News / Africa

S. African Manhood Initiation Entrenched Despite Dangers

South African boys covered with a blankets and smeared with chalky mud sit in a field as they undergo a traditional male circumcision ceremony into manhood in Qunu, South Africa, June 30, 2013.
South African boys covered with a blankets and smeared with chalky mud sit in a field as they undergo a traditional male circumcision ceremony into manhood in Qunu, South Africa, June 30, 2013.
Thuso Khumalo
Initiating boys into manhood is an ancient African tradition still valued and practiced by many tribes in South Africa. In some tribes, a male is never recognized as a real man if he has not participated in the formal rituals.

To undergo initiation, boys as young as 12 are compelled to stay in the mountains away from their families for about five weeks. What happens there is shrouded in secrecy and never discussed once they return.

But what is known is that hundreds of boys have died in recent years while others have lost their manhood during some of these initiation rituals.

In June and July alone, 29 initiates from various initiation schools died during the process in Mpumalanga Province. Thirty died in the country’s Eastern Cape Province while close to 300 were hospitalized as a result of botched circumcisions.

“Most of them died because of excessive bleeding," said Ronnie Masilela, spokesperson for the Department of Health on Mpumalanga Province. "After the investigation that was conducted, the preliminary report pointed out to some omissions on the part of some of the people who were conducting the schools.”

There are also concerns that the boys risk contracting HIV following reports that some surgeons use a single knife in circumcising all the initiates.

Despite the risks, South Africans seem reluctant to abandon or modify the practice.

On this August day here in the remote village of Wales in the impoverished Mpumalanga province, the entire community has gathered to welcome back 131 young men who have just completed their initiation.

Sylvester Mashego is one of them. He says participating in the rituals and respecting the rules is what is expected of him.

“I were afraid because I didn’t know what’s gonna happen to me when I get in there," Mashego said. "I was too afraid, but you see a culture is a culture...Those other things that they have done there, oh, it’s a secret. I’m not allowed to talk about it.”

In this village, there is nothing but pride over the initiation of its young men and all defend the practice, including their mothers.

Freda Mahlabini is thrilled to see her 12 year old son, Itumeleng, returning alive.

“I don’t know what can I say today," she said. "I just wanna sing and do whatever.”

The cultural custodian of the Bakoni tribe, a man named Speaker Mahlake, says the initiation is part of what glues his community together.

“They are going to celebrate," Mahlake said. "This thing is better than Christmas because it unites people, all of them they are united.”

Elliot Mahlake is a traditional surgeon who believes the initiation is key to preparing boys for the challenges of adulthood. He says there is nothing inherently dangerous in the ritual if care is taken.

He says his father taught him that the most important thing he can do is treat the initiates well and feed them. He says he had 8 people who helped him with the initiates and that no harm came to them.

The Mpumalanga Department of Health’s Masilela agrees that the initiations do not need to be risky and that is why the government is stepping up efforts to make them safer through education on the best initiation practices.

“The government of South Africa and the government of Mpumalanga will never allow people to die," he said. "So where things are done that will put people’s lives in danger, there is no way government will step back.”

Masilela adds there will be no consideration given to banning the tradition because that would infringe on the people’s constitutional rights to practice their culture.

You May Like

Islamic State Survivor: A Yazidi Girl's Tale

Sarah Said Haydar, captured a year ago while fleeing Islamic State onslaught in northern Iraq, was so traumatized by militants, she sought to end her own life More

EU, US Applaud Kosovo Law on Special Court

Joint statement says lawmakers' decision to address allegations of war crimes 'demonstrated their commitment to the rule of law and to honor international agreements' More

ASEAN Ministers to Push for S. China Sea Agreements

According to documents obtained by VOA Khmer, ministers will stand up for 'freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful maritime commerce, trade and over flight' More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Mark Lyndon
August 27, 2013 2:00 PM
Over 100 deaths a year as well as some penile amputations, and this year at least one castration. The sooner this outdated tradition dies out, the better. No-one becomes a man by having parts of their manhood cut off anyway.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Cambodia Makes Progress Curbing Bear Tradei
X
Robert Carmichael
August 04, 2015 3:07 PM
Cambodia’s wild bears are under unprecedented pressure. Their native forests are being cut down at record rates, and China's huge demand for traditional medicine has made them targets. But experts say Cambodia's conservation efforts are setting an example that has put it well ahead of its neighbors in protecting bears. Robert Carmichael reports for VOA from Phnom Penh.
Video

Video Cambodia Makes Progress Curbing Bear Trade

Cambodia’s wild bears are under unprecedented pressure. Their native forests are being cut down at record rates, and China's huge demand for traditional medicine has made them targets. But experts say Cambodia's conservation efforts are setting an example that has put it well ahead of its neighbors in protecting bears. Robert Carmichael reports for VOA from Phnom Penh.
Video

Video Growing Number of E. Jerusalem Palestinians Seek Israeli Citizenship

Most Palestinians living in East Jerusalem have long rejected the option of full Israeli citizenship, seeing it as a betrayal to their political cause - the formation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. But as that dream remains elusive, more and more Palestinians are applying for Israeli citizenship. Zlatica Hoke reports the decision is hard for many Palestinians who say they have to be pragmatic about it.
Video

Video With No Money, More Students, African Universities Struggle

Academics from around the African continent converged in Johannesburg last week for the African Universities Summit, a chance to tackle some of the major issues facing higher education in Africa today. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Community

A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Bangkok Warned It Soon Could Be Submerged

Italy's Venice and America's New Orleans are not the only cities gradually submerging. The nearly ten million residents of the Bangkok urban area now must confront warnings the city could become uninhabitable in a few decades. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from the Thai capital.
Video

Video Inclusive Gym Gets People With Disabilities in Fitness Spirit

Individuals with special needs are 58 percent more likely to be obese than the general population. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, they also have an increased likelihood of anxiety, depression and social isolation. But a sports club outside Washington wants to make a difference in these people's lives. With Carol Pearson narrating, VOA's June Soh reports.
Video

Video Wisconsin's Voter ID Law Still Mired In Controversy

Voter ID laws have sparked controversy across the US. More than 30 states enacted laws requiring citizens to show identification before they vote. Against fierce opposition, the state of Wisconsin recently enacted one the most restrictive voter ID laws in country. As Jeff Swicord reports, no one can predict its impact as the 2016 election nears.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Hailed as Highly Effective

At last, there's a way to end the suffering from the Ebola epidemic that has ravaged West Africa for more than a year. Researchers say the vaccine is so effective, there may never be a major outbreak of Ebola again. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video Special Olympics Show Competitors' Skill, Determination

Special Olympics competitions will wrap up Saturday in Los Angeles, and the closing ceremony for athletes with intellectual disabilities will be held Sunday night. In a week of competition, athletes have shown what they can do through skill and determination. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Shooter’s Grill: Serving Food with a Touch of the Second Amendment

Shooter's Grill, a restaurant in Rifle, Colorado, attracts visitors from all over the world as well as local patrons. The reason? Waitresses openly carry loaded firearms as they serve food, and customers are welcome to carry them, too. VOA's Enming Liu and Lin Yang paid a visit to Shooter's Grill, and heard different opinions about this unique establishment.
Video

Video Despite Controversy, Business Owner Continues Sale of Confederate Flags

At Cooter’s, a store in rural Sperryville, Virginia, about 120 kilometers west of Washington, D.C., Confederate flags are flying off the shelves. The red, white and blue battle flag, with 13 white stars representing the Confederate states, was carried by southern forces during the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. The South had seceded from the Union over several key issues of disagreement, including slavery. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs