Usable traditions: The queering of Xhosa men’s initiation
The film Inxeba: The Wound — South Africa’s official entry for next year’s Oscar awards — has captured the imaginations of South African and international audiences.
In a July 2017 edition of the Mail & Guardian, Niza Jay wrote of the necessity of the film in confronting what it means to be a Xhosa man. Niza argued that markers of Xhosa manhood “do the violent work of endowing the Xhosa male body with an erroneously heightened sense of significance” that perpetuates patriarchal, heterosexist ideals.
In this way, according to Jay, Xhosa initiation renders some bodies “placeless”. These bodies, Jay argues, include those of “feminine”-presenting men who engage “physically and emotionally with other men on a romantic level”, thus defying all that the Xhosa culture dictates.
I would like to complicate prevailing discourses, such as Jay’s, about the experiences of queer and non-heterosexual-identifying Xhosa men with initiation. My aim is not to downplay the violent experiences “feminine” bodies have had with Xhosa cultural practices.
Rather, I want to draw specifically on Xavier Livermon’s concept of “usable traditions” to call for a more complicated discussion of the experiences of queer black Xhosa men with tradition, especially initiation.
In recent years, a growing body of research has looked at how gay Xhosa men experience aspects of cultural and religious life.
Sociologist Thoko Sipungu examines at the experiences of gay Xhosa men in the Methodist church. Anathi Ntozini and Hlonelwa Ngqangweni look at how gay Xhosa men experience traditional initiation.
Ntozini and Ngqangweni argue that initiation does not accommodate gay men. In their work, gay men share negative experiences of having to downplay their sexual identity and having to deal with expectations that initiation will “fix” them. Indeed, this affirms Jay in that it would appear that gay initiates could be considered “as vulnerable men who take up the subjugated position of masculinity”.
Yet Livermon’s work complicates Jay, Ntozini and Ngqangweni’s experiences as symbolic of all queer men’s experiences with tradition. Livermon shows that in various ways black South African queers do use “tradition” — despite prevailing heteropatriarchy — to make “claims to sexual autonomy” by “redefining what constitutes African culture”.
In so doing, black queers show tradition as “constantly in process” and accommodating of difference.
Yet the main discourses on Xhosa male initiation have presented a homogenised narrative that erases how black Xhosa queers variously choose to use tradition and customs.
Seeing black queers as being without agency in how they engage cultural practices ignores the ways in which they might find belonging through customs and tradition.
Livermon uses the case of now late gospel megastar Lundi Tyamara —who shocked South Africa when he came back from initiation and said that the experience gave him the courage to come out — to show the different ways in which black queers use “tradition” to assert queerness.
Although this did not sit well with traditionalists, Livermon argues that “the insertion of individuals such as Tyamara into traditional practices such as circumcision requires a rethinking of gendered binaries and exclusions based on sexuality”.
Thus Tyamara, despite occupying a position of queer subjectivity, undergoing and using tradition to claim a queer sexuality forces a rethinking of the conferring of manhood on bodies despite a queer sexual identity.
Livermon’s analysis notes various instances when his interlocutors talked of the need to do things “the right way” in accordance with tradition. In doing so, black queers revisit customary practices to “suit their needs” by melding queerness and tradition to gain acceptance and visibility in their cultural contexts.
By creating “usable traditions”, black queers combine African cultural traditions with queerness and show, according to Livermon, “how customary cultural practices can retain their importance and salience through reconceptualisation and the importance of black queer bodies in testing and pushing the limits of black cultural subjectivity”.
Narrow portrayals of Xhosa cultural practices erase the ways in which Xhosa queers engage tradition in agential ways that reflect the complexities of working with traditions and customs in a queer body.
Initiation can thus be a “space of reconstitution” and reinvention, in the words of Livermon, where black queers can experience “custom and culture to be in a state of being rather than an already accomplished fact”.
Shaka Sisulu, in Writing What We Like: A New Generation Speaks, edited by Yolisa Qunta, remembers that initiation is more than just about circumcision. Sisulu remembers coming back from initiation and it being emphasised that, as amakrwala, young men, there was a duty culturally to invest not just in themselves and their families but in the larger community and not to live as “islands”.
Although undeniably there are urgent issues that need to be addressed pertaining to traditional initiation, ultimately to address these fully we need more complex conversations about tradition.
An outlook that allows to understand why there is beauty in initiation for a lot of young Xhosa men regardless of sexual identity is needed but scant. This limits our ability to understand more complexly why some young men do not find beauty, healing and redemption in the ritual whereas others do.
To get to these narratives, we need to move beyond the binary understandings of black Xhosa queer experience of initiation.
At a public dialogue hosted by the political and international studies department at the University Currently Known as Rhodes early this year, an audience member remarked how important going to initiation was for him. In isolation, he was able to think “unbothered”.
Black feminist scholars, such as bell hooks, have argued that often black men only come into consciousness in prison, where they are able to think largely unbothered. Certainly we know that this was the case for many black leaders such as Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela.
Initiation can offer a space for young men to reflect and repair across sexual identity. As Livermon argues, it is important to move away from “oppressive normative discourse[s] of exclusion” and look at how black Xhosa queers might find beauty and redemption in their traditions and customs.
Gcobani Qambela teaches in the department of anthropology at the University Currently Known as Rhodes, where he is completing a doctoral dissertation on Xhosa boyhood and masculinities