I went through koma (circumcision) in 1957 at the age of 10. Fifty-eight years later, I still look back at the event with fondness and pride.
We were more than 350 boys in my group and we all came back home alive. After graduation, most of our relatives teased us about our weight gain, which means we were well fed.
That’s why many in my generation are dismayed and saddened by the procession of horror stories at this time of the year in recent times relating to initiation schools.
We read in newspapers and watch on TV episodes of sadistic abuse and neglect of young boys, as well as botched operations and death. Several fatalities have already been recorded this winter, and no doubt the numbers will go up before the koma season passes.
It is not hard to understand why that happens when we hear stories of boys being jumped upon, beaten with all manner of dangerous objects and having hot porridge thrown at them.
Koma is not supposed to be this dangerous machine that churns out misery and death. It is meant to be a cultural ritual that graduates boys into manhood in a controlled and well-organised manner.
The descent of koma into this current cesspit of death and misery is a testimony to the decline of societal structures and social morality. It seems some in our society can do whatever they like for their own financial benefit without facing any consequences.
In part, it is this kind of impunity that encourages taxi people in Mamelodi to believe they can board buses and shoot at the passengers because they want to monopolise the routes. It does not matter what the commuters want or prefer.
Full kudos are due to the authorities for standing their ground this time and sending the bully-boys packing.
Fundamentally, koma is not an individualistic enterprise. It is supposed to be organised on behalf of a particular community, sanctioned by its traditional leadership and requiring the involvement of the entire community. It is a process though which the community graduates its young into the next stage of life.
All circumcised men in the community take part in koma whenever it is called, with their roles determined by their age.
Baditi (younger men) are the engine of any initiation school. They do the running around, feed and initiate the boys. It basically involves teaching the initiates respect, responsibility and endurance. Every family with an initiate assigns a young man to look after the interests of their son at the place.
If anything was to go wrong with the initiate, the assigned young man would be the first to notice and take steps to remedy the situation.
Older men in the community play a supervisory role. They keep a keen eye on the proceedings and ensure that the baditi keep to the script.
The hierarchy at the koma is generally based on age. The initiates respect the baditi and the latter respect all those older than them. It is a hierarchy that translates into the order of things in society itself.
It would be the order that would be observed for a lifetime, ensuring that older people in a society are respected by younger ones.
That’s why those males who did not go through koma do not quite fit in society. In the male hierarchy, where would they fall if they were not part of a koma cohort?
That’s why, even on Robben Island, political prisoners nicked razor blades, bandages and other medicaments to clandestinely circumcise those of their comrades who missed out on koma because of their involvement in the struggle.
We learned last week that some boys were abducted from the streets of Soweto and taken to an abandoned mining structure where they were circumcised. The boys were savagely beaten and starved. They were not being taught anything or socialised to become better members of society. They were simply being brutalised by charlatans who know next to nothing about koma.
It is clear that in this case there was neither parental consent nor community involvement. Parents were approached after the fact and money extorted out of them by the abductors. There were no baditi to take care of the initiates and no older men from the community to supervise the proceedings.
My most intimate experience of koma was in the Tzaneen area; I know it is similar in other parts of Limpopo. Variations in other parts of the country are not too different from this in essence and intent.
It is clear that ruthless chance-takers defile this traditional ritual and are killing and maiming our youth. They need to be dealt with firmly by a combination of communities and the state.
Mosibudi Mangena is a former Cabinet minister and president of the Azanian People’s Organisation