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SA: Mathole Motshekga: Address by the African National Congress Chief Whip, on the tragic death of initiates, Parliament, Cape Town (29/05/2013)

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SA: Mathole Motshekga: Address by the African National Congress Chief Whip, on the tragic death of initiates, Parliament, Cape Town (29/05/2013)

29th May 2013


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It is with heavy hearts that we gather here today to focus on the loss
of innocent and courageously valuable lives of 29 young men aged 13 to
21 years old in the eastern Mpumalanga province during this year’s
circumcision ritual. Another 6 died in the northern Limpopo province. As
the ANC we share President Jacob Zuma’s and the country’s shock and
outrage at the unnecessary loss of life and believe that not only was
this avoidable but that those responsible for this tragedy, must face
the full might of the law as speedily as possible. One can only imagine
how the bereaved families must feel at having their loved ones cut down
in the prime of their lives and robbing them of their future which lay
before them.

In 2010, The Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Rights Commission
released one of its research reports, titled: Public Hearings on Male
Initiation Schools in South Africa, and reported that between 2009 and
2010, 145 boys died because of complications related to their
circumcision, and another 1,200 were hospitalized. These are alarming
statistics and despite the practice having survived many generations, we
may have to re-examine the ways in which it is carried out in this
modern age.

To understand why male circumcision is important in Xhosa and other
cultural groupings one needs to truly appreciate the reasons why the
practice of circumcision has been carried through from generation to
generation, and its impact on young men as they enter adulthood. As our
foremost icon, Nelson Mandela stated: “On Robben Island... Not all
debates were political. One issue that provoked much discussion was
circumcision. Some among us maintained that circumcision as practised by
the Xhosa and other tribes was not only an unnecessary mutilation of the
body but a reversion to the type of tribalism that the ANC was seeking
to overthrow. It was not an unreasonable argument, but the prevailing
view, with which I agreed, was that circumcision was a cultural ritual
that had not only a salutary health benefit but an important
psycho–logical effect. It was a rite that strengthened group
identification and inculcated positive values.”1

Despite being mindful of all the associated risks, the African youth
choose to undergo traditional circumcision as it is regarded as a sacred
rite of passage and also speaks to one’s family honour and standing in
our society. Given our country’s fractured past, the intolerance and
subordinate status given to African culture and its practices in
apartheid South Africa, we must be mindful to educate and sensitize
those who wish to demean the practice completely.

Whilst the deaths of initiates during these rituals and the scarring and
sub-standard medical procedures they are exposed to cannot be condoned
and must be vehemently denounced, we must also pay heed to the cultural
and spiritual significance of the act. In whichever way we proceed to
engage on this issue, let us ensure that we do so within the spirit and
letter of our progressive Constitution, which calls for respect and
tolerance of the diverse cultures and the right of individuals,
communities or groups to practise and enjoy these rights, while
observing and respecting the rights of others. More significantly, we
must acknowledge that there is still significant support for the
practice of the ritual within African communities.

Our icon, Nelson Mandela, expressed the significance of circumcision as

“In my tradition, an uncircumcised male cannot be heir to his father's
wealth, cannot marry or officiate in tribal rituals. An uncircumcised
Xhosa man is a contradiction in terms, for he is not considered a man at
all, but a boy. For the Xhosa people, circumcision represents the formal
incorporation of males into society. It is not just a surgical
procedure, but a lengthy and elaborate ritual in preparation for
manhood. As a Xhoscircumcision. ... It was a sacred time; I felt happy
and fulfilled taking part in my people's customs and ready to make the transition from
boyhood to manhood.”2

It is easy to see why Madiba felt this way and why many others who
practise this tradition believe in it so completely. This rite of
passage is not just an individual occurrence or experience. It is that
of the entire community for it guarantees the continuation and legacy of
the values, ideals, norms and mores of the community.

Madiba correctly observed that African initiation schools have both a
spiritual and cultural significance. The spiritual underpinnings of
African initiation schools were never appreciated because under
colonialism and apartheid African religion was regarded as a
superstition and suppressed. Institutions and rituals were despised and
forced underground. The transformation of African initiation schools
cannot be separated from the broad social transformation that includes
the revival, mainstreaming and harnessing of African religion for moral,
cultural, social and economic development. It is therefore necessary to
share with those that think that there is nothing called African
religion what this belief system is all about.

Madiba said that African religion is no longer a superstition that must
be replaced by other religions. When I grew up in Bolovedu, the Land of
Queen Mudjadji, I was taught that the universe and humanity were created
by the Prince of Light called Khuzwane or Kosana. And that Muhali
Muhulu, the wife of Khuzwana introduced female initiation called biale
or vyale, derived from Muali.


Thobela, the son of Khuzwane and Muhali Muhulu introduced male
initiations called Bodika and Buhwera. These gods were spiritual beings
who lived on earth in physical form after the creation of the universe
and humanity. Khuzwane left footprints on certain rocks when they were
still soft. These footprints are still there today and are symbols of

Before they ascended to heaven these gods introduced initiation schools
and laid down the rules governing them. From time immemorial, therefore,
initiation schools were governed by spiritual and cultural values.


The Balovedu and Bapedi, for instance, generally had initiation
ceremonies that comprised of two stages – a circumcision school (Bodika)
and brotherhood (Buhwera) school which completed the status change and
marketed the formation of a brotherhood or regiment. This brotherhood
has both spiritual and military aspects.

In its spiritual aspects initiation into this brotherhood, like girls
initiation, is governed by the Bird of Mohale, which symbolize the Queen
of Heaven (Mwari we Denga). The boys were circumcised in order of
precedence and then secluded in the lodge for about three months.

Here the brothers (Bahwera) were taught a number of secret formulas and
songs and instructed in the physiology of sexual relations, the dangers
of intercourse with a woman in a state of pollution and in the absolute
necessity for obedience to the political authorities. These were
accompanied by inter alia, ordeals and food taboos or abstinences to
drive the lessons home. These painful forms of discipline ended with a
military raid, or lion hunt.

The brotherhood (Bodika) was generally arranged by the King or Queen and
Councillors, who appointed a Master of Ceremonies and his deputy to
oversee the school and also as specialist circumciser (Thipane or
Incimbi) to perform the actual operation. A day was announced and boys
from all over the kingdom, accompanied by their mothers and with shaven
heads and new loincloths, flocked to the royal court.

There was a special mystery (Koma), the fire (Fura) mystery, in which
both boys and girls combined in a ritual symbolizing the importance of
political authority, which involved lightning a fire (Fura or Faro) by
drilling fire (Hu Tsika Mooto) on a floating raft of reeds or rubbing
two sticks. My surname Mutsika (Motshekga) comes from this exerciseThis
ritual also symbolized the divinity or holiness of sexual union
between man and woman. Last but not least, the boys and girls were
presented to the Queen of Heaven (Mwari we Denga or Bird of Mohale), and
then washed and annointed with red ochre to confirm the sacred or
spiritual nature of initiation.

The socio-economic challenges and resulting poverty dysfunctionality of
families, single mothers, child-headed families, incidences of HIV/AIDS
and opportunistic diseases and moral decay and cultural confusion in
some traditional communities requires a social dialogue on these
challenges and their impact on initiation schools. Such a dialogue would
educate the public and aid the transformation school systems.

It is quite clear that we need national legislation that provides for
norms and standards, pertaining to age limitations, health requirements,
participation of the mothers of initiates, prohibitions of harmful
practices in these schools and harmonization of regular and initiation
school calendars.

This transformation process could start with a Ministerial task team,
not a commission of enquiry to identify critical issues for dialogue and


In general a father would decide that the time had come to circumcise
his son and would typically arrange with other homestead heads, with
sons of about the same age, to establish An initiation lodge or school
and engage a specialist circumciser (Thipane) to perform the operation.
Permission to establish the lodge or school had to be obtained from the
King or Chief first. The initiator was termed the “Father of the Lodge”
and it was he who acted as Master of Ceremonies throughout the seclusion
period. When sons of chiefs were initiated their fathers fulfilled this
role, and it was a great honour for a boy to be a member of a lodge at
which a royal child was initiated. Such a son always took precedence
among initiates, who were otherwise regarded as equal. On the day of the
commencement of the rites the boys gathered at the home of the lodge
where a sacrifice was made of an uncastrated bull or ram, to inform the
gods and ancestors of what is taking place. Both the bull and Ram wre
symbols of God. At this ceremony the initiates were addressed by older
men on how to conduct themselves while in the lodge and exhorted to put
away all childish things. They must henceforth speak and act with the
dignity of men. As the foreskin of each initiate was cut he addressed
the circumcisor (i.e. traditional surgeon) with the words “I Am A Man”
(i.e. Ke Monna). Eliciting the response “You Are A Man” (i.e. O Monna),
a ritual formula that signaled the moment of status change. The
operation had to be endured with stoicism and cry out was a great

In general initiation rituals exhibited the tripartite structure of
rites of passage all over the world. These rites are directed towards a
change of social status. These initiation schools took place in winter
(May to August). The timing of these schools was appropriate because
they took place after the harvest when there was plenty of food and it
was cold enough to enhance the healing of wounds after the cutting of
foreskins of the initiates.

The initiates were looked after by two or three men, called “Guardians”,
who visited them daily and checked their health. The initiates kept fit
by holding of special public dances by initiates dressed in elaborate
costumes of reeds and palm leaf and vying with each other in the
galvanic abundance of their performances.

Finally, at the end of the seclusion period, there was a rite formally
marking the full integration of the initiates into adult life. Here, the
symbolism was one of purification from the taint of childhood, expressed
in the linked, but opposed, metaphors of water and fire.

At the end of their initiation period the initiates ran down to the
river where they carefully washed off the white clay of childhood, and
replaced it with the red clay of adulthood. These colors corresponded to
water and fire respectively. They then proceeded slowly back to the
lodge site, surrounded by the singing multitude, holding their hands
before their eyes in a characteristic gesture that symbolized respect to
the ancestors.

The initiates were given special sticks and exhorted to behave like men
and instructed in their new responsibilities.

Among the Balovedu, Bavenda and Bakone, for instance, the initiation
school called Brotherhood (Buhwera) was linked to a mystic being called
the Bird of Mohale in Khilovedu and Senkonkoyi among Bakone. This mystic
bird is popularly known as the Bird of God (Shiri ya Mwari). The
initiation involvement of this bird provided a dynamic linkage between
the initiation schools, ancestors and God. It is abundantly clear
therefore, that circumcision in hospitals cannot be a substitute for
initiation schools. What we need are modern health interventions in
initiation school, not the abolition of these schools.

The Secularisation and Commercialisation of Initiation Schools

Individuals who are not guided by African spiritual and cultural values
underpinning initiations of both male and females have secularised and
commercialised initiation schools with impunity. Cultural alienation has
contributed to moral decay which has extended to initiation schools.
The tragic deaths of initiates in Limpopo, Mpumalanga and Eastern Cape
have awakened us to the urgent need to transform initiation schools. To
restore the spiritual and cultural integrity of these schools we should
tap into diminished and marginalized African cultures and religions
mainstream and harness them for moral regeneration and social
development. The current approaches to moral regeneration are largely
informed by Western culture and religions which do not reach out to
traditional communities which are adherence of African culture and
religion. Some members of traditional communities practise Western
Culture and religion during the day and practise African culture and
religion during the night. This cultural confusion eloquently testifies
to the needs for social dialogue for the decolonization or emancipation
of African culture and religion in order to restore the integrity of
initiation schools, enhance moral regeneration and social development.
The desired transformation of initiation schools must be an integral
part of our national social transformation agenda. This matter needs a
social dialogue involving religious leaders and traditional leaders and
healers and traditional communities,. The success of such social
dialogue will require cultural and religious tolerance cooperation. The
discrimination against African culture and religion on the parts of some
imported religion are a cause for concern because they will hinder our
efforts to create a socially cohesive nation.

It is abundantly clear, therefore, that we are not considering the
abolition of initiation schools but the restoration of their integrity
and underlying spiritual and social values to make them safe family and
nation building institutions. Calls for the abolition come from
ill-informed social activists who have not made effort to understand
Africa, her indigenous cultures and religions which have a great
potential for building the African family communities and the nation.

The death of more than 40 youth in Mpumalanga Province is a painful wake
up call for us to embark on a holistic and national transformation of
our initiation schools. These schools cannot be allowed to become
slaughter houses. There must be national norms and standards that they
adhere to. The health challenges of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and other
opportunistic diseases facing us today did not exist in ancient time
when these schools were introduced.. Today we require stringent health
interventions, parental and community participation to safeguard the
lives of our young people.

We cannot continue to say that this is a man only affair and that safety
and health of our youth is a matter between the unscrupulous traditional
surgeons and men alone. The best interests of the young initiates atheir
constitutionally guaranteed right to life must take precedence
over cultural and religious considerations.

It is therefore necessary that society as a whole should be involved in
the transformation of these initiation schools to bring them in line
with the Constitution and to address the challenges facing modern
society. It is quite clear that we need national legislation that
provides for norms and standards, pertaining to age limitations,
participation of parents, health workers, prohibition of harmful
substances, qualification of officials of initiation schools and the
harmonization of the calendars of initiation and mainline schools.


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