I am sure you know nothing about, but seem to talk to with authorityt. So i will agree with you if you acknolwedge the fact that youare also patronising and arrogant.

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