Suspension of initiation is about saving lives

Nurse Henry Mkhalali, Nelson Mandela Academic Hospital clinical governance manager Dr Mphumzi Mdledle and a young initiate’s uncle watch over him in his hospital bed on Wednesday.
Nurse Henry Mkhalali, Nelson Mandela Academic Hospital clinical governance manager Dr Mphumzi Mdledle and a young initiate’s uncle watch over him in his hospital bed on Wednesday.
Image: LULAMILE FENI

The Covid-19 pandemic has redefined  all spheres of our lives. The "new normal" has arrived and nothing is spared, be it in economic, political, social or religious domains. In the Eastern Cape the virus has forced the government, in concurrence with the traditional leadership, to suspend ulwaluko (initiation) for this winter season. 

While the suspension is a noble idea, it has without doubt generated a lot of debate. Some people, including anthropologists, have even suggested that the regulation will not only be difficult to enforce but will be defied by many in the province.

The announcement would have come as a bitter pill to swallow for close to 20,000 boys across the province who were dreaming of becoming men this winter. However, the suspension is not about making light of our custom; it is about saving lives. The decision was not taken on a whim: it followed 30 days of extensive consultation with all the province's kings and queens, traditional leaders, community leaders and other stakeholders across the Eastern Cape. Ulwaluko is about celebrating lives — and hence those who practice it cannot be seen as going against a directive that preserves lives. In any case, a custom that destroys lives is not worth it.

There was joy and celebration as 82 strong young AmaHlubi men, painted with red ochre and wearing their traditional blankets all returned home at Moroka village in Mount Fletcher after four weeks in seclusion in the mountain undergoing the traditional initiation rite. Due to the cold winters in the area, the boys in Mount Fletcher and Matatiele undergo the rite only in summer.
There was joy and celebration as 82 strong young AmaHlubi men, painted with red ochre and wearing their traditional blankets all returned home at Moroka village in Mount Fletcher after four weeks in seclusion in the mountain undergoing the traditional initiation rite. Due to the cold winters in the area, the boys in Mount Fletcher and Matatiele undergo the rite only in summer.
Image: LULAMILE FENI

Culture and customs alike are by nature dynamic. Adaptations will always be there as long as the core content remains indigenous. Ulwaluko is no different. The rite has faced a plethora of challenges before, and has stood the test of time with the nations of the Eastern Cape passing it from one  generation to another. It remains popular among educated and uneducated, rural and urban, rich and poor. Interestingly, even some whites have embraced it and sent their boys to the mountain. 

I believe not even the deadly coronavirus will crush ulwaluko. Post-Covid-19 boys will still be traditionally circumcised and secluded for weeks.

However, for now everyone must support the stance  taken by the provincial leadership. No boy must be circumcised because sixakene nemfazo yeCorona (We are now with the coronavirus). Scientists are still searching for a vaccine. By Wednesday Covid-19 infections in SA were at 11,350 with 206 deaths across the country. Closer home in the Eastern Cape 1,504 confirmed infections and 24 deaths have been recorded and the figures are still rising. 

Faced with such a calamity, it would be irresponsible, irrational, reckless for any traditional or government leader to allow initiation to go ahead this winter.  After all, it's not the first time ulwaluko has been put on hold. History shows a number of examples when the rite was suspended or even banned. 

During the Mfecane wars that swept SA between 1815 and 1840, many nations banned or suspended initiations as boys were needed as warriors on the battlefield. 

Columnist Lulamile Feni
Columnist Lulamile Feni
Image: FILE
After all, it's not the first time ulwaluko has been put on hold. History shows a number of examples when the rite was suspended or even banned 

The Zulu nation banned the rite a long time ago and only resuscitated it recently, albeit it being medically done, under King Goodwill Zwelithini, as a means to curb the spread of HIV. In the Eastern Cape affected nations included AmaMpondo, AmaXesibe and  AmaBhaca as they were engaged in wars against the Zulus. 

AmaXesibe reintroduced the custom in the early 1880s, when the wars had ended, while with  AmaMpondo the practice only resurfaced in  the 1980s. Among AmaBhaca the rite was banned in 1814, resumed in 1829 and stopped again in June 1835, only to re-emerge in 1866.

Following the death of AmaXhosa King Mpendulo Sigcawu on December 14, his nation resolved to embark on  a year-long mourning and suspended all cultural activities including ulwaluko.

Although the Eastern Cape prides itself of holding the custom of ulwaluko dear, the province is equally notorious for initiate  deaths and injuries. Between 2006 and January 2020  about 1,100 initiates died while close to 10,000 were hospitalised. In the same period there were 320 penile amputations and such boys will live with the trauma of losing their manhood for the rest of their lives.  It was under such circumstances that several laws have been promulgated in the Eastern Cape to regulate traditional circumcision, chief among them being that the boys must be examined by medical doctors before they go to the mountains.

Clearly ulwaluko has not only been suspended or banned before but has gone through many modifications depending on the prevailing circumstances. 

Now the country is at war with an invisible enemy and everyone is called on to do their bit to overcome the Covid-19 pandemic. The Eastern Cape leadership should be applauded for taking the radical but entirely necessary step to suspend the winter season. 

Ulwaluko is no longer confined to a particular family or society. It has become government issue too, with R10m of taxpayers' money spent on the rite in 2019 alone.  This makes it disingenuous for anyone to insinuate that the government is against our traditions when it suspended the rite. There are those among us who have even argued that the nation will suffer the wrath of ancestors for suspending the rite. I disagree. Instead our ancestors will admire their descendants for  logical thinking.

Some misguided  iingcibi (traditional surgeons)  and  amakhankatha (traditional nurses), and others with ulterior motives, argue that they will lose income due to the suspension of the rite. Such individuals should be condemned by everyone as they have commercialised our custom. Putting money ahead of preserving lives is simply wrong.

The winter suspension gives people of the Eastern Cape time for introspection. How come we have witnessed so many initiate deaths in our province? What is it that can be done differently to prevent more youths dying in the name of a custom that celebrates life? What are other provinces doing right to register zero initiate deaths every year?  It is a time to restrategise; to do away with recycled and tired programmes that have failed. It is time to restore the dignity and sacredness of a most beloved rite in the Eastern Cape. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a R500bn rescue plan with the intention of easing the impact of the virus in SA.  The lockdown is hurting the economy, with billions of rand in revenue lost. Food parcels and vouchers as well as grants are being handed out to help the most vulnerable. A few workplaces have been opened under level 4 of the lockdown. Many people are still asked to stay at home as a means to entrench social distancing. In essence the government is doing everything humanly possible to curb the spread of infections. With this picture in mind, one cannot rub proverbial salt in the wound by allowing initiation to proceed knowing well the challenges that lie ahead.

Young men are welcomed home at the end of their initiation in this file picture from last summer.
Young men are welcomed home at the end of their initiation in this file picture from last summer.
Image: LULAMILE FENI

As fellow patriots, it is now our duty and responsibility to ensure that nobody will dice with the lives of our boys this winter through illegal circumcisions. We need to work together to ensure that all those breaking the law are arrested.

Leaders are leaders because of their subjects. This is the time for traditional leadership to take full control and make sure no one defies the regulations. During the announcement of the suspension in April, the Eastern Cape House of Traditional Leadership made it clear that hefty fines of R20,000 or a year in jail await any offenders because they are “seen as intentionally defying traditional leaders and government, and their actions would be tantamount to intentional transmission of the coronavirus and the murder of young boys or girls". We hope to see action on this pronouncement. In the past, rarely have any of the illegal acts resulted in arrests, let alone successful prosecution. Those who happen to be convicted simply escape with a slap on the wrist. 

At the current Covid-19 infection and death rates, I urge the provincial leadership to suspend the 2020 summer initiation season too. 

The lives of our boys must be rated higher than anything; that is the spirit of our culture. Let the various nations in Eastern Cape unite and, let us pluck a leaf from the books of our forefathers who, when faced with the need, decided to suspend ulwaluko. The rite will be restored when the situation normalises. Otherwise, for now, no boy must to go the mountains. 

Lulamile Feni is Daily Dispatch Traditional Affairs Correspondent


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