People and Power - Al Jazeera.com, January 3, 2013
"A week before Christmas, amid increasing anxiety about the state of Nelson Mandela's health, the international media assembled in Pretoria, South Africa and began asking questions about the iconic former leader's future wellbeing. Would he ever leave hospital? Would he live to see another year? For domestic South African journalists, however, the story had another angle. In Mandela's Eastern Cape homeland, the breaking story was that his illness meant he would almost certainly miss his grandson's initiation ceremony back home in Qunu. Mandela, like many powerful political figures in South Africa, is a Xhosa. For Xhosa boys, their ceremonial transition to manhood -- a process known as Ukwaluka -- includes traditional circumcision. It is a time honoured ritual woven deep into the fabric of their society. Mandela recalled his own three months at initiation school in 1934 in his memoir A Long Walk To Freedom. 'An uncircumcised Xhosa man is a contradiction in terms,' he wrote, 'for he is not considered a man at all, but a boy. A boy will cry, but a man conceals his pain.' [n.b. Mandela's account is included in my Men of the Global South anthology.] Today's rites of passage ceremonials tend to last for three weeks rather than three months, but the core elements remain the same -- and so do the risks.
Circumcision is carried out in a manner which has changed little in the 80 years since young Nelson cried 'Ndiyindoda! I Am A Man!' Without access to anaesthetic, painkillers, or even antibiotics, boys' foreskins are cut by traditional surgeons. The more enlightened perform the operation with sterile surgical blades. But old habits die hard, and penknives or traditional daggers are still often used. In recent years, South Africans have grown increasingly accustomed to reading about initiation gone tragically wrong. In 2001, the government passed the Traditional Circumcision Act in an attempt to prevent more death and dismemberment. Since then, more than 500 boys are known to have died in the Eastern Cape alone. Last month, December 2012, at least 15 boys died, and 64 were hospitalised. Most deaths occur as a result of septicaemia which could be treated with access to basic drugs, such as penicillin. Speaking out against a practice that is woven into the fabric of Xhosa society is not easy, but it seems that a tipping point may have been reached. Doctors such as Mamisa Nxiweni are growing increasingly vocal, blaming bogus surgeons, and a rise in commercialism with families paying up to 300 Rands (about $40) for a service which used to be performed freely, in exchange for some labour while the boys were at the school. As Dr. Nixiweni told People & Power filmmaker Mayenzeke Baza: 'Surgeons forget about the boys' wellbeing and just concentrate on how much money they will make.' [...]"