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

Could Nemtsov Threaten Putin in Death as in Life?

Dynamic and debonair opposition leader had supported liberal economic reforms, criticized Russian president's aggression in Ukraine More

Oil Smuggling Highlights Challenges in Shutting Down IS Finances

Pentagon spokesman says Islamic State 'certainly continues to get revenue from the oil industry black market' but that airstrikes have made a dent More

India Focuses on Infrastructure, Investment to Propel Economy

Government expects economy to grow at 8 to 8.5 percent in next fiscal year 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.
US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Casei
X
Katherine Gypson
February 25, 2015 11:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Hurt Nascent Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Industry

Falling oil prices are helping consumers purchase cheaper petroleum at the pump. But that’s made hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” less economically viable for the companies in the United States invested in the process. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on one Midwestern town that was hoping to change its fortunes by cashing in on the next big U.S. oil boom.
Video

Video Fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan Fuels Mass Displacement

Heavy fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan state is causing hundreds of thousands to flee into uncertain conditions. Local aid organizations estimate as many as 400,000 civilians have been internally displaced since the conflict began more than three years ago, while another 250,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in South Sudan. VOA's Adam Bailes reports.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.
Video

Video A Filmmaker Discovers Her Biracial Identity in "Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in a town in upstate New York where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well. Her recent documentary, Little White Lie, tells the story of how she uncovered the secret of her true racial background. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on the film.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video US-Cuba Normalization Talks Resume Friday

Negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume Friday. On the table: lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking and travel restrictions. There's opposition in Congress, but some analysts say there may be sufficient political and economic incentives in both nations for a potential breakthrough this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Video

Video Pakistan's Deadline For SIM Registration Has Cellphone Users Scrambling

Pakistani cell phone users have until midnight Thursday to register their SIM cards, or their service will be cut off. While some privacy experts worry about government intrusion, many Pakistanis are just worried about keeping their phone lines open. VOA Deewa reporter Arshad Muhmand has more from Peshawar.
Video

Video Myanmar Warns Factory Workers to End Strikes

Outside Myanmar's main city Yangon, thousands of workers walked off their jobs earlier this month demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year and input from labor unions on industrial regulations. Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides. VOA correspondent Steve Herman visited industrial zones which have become a focus of Myanmar's fledgling workers rights movement.
Video

Video Oscar Winners Do More Than Thank the Academy

The Academy Awards presentation is Hollywood’s night to reward the best movies from the previous year. It’s typically a lot of glitter, a lot of thank you’s, a lot of speeches. But many of this year’s speeches carried messages beyond the thank you's. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More