AmaXhosa of Matatiele say yes to ‘safe’ initiation

Each year sees young men dying in the Eastern Cape during their initiation ceremony, but recent success stories from Matatiele village show this doesn’t have to be the case. During the past season, it was reported that 47 young men died during the recent November/December ulwaluko ritual of initiation from boyhood to manhood. These deaths are almost exclusively among amaXhosa people of the province. 

Each year these deaths are met with outrage from the public, traditional leaders and government. Year after year, when this sad news comes out, the sadness and outrage from the relevant stakeholders is followed by several common catchphrases that go like this: “This is unacceptable,” “This should never happen again,” and “Something must be done to stop this immediately.” 

For all the stakeholders, the concern about these deaths of initiates is believable. For some of the stakeholders, particularly amaXhosa people of the Eastern Cape, this news shakes and threatens the very foundation of ulwaluko, which is seen as a sacred rite that is fundamental to the social life of males within the culture. For others who are leaders or hold public office, the publicity of these deaths is a source of embarrassment.

It must be mentioned that these deaths are just one of several challenges faced by the initiates in the province. According to the Eastern Cape government’s statistics, large numbers of initiates are hospitalised each year, while others suffer permanent damage to their genitals. 

Less reported, perhaps due to the difficulty of tracking these cases, are thousands of former initiates who currently live with psychological trauma due to physical and emotional scars that they suffered when ulwaluko went wrong for them. It is important to note that the crisis of deaths is concentrated in some regions of the province, but it does not necessarily mean there are no related challenges in regions where deaths are not recorded.

The continuing crisis in ulwaluko is not because of inaction by key stakeholders. For example, two pieces of Eastern Cape provincial legislation – the Application of Health Standards in Traditional Circumcision Act and the Eastern Cape Customary Male Initiation Practice Act – along with the national Customary Initiation Act have been enacted to legislate who can undergo the ritual, how and by whom, as a way to make it safer. 

Funding of monitoring teams during initiation seasons, among other things, has also been routine. The Commission for the Promotion and Rights of Cultural Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL Rights Commission), working with the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) and the National House of Traditional Leaders (NHTL) held public hearings on ulwaluko in 2016, to get a better understanding of the challenges that threaten the institution and to seek possible solutions. The CRL Rights Commission released the findings of those hearings in a report published in 2017. But, here we are in 2022 lamenting another deadly season, more than two decades since the crisis became more visible to the public.

What then is left to do to mitigate this crisis of initiate deaths? I argue that there is a need for all of us to understand the moment in history, set aside differences and re-evaluate our strong positions on ulwaluko so that we save both the young amaXhosa initiates as well as the essence of the ritual itself. These calls have been made before, but anger, controversy and threats often follow. Perhaps it is time to look for, and follow successes within the province, particularly among amaXhosa.

The pride of amaXhosa initiation in Matatiele

In December 2021 the village of Khoapa in Matatiele, Alfred Nzo District, was buzzing with activity, as it celebrated the return of 59 new men from one initiation school, who had spent weeks in the hills to undergo ulwaluko. In total, amaXhosa of Matatiele welcomed home 522 initiation graduates for the December 2021 season. These initiation graduates did not only come from Matatiele. They came from afar, including other regions in the Eastern Cape Province, as well as other provinces. 

I was told that upon hearing about the safety and the superb integration of amaXhosa cultural aspects and safer western approaches to ulwaluko in Matatiele, the parents and guardians of these young men had crossed many rivers to bring their sons to this initiation. The beautiful, and well-resourced, festivities of the 59 initiation graduates from Khoapa lasted several days, as the group celebration was hosted by one family after another. 

Presiding over the whole process of umgidi (the coming out ceremony) was a group of men elected to deal with all things related to initiation. These are influential people in Matatiele, including the chief, employees of the Eastern Cape department of education, such as school principals, deputy school principals and teachers; radio presenters, pastors, business owners, former government officials and so forth. 

Judging by the orderly conduct of the celebrations, this committee took its work seriously and it commanded respect within the community. The coordination visible on this day, I was told, begins when the community decides when their sons go to the bush. It needs to be emphasised that despite having relatively educated and well-off men on the initiation committee, the ulwaluko matters among amaXhosa of Matatiele is driven and supported by men from all walks of life. This is why during the graduation of initiates the mountain sides in the area were covered by an almost equal mixture of people on horseback, in cars or on foot. There is comfortable class integration on ulwaluko matters here.

I interviewed the committee to get a sense of their activities during ulwaluko and to understand why Matatiele has a growing reputation for the success of its ulwaluko ceremonies. The committee quickly cautioned that, since Matatiele is inhabited by amaXhosa, amaHlubi and abeSuthu (Sotho), they want the province and the country to know that there are amaXhosa from the Eastern Cape who are not facing deaths, hospitalisations or penile amputations of their initiates. This, they said, is because as a community they had collectively decided to implement what they believe is a healthy balance in the ritual. 

Chief T Tyhali, supported by other members of the committee said, “We are very proud that we follow the initiation process strictly, but have made necessary adjustments to protect our children. We have done away with undalashe (old way).” 

Over the last two decades or so, the committee and the community have fully embraced integration of cultural aspects of ulwaluko with western methods that prioritise health and safety of the initiates. This approach is in-line with the recommendations of the Application of Health Standards in Traditional Circumcision Act, and other subsequent legislation already mentioned. The acts require exceptional care in what surgical instrument is used to circumcise, as well as determining who treats the wound and how. All of these measures prioritise high health and safety standards.

AmaXhosa of Matatiele as a community, working with the late Dr Peter Lulama Hene, already decided in 1987 to incorporate safer and healthier initiation practices. 

“It was not easy back then, as some people were reluctant to ditch undalashe”, said one of the men. 

Today, all the initiates in this community, year after year, are circumcised by appropriate and culturally approved clinician men, who believe in and implement health and safety practices alongside amaXhosa culture. 

One of the committee members put it this way “There is no controversy here, because 100% of the community is on board. Our sons know nothing else but the current way we are doing things. This is a local community decision and initiative that is not forced by outside pressure.” 

Chief Tyhali added “We do not believe that undalashe defines the custom of ulwaluko. We adhere to the custom very closely, but we have done away with the old ways of ulwaluko that harm our children. If undalashe was not harming our children, we would still be practising it unchanged.”

Indeed, during the time I spent in Matatiele during the summer season of 2021 it became clear that there is strict adherence to the essence of ulwaluko, including having prospective initiates spend three weeks before the ritual abstaining from certain things, including alcohol and sex. They still practise other traditions that, while they may differ from family to family, are seen as prerequisites for ulwaluko, including umqabo and umngcamo. 

There are several other things the community does to fulfil the ritual. Women and girls are forbidden from encountering initiates while they are in the bush, while senior men spend day and night with the initiates to protect them and to alert relevant people if there are complications. Water is never forbidden at any stage and initiates on medical treatment are allowed to continue it freely. The initiates’ food is relatively nutritious and only authorised men are allowed to visit. The wound is only ever tended to by a designated senior male clinician and should any unauthorised person disturb the peace of the initiates, they face a community disciplinary hearing.

So proud are the community members of their approach that they are keen to have their story publicised, and are ready to welcome relevant people who want to learn more about why they are doing things the way they do. Additionally, as people who feel their approach to the ritual is less known than that of the Sotho people in the area, they argue that they do not get much assistance from the government and other stakeholders. This is why they challenge politicians, government officials, NGOs and others to come and visit them and see for themselves. They believe these visits could allow for the duplication of their model throughout the province.

While we must acknowledge the lack of consensus in the Eastern Cape on what aspects of ulwaluko can and should change, it is important to know about the success experienced by amaXhosa of Matatiele. This is because there is currently no controversy about the embrace of safe and healthy medical approaches to ulwaluko in this community. But as the community points out, this change was not overnight and there were people who were slow to see the benefits of ditching the old ways. 

The community is proud of their quest to save their children. They believe it would be wrong for outsiders to judge them for their decision. As one man put it, the irony is that “Elsewhere, people are doing circumcision without initiation. Here we do initiation and strictly adhere to it, with teachings and discipline. The surgery is just part of a bigger, respectable process.” 

The least we can do as we look for solutions to the crisis of deaths and hospitalizations. We must be willing to learn and change if necessary. A key take-home point is that the case of amaXhosa of Matatiele shows us that solutions to the crisis of deaths in ulwaluko have better chances of success when they are generated and embraced locally, rather than solutions that are imposed from elsewhere. 

Throughout my research for this article, local people kept emphasising that ulwaluko belongs to the families and the community. They believe that if this point is understood, then families and local communities should shoulder the blame when things go badly, but they should also take credit when things go well. That said, these local initiatives are always in need of recognition and support from outsiders, particularly with resources and logistics that improve the successes of their local initiatives.

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Ayanda Nqeketo
Ayanda Nqeketo is a medical anthropologist and director of the Ikamva Lesizwe Institute. He has many years of experience working in the space of ulwaluko in the Eastern Cape and beyond.

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