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There is an urgent need to decolonise initiation schools to combat GBV, toxic masculinity and alcohol abuse


Siphokuhle Mathe works as a Communications Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. He writes this in his personal capacity as a social and political commentator. 

This would call upon amaXhosa, amaHlubi and Basotho gender experts, social workers, historians and psychologists to work alongside traditional authorities and other custodians to imagine a decolonised curriculum. This would take into account the gender crisis in post-apartheid South Africa as well as the innumerable crises that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

A variety of social formations (not tribes) in South Africa subscribe to a gender project where boys are required to attend an initiation school in order to graduate into being men. In isiXhosa this rite of passage or formalised masculinisation is called ulwaluko and boys who are usually around 18 years of age are enrolled into initiation schools at which ikhankatha (the caregiver) and ingcibi  (the surgeon) are entrusted with the midwifery duty of delivering each boy child into manhood.

While this process takes place in esuthwini (mountains and remote bushy areas), the locations themselves are multi-purpose: serving as medical wards, as spiritual centres and classrooms. The questions that new men grapple with at these gender project camps have to do with what it means to be a man individually, in the family and in society.

Most researchers of this practice have in post-apartheid largely concerned themselves with public health and HIV transmission and there have been concerted shifts to understand the construction of masculinity through ulwaluko. While the impact of such research has ensured that circumcision is undertaken through safe methods and the social science research has highlighted issues such as violent masculinity, homo-antagonism, “secrecy” and death arising from bad and sometimes illegal practice, very little of the research treats the educational aspect as worthy of scholastic attention.

The postcolonial anxiety of ensuring that African indigenous practices are not further violated is what often grips the imagination of African men from wanting to re-think what a responsive decolonial curriculum in this particular space would entail. Calls for decolonisation in South Africa’s institutions of higher learning have not yielded public debate around this precisely because the men at the forefront of these movements themselves carry a particular nostalgia over and are entangled with symbols of historic masculine dominance and privilege. The shared culpability and continued culture of unaccountability leaves them — us — unable to lean to the task with the vulnerability and focus it requires.

A decolonised initiation school curriculum would mean one that is responsive to the socio-political challenges that plague this society. If graduates of so august a practice re-enter society as reproducers of violence we must first tilt our attention to how, as a matter of coincidence, this ritual practice involved hardening black men in order to withstand their subjectivity under white masters, while balancing their existential contribution to their household as husbands as fathers. This pattern of labour, coupled with wanting to keep culture static for dominance is a powerful way of masking the shame of being emasculated by systems of oppression.

In a Covid-19 world, where job losses have led to unemployment sitting at a staggering 34.9%, where isolation has made or broken human relationships and where loss of lives has led to rising rates of depression, anxiety and suicide, a decolonised curriculum would teach men how to derive their inherent value from something beyond themselves as units of labour and assertors of power in the social settings where there is a required performance of virility.

Since most initiates enrol at initiation schools in December, particularly over the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, it is important that a decolonial syllabus engages initiates extensively about a variety of gender-based violence related social entanglements. For example, it is very important for young men to renounce the notion of “bro code” as well as other entitlements that lead to the objectification of women and attendant behaviours such as cat-calling, harassment, groping and related violent demeanours.

It is important for these young men to know that the currency of their masculinity does not appreciate in value at the instance of consuming women’s bodies for the gaze of onlooking fellow men who may cheer them on.

Turning to structural entanglements, this would-be syllabus would engage these men on histories that would allow them to see how the cultures of alcohol and substance abuse came to be. A historiographical account of the emergence of the wine industry will show that farmworkers used to be paid in wine as opposed to pecuniary means by which most labour is remunerated. Understanding the relationship with the dop system, as it is better known as, would allow African men to also understand how in our late-stage capitalist system, non-pecuniary “thank yous” remain alcoholic in nature.  The product of this has been — and still remains — widespread alcohol foetal syndrome (AFS) and alcohol addiction which is responsible for widespread violence as well as the breaking down of many family units.

Historical consciousness that this decolonial curriculum would be vying for would allow for African boys-in-transition to understand these social anomalies as deriving their orderliness from our colonial past. Cohorts of successful initiates would problematise why liquor brands spend so much money on marketing their beverages. Against this, they would be forced to imagine the alcohol marketing budgets being re-purposed to fund rehabilitation centres and other mental health and psychosocial support-related facilities.

The latest research from Afrobarometer which studied South African perceptions of GBV in the country suggests that 73% of South Africans believe GBV to have increased over the past year. The sampled respondents of the research attribute this scourge to widespread alcohol abuse (25%), unemployment (16%), poverty (9%), and traditional and cultural views (2%). It is against the backdrop of these perceptions that initiation schools have the opportunity to operate as healing social justice-sensitive hubs that dream of liberated futures.

Another question that this decolonial curriculum would engage is the idea of cultural custodianship. The imperialism of Euro-American sociological thought and ruining of indigenous knowledge (also known as epistemicide) has created anxiety among practitioners and groups of people who believe in this rite of passage. Iterations of such epistemicide include the downplaying of the spiritual and ancestral aspects of this cultural practice.

The hypermasculine expressions of gender and undisturbed histories of patriarchy often translate to a kind of resistance that is characterised by chauvinism. Worse yet, many African men do not view their violence through the wounding nature of apartheid nor do they seek to reclaim the true ubuntu that has, since the “rainbow nation” been used to pacify their insistence at racial and cultural justice.

In order to undo this wrathful existence, and thereby decolonise the soul of masculinity, would mean turning more deeply to prayer and deep meditation as a means for men to self-regulate through such practice rather than disproportionately violent outbursts. 

This act of defence also alienates or creates dissociative attitudes among those who consider themselves “progressive fundis” whose expertise could develop this practice into being fit for purpose for non-violent futures. Understandably, their dissociation derives from two socially constructed dynamics: the first being the white gaze that would have them considered as part of a “barbaric practice” and the second being that cultural chauvinists will push back saying that they either know nothing or are trying to be “clever” agents whose allegiance is to white(ned) epistemologies.

A decolonised curriculum would breed a generation of cultural custodians who would understand that the division between traditionalists and modernists is a function of the neo-coloniality that gave rise to greater tribalism which was facilitated through the establishment of Bantustans which demarcated Africans based on linguistic and cultural traditions.

Nevertheless, a decolonised initiation school would call upon amaXhosa, amaHlubi and Basotho gender experts, social workers, historians and psychologists to work alongside traditional authorities and other custodians to imagine a decolonised curriculum that would take into account the gender crisis in post-apartheid South Africa as well as the innumerable crises that have been exacerbated by the pandemic; poverty by corruption, low-growth economy by poor governance and leadership, unemployment by delayed industrialisation and so on.

The initiation school graduation ceremonies, imigidi, are a site of pride for homecoming young men, their families and the community. Like lobola, imigidi have emerged as not just sites of joy but have been eclipsed by the consumerist agenda of grand gifts and African boozy event-making.

If the state of gender affairs and the 2021 crime stats are anything to go by, it seems a majority of us have received condonation passes and have gone back into the world under-prepared to confront the toxic ways in which we navigate this society.

According to researcher Kershan Pancham, children are often performing emotional labour for their parents and this work often goes unrecognised. Inspired by Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, they trouble the idea that children are empty and therefore should have knowledge “poured” into them. What space is there at initiation schools for initiates to re-parent their elders since they will be coming from lesser violent schooling systems and better life orientation curricula around inclusivity and diversity?

A decolonial initiation school would allow alumni networks to come and be informed by young boys of how to be better men in the worlds and families they will be instrumental in raising.

Better still, a decolonised initiation school could set up sessions between young boys and their (physically present) fathers mediated by a chosen expert of their choice to speak back to the disappointments and betrayals they suffered at their parents’ hands and or through their parenting styles. Those without fathers could speak to the absence of their fathers and find an honesty about the impact of that in their lives. In the alternative sense, this could lead to young men forgiving the full extent of their fallible single mothers or that of their many aunts (there always is an under-recognised dabawo or makazi).

To intimate Walter Mignolo’s insistence, there truly ought to be a different way of knowing, sensing and being in order for any decolonial non-violent future to take root. With every howl into the wind, we can as black men reimagine everything without foregoing the ethics that should accompany such a feat. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    I am interested in the source of proof for your statement that initiation schools were a product of colonisation ?

  • Indira Govender says:

    Excellent read. Worth mentioning the role that crusaders and missionaries played in epistemicide.

  • Johannes Nel says:

    This is the most impressively written drivel I have read in a long time! Congratulations!

  • Rob Wilson says:

    This must be the result of a computer translating from another language without any subsequent editing. Convoluted nonsense.

    • Eulalie Spamer says:

      A thought-provoking article. Thank you. Certainly these rituals, so important as a threshold in young mens lives provides an opportunity to recalibrate the important and vital role of men in society and in a family context as protectors even if the role of providers is often denied them because of economic circumstances. Joblessness erodes a man’s sense of self and this, as much as colonial abuses, perpetrates the impotence of so many men to take on the role of head of the house and customary provider. Then violence becomes the means to reassert power. Blaming GBV on Colonial practices absolves men of responsibility for their abusive conduct today. It may be instructive to teach initiates about the roots of alcohol abuse and it’s social consequences but there is always the risk that blame for unacceptable behaviour can be laid at the door of generations past and thus provide into perpetuity an excuse for antisocial behaviours.

  • Josie Adler says:

    A stimulating examination of a seminal issue for South Africa, and for the modern world. In South Africa the psychological and social formation of the boy-child, of all races, is fundamental to the future of a whole and strong society. To limit the discussion to colonialism and apartheid obfuscates and avoids productive debate.

  • Just Me says:

    That would be rather that initiation schools need to be de-feudalized and brought into the 21st century.

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