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The ancient custom of boys "going to the mountain" 
to become men is under threat from criminals. 
~File photo​

​TRADITIONAL male circumcision (ulwaluko) is a centuries-old traditional practice which is a rite of passage from boyhood to manhood.  Sadly, one of our oldest and most sacred customs now has been hijacked by thugs and money-grubbers. This most sacred rite of passage has been tainted by people who have no spiritual or cultural understanding and seek only to exploit young men for financial gain.

The initiation rite is a transition from one stage of life to another, that is from being a boy to man. In the Xhosa culture, there are certain behavioural expectations for each phase of life.  This rite of passage has two key elements to it: the rite itself and an intense education with regards to core values which should characterise a man. Being responsible, hard-working and honest are some of the values that would be imparted. Being a man means that you will now play an active role in the customary affairs of your family and can take responsibility for your family and your community.

Like most other African cultural customs, circumcision has its basis in creating and maintaining social unity. The ideal is to create men who are role models to society, protectors of the family, responsible adults who can give guidance to young ones. Men in our culture are supposed to take women as equals and treat them with respect. 

Circumcision was never based on monetary gain but recent years have seen it turn into an ugly mafia type business. Instead of the traditional surgeon who was trained to perform this procedure safely we now have fake traditional surgeons illegally misinforming, kidnapping, circumcising and drugging young boys in the name of making them a man.

The proper process to be followed is to make sure the boy is 18 or older, that there is consent from the parents and the would-be initiate, permits from relevant authorities and screening for STIs and TB by qualified health practitioners.

TB is contagious, especially to people who have a poor immune system. During the initiation period the initiates stay in huts which are not necessarily built with infection control in mind so it is important for initiates to have been screened for communicable diseases before going for the initiation. It is equally important that the boy be screened for STIs to avoid complications during his time at the initiation school.

But the huge number of illegal schools that have mushroomed are often run by criminals who have no traditional medical skills and who twist the message of what it is to be a “real man. These criminals teach a toxic message of what it means to be a man, in which women are seen as inferior and violence against them is acceptable. Even the abuse of parents is permitted and rapists, thieves and druggies are held up as role models of manhood.

Apart from the unhealthy messages these young men internalise, their lives are at grave risk.

Sadly we have become used to the grim statistics that this time of year produces. Once again we brace ourselves for the “circumcision season” stories in media: how many young men will die? How many will end up with their penises having to be amputated?  How many will end up drugged, brutally assaulted and ultimately and sadly dead?

This has prompted the Eastern Cape Province to develop and implement a law called the Eastern Cape Customary Male Initiation Practice Act. In these legitimate traditional schools initiates are taught their role and responsibilities by elders and traditional surgeons in society like protecting and respecting women, providing for their families and upholding the ideals of traditional Xhosa manhood. The law is aimed at restoring the sacred tradition’s dignity and respect by pursuing the wrong- doers and arresting and prosecuting them to protect our practice.

When circumcision is done legally, correctly and completely it also assists with the prevention of transmission of HIV to a certain degree.

*Malibongwe Daweti is a community coordinator for Health Systems Trust in OR Tambo district.