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Crass materialism a worrying, foreign phenomenon threatening our age-old custom of male initiation

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Vusumzi Vusie Mba is a researcher for the Eastern Cape House of Traditional Leaders. Mfundo Ngele is a former Chairperson of Ginsberg Youth Council and the current Deputy Director of Operations based at the Eastern Cape House of Traditional Leaders. They write in their personal capacities.

This new phenomenon is a result of the emergence of the black bourgeoisie and has, to a certain extent over the years, compromised some of the values that underpin customary male initiation.

When lockdown was introduced in March 2020 due to the global health pandemic, it never dawned on the Eastern Cape’s people that by exposing the inequalities of their society, it would also present an opportunity for unwanted flamboyance and crass materialism to sneak in and take over their prized cultural activity of customary initiation.

There is no better time than now for us to reflect on where we are and are going as people who prize the customary initiation, especially after the previous initiation summer season period. Reflection will help us in critically and introspectively examining where we are positioned. Perhaps Africans have forgotten where they come from and what distinguishes them from others in this diverse society that is dubbed a “rainbow nation”?

Customary male initiation practices were suspended along with other economic, social, political, religious and cultural activities in 2020, which forced many families to postpone the participation of their children in the cultural rite of passage to manhood.

As a result, when the customary male initiation practice was reopened in 2021, the summer initiation season saw the number of boys who underwent initiation increase to over 50,000. While most made it through the rite of passage, some did not, owing to a plethora of reasons which we shall not delve into in this article. We send our deepest condolences to the families of those who didn’t make it. As Che Guevara put it: “The life of a single human being is worth more than all the property of the richest man on earth.”

As we celebrated the return of initiates, we also witnessed a worrying and foreign phenomenon that threatens our age-old custom of customary male initiation.

This new phenomenon of crass materialism is a result of the emergence of the black bourgeoisie and has to a certain extent over the years compromised some of the values that underpin customary male initiation. This is a deadly cause of the unjust class differentiation among the mainly township and rural people. We read with keen interest newspaper headlines about a Mthatha businesswoman who splashed over a million rands celebrating the return of her son from the initiation school. Of course, she was not the only one who displayed such opulence.

We must say that the 2021 Iimigidi celebrations will be fondly remembered for the glitz and glamour, with designer traditional outfits worn by attendees which was a wonderful spectacle — others erected framed tents with round tables, Tiffany chairs with a touch of expensive decorations, and one would swear they were attending a wedding.

While these events were happening, some took to social media to register their excitement while others expressed their disdain. Those who expressed disdain included the ordinary folk and the black middle class in general and advanced an argument that this new trend has an element of distorting and undermining our customary practice and the teachings that it seeks to inculcate.

Some argued that the economic inclusion of women has had an impact on the evolution of society at a cultural level. This has had an impact on the culture which is seen by many as patriarchal. As a result, women’s economic empowerment has translated into social power which has been used to challenge men’s traditional cultural roles.

Although we may mean well, results of gender struggles and women empowerment may have unwarranted consequences as illustrated in this case. For example, added to absent fathers, men who are present are isolated in decision-making processes due to their inferior economic statuses.

Equally, we have witnessed men who are economically superior promoting this foreign phenomenon by showcasing their financial muscle to the detriment of our culture. This behaviour has nothing to do with ikrwala other than parents satisfying their egos and trying to prove a point to society.

We have witnessed the glorification and consumption of expensive alcohol during these events which remind us of Mqhayi when he said “hayi kodwa iBhrithan’ enkulu yeza nebhotile ne bhayibhile” (despite your claim to greatness, Great Britain, you came with a liquor bottle in the one hand and a Bible in the other…).

To the Xhosa nation, male initiation is about teaching and learning which is about transforming a boy child into a fully-fledged man, a process that transforms one from nothing to something. These days the emphasis is no longer about the former and latter but about opulence and crass materialism, which is problematic to the moral and ethical values that are espoused by customary male initiation.

We must applaud the rich and affluent black men for being true and honest to their traditions and refusing to be captured by this mushrooming phenomenon. We must also applaud the same calibre of black middle-class women who have, despite their powerful socioeconomic standing, remained humble and respectful of the cultural role that men occupy and more importantly remain rooted in their cultural heritage which is under siege.

Perhaps there is a need for a serious public discourse on how modernity and Western civilisation have captured our culture and how we have been consumed by a capitalist system to such an extent that we undermine anything that is African, and black in particular, and embrace whiteness.

Maybe, we are experiencing these problems because we have forgotten who we are and what distinguishes us from the rest. Perhaps we have got carried away by the development of the capitalist system — the danger with this is that the base structure will succumb to the influence of the superstructure thus destroying our identity and the foundation upon which our age-old custom of ulwaluko is anchored.

We are reminded of Tiyo Soga in the first edition of the newspaper Indaba in 1862 when he argued for the protection and maintenance of our identity as Africans, and said:

“Izenzo zohlanga zingaphezu kweenkomo nemali, nokudla- Besingenazizwe na kudala? Iphi na imbali yazo- yamasiko azo amabi namahle?  Besingenankosi na kudala? Bekungekho zidumileyo? Amavo ezo Nkosi zohlanga aphi na?” (The deeds of the nation are worth more than our cattle herds, money and even food… Did we not form nations in the past? What happened to their customs whether good or bad? Did we not have prominent traditional leaders? Where is their wisdom?). DM

   

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  • “While most made it through the rite of passage, some did not, owing to a plethora of reasons which we shall not delve into in this article. We send our deepest condolences to the families of those who didn’t make it.”
    and then…
    “We must say that the 2021 Iimigidi celebrations will be fondly remembered for the glitz and glamour, with designer traditional outfits worn by attendees which was a wonderful spectacle”

    I can’t believe that in this day and age that the authors gloss over the death of initiates so glibly. Does wealth play a role in surviving initiation?

  • Reference to the capitalist system as an underlying cause is simply using this as a scapegoat.
    What you are witnessing is a simple lack of a decent value system and loss of respectful traditional culture. In many cases it is likely that there is easy come easy go money at play here.

  • What a blatant show of toxic masculinity praising a tradition where young men’s lives are lost and denouncing the the success of females in the business world. This is a sick outlook which is the root of all the gender based violence and abuse of women and children including these young men sent to the bush to end up dying from a infected and botched circumcision. The show of wealth and the glitz and glamour demonstrates a society that has lost any core values and believes the display of wealth somehow gives them prestige and respect. A cat sitting on a Persian Carpet is still just a cat on a mat ! You a taking an outdated tradition and adding 21st century artificial materialistic “show’ to it and young men are still dying… Shame on the whole debacle. Oh – by the way , where are the real men mentoring these young men ?! Get your house in order.

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