Men are at loggerheads over the indefinite suspension of the cultural initiation into manhood for the summer season as a means to control the resurgence of Covid-19, while the number of confirmed cases continues to rise, especially in the Eastern Cape.
The suspension announcement was made by co-operative governance and traditional affairs (Cogta) deputy minister Oben Bapela, indicating the cultural practice remained officially suspended to mitigate the exposure and contraction of the coronavirus, on Sunday.
Bapela said the decision was made in consensus with all stakeholders involved so that lives may be saved and the spread of the virus contained.
“The imposed nationwide suspension of initiation is an unprecedented development as this important cultural practice can only be suspended or cancelled in the event of the passing-on of a king in that particular kingdom.
“Therefore, in recognition of what customs dictate, this important decision to temporarily suspend initiation was not taken lightly as consideration was given to the risks associated with coronavirus which unfortunately still pose a great threat to human life.”
However, men are divided as to whether or not the customary practice should be allowed to continue this season, sparking heated debates among Xhosa men who have gone through the right of passage.
Embo Madoda Initiation School and Health Issues founder based in Machibini, Sithembele Yamaphi, said the decision by government could lead to the commission of mass suicides by young boys who had hoped to undergo the practice after it was postponed for the winter season.
“It does not make sense that government would allow drinking spots to operate, where people do not wear masks and observe social distancing, but refuse for a cultural practice to be carried out. They are trying to rid us of our culture systemically by doing this and we refuse to allow that to happen. Government needs to consult everyone involved, including parents and the boys, so we may all find ways to practise our culture safely to avoid spreading the virus and death. I see this as a way of government pushing initiation to be done medically and we will not have that. Is it because there is no economic gain from our practice that they will not allow it, is it a question of government not trusting us men to do what we have been doing all our lives?” asked an enraged Yamaphi.
Sethu Fadane who hails from Ngcobo said she was having sleepless nights, worrying that her son may commit suicide following the pronouncement to also suspend initiation this season.
“He is in matric and has been awarded a scholarship to study in Cuba next year. We all thought he would have undergone initiation before he left the country in January. He will stay there for four years until he graduates, which is this is such a headache. He is so frustrated and did not believe me when I told him about the suspension. I am worried about his wellbeing because he is very disappointed in me. I spoke to him about the alternative which is to go the medical route but he refused – understandably – because he would not be seen as a man by his peers. I know the youth of today go through a lot and that is why I worry that he may want to take his life over this,” said Fadane.
She said she was disappointed in government for prioritising the sale of alcohol over a cultural practice that harks back to their forefathers.
Komani local Vuyisani Hans said he understood that boys looked forward to ulwaluko but had nothing to lose and had their lives to gain from being safe from the virus.
“The practice of ulwaluko does not have an expiry date and the requisite 18 years of age for participation is for legal reasons, but is not mandatory. Surely the boys can wait a little longer. The ideal situation to lift the suspension would be when a vaccine has been made available to would-be initiates. However, I also understand that might take a long time while in the meantime things need to return to some form of normality. Things will eventually settle and we will find a workable solution for initiation, but we cannot take children to the mountain while there is a resurgence in infection and death – that would be reckless.”
Traditional leader chief Aaron Feni said he was totally against the suspension of ulwaluko and that government needed to allow the people to choose for themselves as stipulated in the bill of rights.
“Government is in contravention of the bill of rights which provides for people not to be denied the right to enjoy their culture, practise religion and use their language. We did not get our tradition from government, but it decided to involve itself. This is a blatant attempt to destroy our tradition, culture and customs because we were not even consulted in this decision. If the country is against initiation that was endorsed by God himself, then it means we are against God himself.”
Ntabethemba resident Dan Plaatjie condemned the practice of illegal initiation, stating other men were behind it and they placed the lives of young boys at risk.