In his book ‘Holy Cows: The Ambiguities of being South African’ Gareth van Onselen tackles touchy subjects that many of us would rather skid around and avoid and one of these is traditional male circumcision. The author, who is also a columnist and journalist, argues that the veil of secrecy around this practice needs to be removed and he qualifies this by pointing to the national response that followed the killing of 34 miners in Marikana.
Van Onselen says that after killings a commission of inquiry was instituted and yet there has been muted response to the 919 deaths that have occurred since 1995 as a result of traditional male circumcision. One word lies at the centre of this gross hypocrisy and that word is ‘culture’ and here I am referring to that ‘untouchable entity’ that some suggest we should follow with religious conformity.
Matters become even much more sensitive when it comes to the issue of the circumcision rite. ‘Joe Public’ is often told that he has no right to put his nose in matters related to this rite and yet he is expected to pick up the tab when deaths and injury occur as a result of this rite. Well let me remind you that death is a public issue and the hospitals that must treat these young initiates are called ‘public hospitals.’ A bigger anomaly is the fact that ‘Joe Public’ also includes mothers and women who raised these young men.
Seeing that less than 35 percent of black South African children are raised by their fathers it means that the women who raise them are expected to have a point where they surrender their male children to a new master and custodian called ‘culture.’ Please tell me how will these boys become responsible men if they are growing up without positive male influence and affirmation? Seemingly father figures think they can ignore a male child for 18 years and then somehow turn him into a responsible man in period of 3-4 weeks.
They think that this short period is sufficient to cram the idea of manhood into the minds of boys who undergo this traditional rite. Well the result of this experiment is that we have a high number of young men who are released into society with twisted notions of manhood and masculinity. Some confuse their new found ‘manhood’ and masculinity with having authority over women.
P Magubane in the book ‘Vanishing Cultures of South Africa: Changing customs in a changing world’ reveals that, “circumcision originally had a militaristic significance, as a worthy ordeal for the young men who were to serve as warriors before being eligible to marry” (1998:3). The author also reveals inconvenient facts that would definitely draw the ire of some traditionalists but what is clear is that some cultural customs are today being practiced in attenuated form.
Let me quickly add that the foreword to his insightful book was done by former president Nelson Mandela and by this I am not suggesting that it is authoritative. Now let me ask you an inconvenient question. Besides improving a person’s social standing, what today is the significance of traditional male circumcision? In other words if it has lost its militaristic significance, what is it still being done for?
As you think about that I want us to go back to the subject of secrecy. What is your tolerance level regarding deaths that happen as a result of this custom? In other words how many more young men need to die before you are malleable to the idea that a national debate around this practice is necessary?
The supporters of the ‘secret society’ have perhaps not considered the long term damage that occurs if we let the status quo remain. Van Onselen says, ‘one person’s holy cow is bound to be another’s T-bone steak’ and so I believe that a generation will arise that will show less reverence to the things that we are unwilling to discuss.