Initiation Bill trips over Contralesa

The Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa) has denounced Parliament’s committee holding public hearings on the Customary Initiation Bill, claiming the process is happening without consultation, which makes a mockery of African customs.

By the end of last month at least 21 people had died this year at customary initiation schools, and 19 of those deaths took place in the Eastern Cape. The Bill is meant to increase safety and accountability at the schools by introducing accredited doctors and an oversight committee selected by the department of co-operative governance and traditional affairs.

“We are unashamedly saying [that], if Parliament continues to pass this Bill without consulting us, we are never going to respect this Bill. We will never implement or enforce it,” Contralesa president Lameck Mokoena told the Mail & Guardian. “We are so disappointed by how they decided to undermine and sideline the traditional institutions.”

In Mpumalanga last week, Contralesa members stopped the hearings from taking place in KwaMhlanga because amaNdebele King Makhosonke Mabena and local chiefs were not consulted, the parliamentary contingent included women, and the MPs were apparently not circumcised.

“We said, ‘go back to Cape Town and, when you have sobered up, you can consult the king and Contralesa’,” Mokoena said.

“Our decision was to first consult the people throughout the country, then come to the traditional leaders,” said the committee’s chairperson, Richard Mdakane. “But everyone must respect the culture and customs of every South African. There is no superior or inferior human being because of circumcision. Respect should be across the board.”

The committee held public hearings around the country last week and was to have meet traditional leaders in Parliament on Wednesday.

The meeting was postponed to allow the committee to try to quell the tension between Parliament and Contralesa, Mdakane said. “If they want us to go to one province and meet with them, we will go there. They are playing a critical role in the overall system of governance.”

The public hearings are the last hurdle to tabling the Bill in Parliament where MPs are expected to adopt it. The reforms include an allocation of about R20-million to doctors to perform male medical circumcisions and an oversight committee to visit initiation schools. But Contralesa had serious reservations about the government’s plans to regulate customary initiation.

“According to this Bill, women will sit in the committee to monitor what’s happening. Can you imagine that? To us Africans, this is an insult,” Mokoena said.

Mdakane rejected Mokoena’s outrage. He said women had made some of the most poignant contributions at the hearings and revealed how the custom had been turned into a “money-making” scheme.

“The women were very vocal about how this important custom has been turned into a money-making scheme and saying there should be emphasis on what type of education is passed down at the initiation schools. The women were raising the issue of culture always changing,” he said.

He warned that traditional leaders risked becoming irrelevant if they didn’t accept that South Africa is rapidly urbanising.

“Many people who were part of the hearings love their culture and their customs. But amakhosi needs to accept that this is an urbanising country. It will be difficult for amakhosi to survive if they don’t change. They must earn respect; they can’t decree it.”

But Mokoena hit back, warning that the ANC was placing its electoral support on the line.

“If this Parliament is power-drunk, they should go ahead. We said, if you continue to undermine us like this, we are going to respond in 2019 and you will feel the might of the traditional authority in South Africa.”

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Govan Whittles

Govan Whittles is a general news and political multimedia journalist at the Mail & Guardian. Born in King William's Town in the Eastern Cape, he cut his teeth as a radio journalist at Primedia Broadcasting. He produced two documentaries and one short film for the Walter Sisulu University, and enjoys writing about grassroots issues, national politics, identity, heritage and hip-hop culture.

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