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Masculinity under siege?

Every year young boys die in the process of “becoming men”, ulwaluko. Recently Mpumalanga made news when 27 boys died at an initiation camp. When such stories are reported I’m reminded of the imigidi I have attended, celebrating the return of ikrwala (a new man). Growing up, the deaths of amakrwala (the “new men”) were viewed with shame and if anything went wrong people would speak in hushed voices about ihlazo — the shame a family would face if the ritual went awry or ended the life of a son.

Dying at an initiation camp has become an issue of national importance. And rightfully so. The ANC issued a statement announcing a “parliamentary debate on deaths of initiates” and it was reported that the president was outraged.

In the name of culture any suggestion that has been put forward to avoid fatalities has been ignored. The ritual is a private and public moment. Any changes made means the tradition is being disrupted or tampered with (often by outsiders) and thus less authentic and in danger of incurring the “wrath of the ancestors”. This has consequences for the legitimacy of the ritual. By making the deaths of these young men a national issue means black boys’ bodies are on display. If young boys do not survive a ritual that is a stamp of approval for their manhood, what does this mean for them as individuals as well as members of larger communities? More importantly what does this mean for black masculinity? It is under threat because the very ritual that seeks to establish manhood ends in death.

An alternative is that the department of health intervenes to ensure healthier operations while recognising the importance of the ritual but traditionalists feel this will complicate things further. Practitioners in clinics are often female nurses and women have not been allowed to be part of this ritual. It seems logical that this should be a sexual health issue rather than a cultural issue. Recognising the problem within this paradigm does not necessarily mean the cultural importance of ulwaluko has to be renounced. By ignoring the health aspect of the ritual ulwaluko may lose the cultural currency it holds as it becomes firmly associated with death.

Cultural practices have changed over the decades. The anxiety of involving the department of health seems unwarranted. Communities have to reckon with the reality that more harm than good is being done. The “wrath of the ancestors” is a reality for many and this highlights the irrationality of the ritual. But when we ask questions about the rationality of continuing a ritual in spite of the calamities reported, we open up a “colonial discourse” that seeks to delegitimise “African culture”. What we fail to remember is that rituals fall away all the time. The female coming-of-age ritual among Xhosa people, intonjane fell away many decades ago (well I have only been to one thus far in my life). The Zulu practice of umemulo is popular (though male circumcision fell away). In the case of intonjane and umemulo, a medical procedure is not required, unlike male circumcision.

Yet by questioning the practice every year “African culture” (whatever that means) is under threat. And more importantly, black men’s legitimacy in their communities is considered to be threatened. The irony of course is that many men are circumcised much later in life and go to the hospital without the added cultural baggage that affects some Xhosa and Sotho men. This is not a new conversation. Thando Mgqolozana’s book A man who is not a man highlights the complexities of ulwaluko. And by making this an issue of national importance the ANC seeks to recognise that a private ritual has implications for the public existence of young boys-men. (I must say I wondered about the ANC’s concern. Imagine the ANC issued a statement every time the rape of a woman or lesbian was reported?)

I teach (Xhosa) teenage boys and have witnessed the excitement they share at the prospect of ulwaluko . Death doesn’t seem to enter their minds as a possibility. If I dare suggest they go to the clinic rather they would make worm’s meat of me.



  1. Lennon Lennon 27 May 2013

    Somehow I don’t think the Ancestors would want their descendents to be mutilated or killed because the dude perfoming the circumcision is a hapless git who isn’t properly trained.

  2. Lesley Lesley 27 May 2013

    Powerful piece. Traditionalist Jews also shun the boy-man who is not circumsized and the family is made to feel their loss of Jewishnes. This is not a part of my Jewish culture for which I have respect – even though I am so grown up in it, (and so unfortunately I understand it), but it really has no place in this world.
    It is awful to imagine that not only do the families of the boy-men massacred in Mpumalanga have to suffer their death, but also this awful humiliation, this secret shame. Thank you for the piece. I get that you must be brave to even write it, as was Thando Mgqolozana to write his book. Secrets fester. That’s all they do. We need to grow up, strangely enough, to become better adults, people who find their rites of passage in great deeds and adventures, rather.

  3. ian shaw ian shaw 27 May 2013

    This African cultural custom is thousands of years old and apparently worked without young men dying. So what is wrong today?

  4. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 27 May 2013

    @ Lennon

    I question if it is ever possible to “properly train” anyone in the procedure. From what I have been told it has all kind of other rituals which must be part of the ceremony including pain, deprivation, and semi starvation, which make it all very dangerous in the first place.

    Which is no doubt why King Shaka had the sense to ban the practice for the Zulus.

  5. Ras vee Ras vee 27 May 2013

    I think that the boys first need to be thought that going to the clinic first before they go to the mountain will not make them less men, that mind side that they have needs to be changed they need to know that going to the clinic first, is for their own protection.

  6. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 28 May 2013

    ian shaw

    How do you know that the culture worked for thousands of years without boys dying? Maybe their superstitions were that the boys that died had been killed by tne ancestors in the ceremony because they were not good enough! In Bantu culture ALL deaths, of both livestock and people, even by lightening, are the result of witchcraft. The only exception is deaths from old age.

  7. born2bJaded born2bJaded 28 May 2013

    Sisi, well thought out piece. I had a good chuckle at your last paragraph about telling those teenage boys to go to the clinic. I remember when I went, and my aunt dropped the “clinic” word just before I spent my month and a half. The room went dead quiet; and then laughter followed immediately. It was THAT outrageous within our family, and i can happily say it still is.

    I think what is key, is defining what is ritual. For instance, I have 6 brothers, and ALL of us went through it. We had a BLAST of a time (after the first week… :) ) It was absolutely fantastic! We met and made new friends and learned a crap load, we had assumed we knew. BUT we had made the decision to speak to our grandfolk before went, to get a proper idea of where the entire ulwaluko comes from; the rules, whats expected of you etc. So the “ritual” that everyone is concerned with “changing”, perhaps they need to examine whether that is in fact the “ritual”. Lyndall Beddy’s example in the comments for instance, is something i have NEVER seen practised (pain, deprivation, and semi starvation ??? ), nor I expect ever will, but that is the idea that is out there. So the question becomes why are they dying, and if the answer is dehydration and starvation being a major factor, then interrogate that aspect..Continued

  8. born2bJaded born2bJaded 28 May 2013

    In ALL my experiences, research and attending those of family and friends, the idea of someone starving is foreign. So perhaps, we have “rituals” out there, that are in fact not rituals – and as Africans hlambi we should be focusing on actually defining what are our “rituals”; as it annoys me so much when I read/hear of “rituals” that for all my worth I can’t get a single elder to acknowledge, let alone condone or accept as a “ritual”. Maybe then, we can move away from the appearance of “diluting” or “delegitimising”, or as you say, having a “colonial discourse”, and have a “Traditional African discourse” on what is truly our culture and tradition, before being relegated to the archaic and backwards, based on false truths.

  9. Joe Malapela Joe Malapela 28 May 2013

    This is a well written article on a sad occurance. Our thoughts and condolensces go to the parents of the youngsters who died at these bogus initiation schools. This could have been avoided. This gives the centuries’ old practice of “lebollo/koma”, particularly in Limpopo and Mpumalanga a bad reputation.
    Corrective measures be taken!
    I call upon members of the National House of Traditional Leaders to take up the challenge and come up with awareness and educational campaigns among their communities in the affected areas. In my view traditional leaders are better positioned to take up this challenge and help save the lives of the initiates and eliminate the involvement of these bogus practitioners.

  10. GrahamJ GrahamJ 28 May 2013

    Why anyone would consent to have half their sexual nerves amputated is beyond me. No intelligent person would allow it. It’s illegal in Germany without personal consent – even to jews.

  11. Lennon Lennon 28 May 2013

    @ Lyndall: I suspect Shaka simply had no use for young men in his army who couldn’t fight due to recently snipped “bits”.

  12. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 28 May 2013


    Good idea – and how do you suggest the conversation gets started since the whole ceremony is secret?


    King Shaka definately had reasons for banning circumcision. Unfortunately no one knows what those reasons were.

  13. bernpm bernpm 28 May 2013

    “Masculinity under siege?” ????????

    What has the removal of the foreskin to do with the masculinity of a man??

  14. Naushad Khan Naushad Khan 28 May 2013

    Nowadays our life has greatly changed, we use and do things which our ancestors had neither used nor seen in their life time. Our ancestors would not approve of the way we live now.

  15. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 28 May 2013

    Autopsies were done on all the boys who died, which would show if they died of dehydration or not. The traditional Leaders have, however, closed ranks and refused to release the results, which is already suspicious.

    I certainly heard one of the students on Xolani Gwala’s show on SAFM say that boys were coming back to school from the initiation schools “aggressive”. The escalating violence in the country has to come from somewhere. Zuma says we have “foreign elements” destabilising the country. How difficult would it be for “foreign elements” to bribe or control the initiation schools, and how would anyone know under their cloak of secrecy?

  16. Comrade Koos Comrade Koos 28 May 2013

    We had initiation schools on our farm up on the Transvaal high-veld when I was a young boy.

    We could hear the initiates start singing at three or four in the morning in the middle of winter.

    Nothing but a blanket to sleep in the frost with a branch and leaf shelter. We saw them trot and dance across the hills at a distance every day, dancing and singing and painted in white clay with black loin cloths.

    I was fascinated.

    Then at the end of three months they went up to the big Induna near Belfast to be circumcised. Then they came back, there was huge jubilation, lots of sorghum beer and festivities. We were all so happy.

    But no-one ever died?

    What is wrong now-a days? Are the germs stronger? Are the modern men less able to fight germs off because of our feeble diets? Poor immune systems? Why did they not bleed to death?

    ** When Moses & Co circumcised the Jews (adult males – eish), no recorded deaths??

  17. Enough Said Enough Said 28 May 2013


    “Why anyone would consent to have half their sexual nerves amputated is beyond me. No intelligent person would allow it.”

    I was circumcised as a baby (boy). Never affected my sex life. And the sex books I have read say circumcised men enjoy the trip more, i.e. don’t climax too quickly and women benefit as well.

    In addition, research shows circumcised men have a reduced chance of contacting HIV/AIDS and other sexual diseases.

    You have researched the subject well.

  18. Enough Said Enough Said 28 May 2013

    You have NOT researched the subject well.

  19. athambile athambile 28 May 2013

    @born2bejaded,thank you for your perspective.the challenge with this piece though is that I speak as an outsider.Being a woman with no brothers and only male friends who opted for the tradtional route,there’s still a lot of secrecy about what happens entabeni.someone else pointed out to me that this is also an economic issue where the elder(ikhankatha) is paid depending on how many boys come through his camp.this has other insidious consequences.Thando’s book was a great start to this conversation but there’s so much more work that needs to be done.

  20. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 29 May 2013

    In “Long Walk to Freedom” Nelson Mandela wrote that he was very worried before his initiation that he would cry out from the pain and disgrace his family, and very relieved when he did not.

    Can someone please explain why the ancestors/ spirits need young teenage boys to suffer pain in this modern era of anesthetics? What is the spiritual significance, since I presume there must be some reason.

  21. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 29 May 2013

    In my opinion Shaka banned circumcision because the ceremonies increased the powers of the sangomas and decreased the power and authority of the King.

    I have no historical basis for this opinion, only that Shaka was shrewd and extremely intelligent and innovative.

  22. Mandla Mandla 29 May 2013

    Athembile Masola and othersshould be looking at the matter with an open mind. Of course death is a concern to all of us. The issue I would like to raise it that there are regions where ulwaluko is practised without threat to life and there is no departmental intervention. Look at Mount Fletcher (my district), Matatiele, Maluti, Herschel. In these areas every June and December boys go to the mountains in large numbers and all come back alive and well. Should not we be asking what these guys are getting right and others getting wrong?

    Secondly, the majority of districts where these deaths occur is not a health issue. These deaths occur in areas where this practise was no longer part of those communities and in some cases where such practises were never part of the said communities. People need to be reminded that not all Xhosa clans are part of this practise. It is predominantly these clans that suffer initiation deaths simply because they do not know what they are doing.

    People should not just assume to know why initiates are dying because they do not know. I totally disagree with the idea of government intervention simply because I know why these boys are dying. As a Hlubi man myself, I still spend a considerable amount of time in initiation schools across my own district and other Hlubi districts. I can guarantee you that if you ask the right questions to the right people you will get right answers. The government cannot manage its own healthcare system already.

  23. Lennon Lennon 29 May 2013

    @ Lyndall: I’m looking at this from a purely military aspect.

    Considering the waves that Shaka was making when he re-invented warfare in KZN, I would expect that if deaths and / or severe injuries affected the number of troops he could field every year then it would make sense to ban circumcision. After all, if your goal is to conquer then why would you allow a ceremony to take place which could affect your chances of success?

    Since we don’t have any numbers on those affected (if any), it is speculation and I’ll grant you that, but it’s not entirely unplausible.

  24. athambile athambile 29 May 2013

    Well,it’s a matter of national importance whether we like it or not and it’s being debated in parliament today.The truth is,there isn’t enough clarity when this cases abound.It’s often alarmist as well so the real reasons for the deaths isn’t disclosed.We need to look at who is reporting on these stories and whether it is likely that they are getting the whole story.

  25. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 29 May 2013


    Why Shaka banned circumcision for Zulus can only be pure speculation, and there could also have been multiple reasons – he weighed the pros and cons and the cons won the day.

    Even if Shaka had given a reason, being the King he might have only told the people what he wanted them to think and not his real reasons.

  26. Lennon Lennon 29 May 2013

    @ Lyndall: Not having enough troops would be a con, don’t you think? ;)

    “Indeed, the dominant features of the new social order which evolved during this period fo flux [the so-called Mfecane] were the formation of centralised systems of authority and, ominously, the rapid build-up of armies.

    In this respect, the abandomment of circumcision ceremonies and the reorganisation of armies into an amabutho system (an age-grade basis) were developments of crucial significance. It mean that young men – who would normally have been intiated – could now be assembled by chiefs and formed into regiments with names of their own. It was a system which not only provided a more efficient fighting force but also increased coherence by uniting men from different territorial segments in a common regimental bond.” – taken from the Reader’s Digest Illustrated History of South Africa (3rd Edition – 1994) p81.

    Seems like a military reason to me. :D

  27. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 29 May 2013

    @ Lyndall

    And how would Wikipedia know why Shaka stopped circumcision since he confided in no-one and told no-one, except perhaps his mother who was the only person he trusted?

  28. TumiM TumiM 30 May 2013

    @ Mandla, Unnatural death, IS a health issue! I think instead of telling everyone how they don’t know anything about initiation and why kids are dying, people like you should be fixing the problem. If you know why, do something, fix it! If you don’t, you better know that people like me, who are mothers to boys, WILL WANT SOMETHING DONE! And yes, by the health department. My son’s life is worth it!
    @Lyndall, I wish you would just stop talking. Every time you make a comment, it is clear that you have no idea what you’re talking about. Its not 1960. Get some perspective.

  29. Charlotte Charlotte 30 May 2013

    Good article, Athambile,

    The abomination of ‘initiation’ deaths is not ‘culture.
    It is tantamount to mass murder.
    Unless circumcision is performed or presided over by someone qualified or a health care practitioner, it should be regarded as a punishable crime.

  30. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 30 May 2013

    @ Lennon
    All the sources you quote are speculating, because no-one knows what Shaka was thinking, and it is historically recorded that Shaka, not one of Mpande’s descendants, stopped circumcision for Zulus.

    Historians speculate all the time. There is nothing wrong with speculation, but historians have to justify their speculations all the same, not present them as fact.

  31. Lennon Lennon 31 May 2013

    @ Lyndall: Where did I mention any of Mpande’s descendents?

    I’ve more than justified my explanation which I reached prior to checking for any sources.

    It’s simple military logic:
    circumcision ceremony = fewer men for campaigns
    replacing ceremony with instant conscription = more men for campaigns
    more men for campaigns = bigger army
    bigger army enables proper execution of bull horn formation
    proper execution due to the above = victory

    10 bucks says Alan Axelrod and John Keegan would agree with me.

  32. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 31 May 2013


    All the subsequent Zulu chiefs after Mpande were his descendants – one of the the articles linked by you suggests one of them, and not Shaka, as stopping circumcisions.

    Boys were circumcised at aged about 12; and were only men for campaigns a few years later. If Shaka had wanted not to have fewer men for campaigns, he could have dropped the age for circumcision. It does not take 4 years for circumcision to heal.

    The military explanation ONLY makes sense IF BOYS WERE DYING AT CIRCUMCISION CEREMONIES!

  33. Lennon Lennon 4 June 2013

    @ Lyndall: One of the articles, yes. Me? No.

    If they were snipped at 12, then why didn’t you just say so right at the beginning?

    So… why do you think he did it?

  34. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 5 June 2013


    I think Shaka banned the circumcisions for a multiplicity of reasons, one of which was that too many boys were dying.

  35. Lennon Lennon 5 June 2013

    @ Lyndall: Hmmm… That opens up the question of his motives. Would that have been out of compassion for his tribe or because he wanted as many boys to grow up for his army as possible?

    All together now! ‘Round and ’round the cobbler’s bench, the monkey chased the weasle!

    Just kidding. :)

  36. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 6 June 2013


    I will let others speculate about Shaka’s motives. There are 2 very opposite schools of though about his personality. However, I do think it likely that numerous boys have always died in numbers in the circumcision ceremonies and this was kept from the British in case they interfered with “our culture”.

  37. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 7 June 2013


    It is myth that all whites suppressed Blacks. The Black Chiefs fiercely resisted any change to culture which would weaken their authority. Only sons of Chiefs and the elite were allowed a Western Education. Chief Buthelezi, for example received an education as a member of the Zulu Royal Family. Nelson Mandela was educated with his cousin, the future heir to the Chiefdom, but Zuma, a peasant’s son, was denied the right to go to school because “it’s our culture for boys to look after cattle”.

  38. Lennon Lennon 7 June 2013

    @ Lyndall: Sounds like every other major civilisation around the world going all the way back to the Sumerians.

  39. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 8 June 2013

    @ Lennon

    I agree that most civilisations started out tribal and then feudal, but the ANC is unique in its hypocricy in combining forced intergration and Marxist Communism on White and Brown South Africans in their former Homelands; while leaving all the former Black Homelands under the same feudal rule of tribal chiefs which existed in the 40 years of apartheid, and the 100 years of the British Homelands before apartheid.

    This hypocricy was re-inforced by Bishop Tutu’s TRC which minutely examined 1000 deaths in the Civil War between the Afrikaner Socialist and Communist ANC, but refused to examine any of the 20,000 deaths in the Black-on- Black violence of the Civil War between the ANC and the IFP which started in the 1980s and has now escalated to political killings in the Trade Union Movement as well.

  40. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 9 June 2013


    Shaka was the first Zulu Chief to meet, and befriend, Whites who were not slave traders; and he was adaptable and innovative.

    After the British Colonisation of Natal, and the formation of the Zulu and Xhosa Homelands, the British encouraged the Zulu Chiefs to keep their peasants uneducated and feudal to have a supply of labour to the mines on the rand that they had fought the Anglo Boer War to acquire. Even after South Africa was given independence the same British Randlords still controlled the mines and the profits, and encouraged Zulu and Xhosa feudalism.

  41. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 9 June 2013


    The situation, in my opinion, is now becoming more and more farcical. The Health Minister has said that his “health professionals” are now going “to assist” to stop the circumcision deaths without disturbing culture. How are they going to do that? The whole process has always been secret from all authorities, whether White or Black, authorities, whether Health or Educational authorities (and I am as concerned as to what these children actually get taught by these “teachers” as to what happens in the surgical procedure).

    The system has also always been kept secret from half the Black population – the female half. No mother, grandmother, aunt, sister, or girlfriend of an initiate may know anything about it. So how are “health professionals”, the majority of whom are female nurses, going “to assist”? They can’t even check if the boys are pscyhologically and medically fit for the process without knowing what the process involves!

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