The figures of young boys dying at initiation schools are shocking. The death toll, as at July 11, was 42, in just three weeks. According to reports, this is nearly double last year’s figure of 26.
South Africa is now 18 years into democracy but the shame of young boys dying in Eastern Cape initiation schools continues unabated. Why do we, as a caring, compassionate, democratic society, look the other way? Why do we allow certain cultural practices to rob young people of their future? We are reminded of the work of gender activist and author Dr Gary Barker, whose comments in his book Dying to be Men describes the debilitating association of notions of manhood, issues of violence and HIV – that some young people will die for in their quest to become so-called “proper” or “real” men.
What it means to be a “proper” man and the fact that it has been reduced to the practice of circumcision is detrimental not only to the young men who go through the process but to society as a whole. A society where manhood is ascribed only to individuals who have gone to initiation school is one that does not value men as whole beings with other aspects to their humanity. However, this does not affirm the notion that you can still be a man without being subjected to inhumane treatment.
Too often, not enough attention is paid when people’s rights are trampled on with impunity. What message does the silence send to these young men who are expected to go through this route without any guarantee that they will come back alive?
It is our view that any other traditional law is subjected to our supreme law, the Constitution.
There are those who would argue that constitutional protection of culture gives them carte blanche to engage in practices that are not only harmful but may, in fact, lead to death. This is not so. Cultural and religious practices are protected to the extent that they are consistent with other rights in the Constitution (sections 15(3)(b) and 31(2)).
We are concerned that there is not a universal outcry from all of us to these statistics.
We wonder if this silence is a result of us fearing to be labelled as “Eurocentric” or “sell-outs” out there to please the white master.
The Children’s Act prohibits the circumcision of young men and joins a number of other provincial acts that regulate male circumcision in Free State, Limpopo and Eastern Cape. Parents themselves are under an obligation to consent to the circumcision before it occurs.
There is a need for active citizenry in if we are to stop practices that not only harm but endanger people’s lives.
We must hold our government to account and using the law to do so is our constitutional mandate. Doing otherwise would be betraying those who died for us to have those freedoms.