By Fundile Majola
There was a mixture of excitement and anxiety in the Port Elizabeth air on that sunny Monday morning of November 24. I was ready for my last matric examination paper, Geography. I was also ready to be made and declared a man – the initiation process was to start that evening. I thought a lot about the personal traits I would have to say goodbye to, along with my boyhood. I wrote the exam and bid farewell to my classmates and friends. They were excited too but did all they could to instill fear of physical pain in my naïve self.
At around 5pm that evening, the three of us – Sibusiso, Xolisa and myself – were surrounded by our grandfathers, fathers, brothers and friends, clad only in our blankets, being taught and told what manhood means and how one ought to behave once declared a man. It was Oom Sy who did most of the teaching and he, as usual, was the wisest of the elders. Inside the house, mothers were engaging in songs of victory and ululating while at the same time preparing three freshly slaughtered sheep, one for each of us. We were each given a leg to eat before we could leave the yard and be released into the wild for our manhood classes.
In song, we were led into the idling bakkie with all the senior men, leaving our mothers, sisters and girlfriends emotionally touched and visibly teary. We travelled through the dusty and pothole-infested streets of New Brighton and fifteen minutes later we were in the bushes. On arrival, we saw men still working on erecting our new house – iphempe. It was at this time, in the midst of song, whistling, stick fighting and all other kinds of irritating noises, that I asked myself if I really wanted to be a man because everyone urged me rethink my decision to do away with my jwabu (foreskin) – it was not worth all the pain and there was a huge possibility I wouldn’t make it back; I could die there. But, like many others before me, I had to be brave and tackle it all head-on.
We were led onto the grass and ordered to open our legs wide. The legendary surgeon ubaw’ uMthembu took out his long, rusty sword, kneeled in front of Sbu, his rough left hand fiddling with the man-in-the-making’s visibly shrinking genitals and, in no time, Sbu had no foreskin. Looking at his blood spill, he was immediately ordered to declare himself a man. “Ndiyindoda!” proclaimed Sbu. I followed suit and so did Xolisa. We spent the next three weeks in the care of Ta-Mzi, a renowned khankatha from one of the villages of Fort Beaufort. He expertly managed our physical recuperation.
One of the main things we learnt was that we must master our new and exclusive language as initiates, a language no one in the townships spoke. We were told of the cultural prestige we carry as amaXhosa – a linguistic, economic and dynamic national grouping on top of others. We were told what a useless bunch of dogs boys are. It was emphasised that a man has to be circumcised the way we were in order to be a man, nothing less. We were also told of how evil women are – our mothers, our sisters, our teachers, friends and girlfriends. Those cunning witches!
As the end of the three weeks approached, we became excited again. We’d been doing nothing more than having our wounds taken care of, eating, shitting, laughing, talking and sleeping in the wild with new-found friends and our new identity – manhood. The early morning of Tuesday December 16 arrived. We were gone by 5am. Home! Festivities abounded. It was all very merry and our mothers, sisters and girlfriends were still in tears, only happier now.
We were once more reminded of what being a man entailed and what was expected of us by both the family and the community. Dignity. Responsibility. Responsiveness. No more uncircumcised friends. An emphasis on the preservation of Xhosa cultures, traditions and customs. Leading by example. Somagwaza, a rather mysterious, if not mythical, forefather who invented circumcision as a means of passage into manhood for amaXhosa, was mentioned often in the teachings. The festivities continued for two days and we were then released to mingle with other men, young and old.
Fifteen years on, I am still that man, accordingly referred to as ubhuti, a dear senior brother who demands that honour for it was through thick and thin that it was earned: a long, rusty mdlanga, three weeks of life in the wild, physical pain, dehydration and some teachings. Today I am a man who demands that another be genitally mutilated in order to qualify as a worthy man: yindoda emadodeni. I am a man who demands respect by insisting on being called ubhuti.
I am a man who has, through tribal propaganda, been actively distanced from taking any effective steps of interest, intellectual or otherwise, in the overall governance of the national landscape of the land I call my own. I am man who is well trained against his own liberation. A man who’d rather be preoccupied with fighting for customary significance against ‘rival’ tribes. Black tribes. Tribes equally sharing political subjugation with my dear maXhosa. I am a man who’d rather tell you about the legends of Rharhabe, Hintsa, Gcaleka, Maxhobayakhawuleza and so forth. I am a man who’d rather tell everyone about how amaXhosa fought in the frontier wars.
I am angry at myself. I am angry at my forefathers and foremothers. I am angry at my fathers and mothers. I am angry at my brothers and sisters. I am angry that they were not angry enough to be able to take back their land from the thieves. I am angry that they are still NOT as angry. I am angry at 1994. I am angry at the mention of democracy. I am angry for being lied to. I am angry at my gullibility. I am angry at having been tamed.
I am angry at the man I was made to be. I am angry at the man I am. I am angry at being a man who would not take up arms and fight for the liberation of his people. I am angry at my desperation to live when there is no life. I am angry at insisting I am a man when the ruling elite and the settler community don’t see one in me. I am sick and tired of being black. I am angry at having allowed myself to be blackened. I despise being black. I do! I am angry at being a part of an exclusively underclassed, underdog race.
I am angry at leading a “kaffir” life and being angry when I am called a “kaffir”. Yes, I am angry. I have a moral entitlement to this anger.
I am angry for being a man who is not a man.
Fundile Majola is based in Cape Town and works as a linguist in one of the the Western Cape’s provincial government departments. He wrote this piece out of frustration with what tribalism has done to the black people of Africa and, in particular, South Africa. He hopes it will open up debate on the necessity and relevance of some of the customs we cling so tightly to at the expense of more worthy causes.