Defend Truth


Becoming a man ain’t what it used to be


Xhanti Payi is a writer short of a few bestselling books and a Nobel Prize. He works as an economist, researcher and adviser to various institutions. A staunch believer in clever blacks and would-be clever blacks short of opportunity. Proper pronunciation of the click is optional.

There are similarities between the controversies around “botched circumcisions” among Xhosa youths and allegations of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church – all the more so in the light of sensitivities clouding who may or may not discuss these.

I am not a spokesman for black people in general, and I’m certainly not one for amaXhosa in particular. All the same, there I’ll be, out with friends, or eating my sandwich during lunch at work, minding my own business when someone asks, “Did you hear the news about more botched circumcisions? What do you think of initiations? Would you allow your son to take part in them?”

Given all the bad stories in the media about young boys and the Catholic Church, I’m yet to ask my Catholic friends and colleagues if they’d let their sons go to a Catholic Sunday school or be altar servers. I know I could ask, but I haven’t because, quite frankly, I don’t believe it’s the proper thing to do.

I’m not saying, as many do, that only Xhosa men should be allowed to have a view on circumcision rites or discuss the issue. If you hold that belief, stop reading now and save yourself the irritation. But, before you do, please let me know where and when the next meeting of such suitably qualified men will be held. Frankly, I suspect there are no such meetings – which goes to the heart of the problem.

How we raise and discuss sensitive cultural issues is important, especially where lives and physical hurt enter the debate. And I think it’s in this nuance that some people feel non-Xhosas should be barred from this discussion.

Luckily for me, I’m of the right breed so I may have an opinion, and here it is. And I’m extending my licence to the reader to comment below since you may not be allowed to do so elsewhere. The courtesy is extended with the request that you comment respectfully, recognising that you don’t know everything.

Twice a year, and for as long as I can remember, we hear of dozens of young men who die or are permanently scarred (mutilated is a very bad word) in the process of becoming men. News reader Noxolo Grootboom has probably run out of creative ways to present this story on the evening bulletins. It is tragic, no matter which way one looks at it. Young men die or are scarred for life during a ritual which should strengthen them for the next stage of their lives. Some have dramatised the situation, even referring to it as murder, but I’m not so inclined. 

It is true that deaths during these rites are not new nor are they exclusive to this generation, but this does not mitigate the tragedy at all. It is too easy for those who’ve undergone this rite of passage without losing his manhood to say this ancient tradition must be preserved, and everyone else must back off.  In my view, it is as easy as it is to say that poor people choose to be poor. Or for drunk drivers to insist there’s nothing wrong with driving under the influence simply because they’ve never experienced the resultant devastation.

Preserving cultures and traditions are critical – they are present, tangible links with history, and few people would argue with that. But our world has changed. Our mountains are infested with foreign organisms from pollution and other human interventions, which perhaps render our traditional medicines and treatments dangerous. We are faced with sexually transmitted diseases which boys as young as 14 can and do contract. We face broken family and community structures, which disrupt the very core of initiating a boy into manhood.

All these have made it necessary for us to look at a different way of giving meaning to our traditions and heritage.

Protestants and Jews may be excluded from the ecclesiastical processes of how Catholics will deal with alleged sexual abuses within the Roman Catholic Church. They are correct to be concerned and have every right to express their concerns, but they should not interfere. And it’s certainly no different to Afrikaners being concerned about young Xhosa men dying, and expressing such concern respectfully.


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