When upholding tradition becomes idolatry

News that as many as 18 Xhosa initiates, who are going through this summer season’s traditional rite of passage in the Eastern Cape, have died, has been met with the usual reaction.

The province’s Member of the Executive Council (MEC) for Health, Sindiswa Gomba, has directed that qualified medical practitioners be immediately sent to initiation schools to assess conditions there. Meanwhile, the public is calling for an immediate halt to the practice of initiation schools.

Both of these reactions are unfortunately as predictable as the tragedies to which they respond. Nothing really changes since rites of passage are key elements of cohesion and identity in many communities, across many cultures. It is also worth noting that this rite is widely practised across sub-Saharan Africa, thus extending the implications of the call beyond just the Xhosa people. Even criminal street gangs and churches have ways of initiating members.

Those calling for the Xhosa initiation rite to be abolished, without any acknowledgement of its importance to the very essence of being and becoming Xhosa, will surely be rejected. It may become another example of cultural chauvinism and imposition of another’s belief.

What is required is for both sides to acknowledge each other’s points of view and beliefs. For it cannot be business as usual when young people continue to die each year. It is a calamity. It must stop!

Culture is, by definition, dynamic. If it is unhelpful for church traditionalists to start and end debates arguing that “this is how things have always been”, so too, it will be unhelpful when culture traditionalists try to rely on the same refrain as a compelling argument to a complex discussion.

Complicating the conversation further is the obvious need to help boys grow into manhood. The levels of gender-based violence perpetrated by men of all ages, including teenagers, shows clearly that masculinity in South Africa is riddled with all forms of toxins.

So even if the Xhosa rite were to be done away with, there needs to be creative ways of ensuring that boys learn appropriate gender roles. The many instances of inappropriate information about gender roles that foster sexism and misogynistic behaviour need to be combatted. This is not limited to Xhosa men, but is applicable to all men, regardless of their culture and education.

As Christian communities, we seek to protect and cherish all life. Any situation where death comes easily, be it at an abortion clinic or initiation school should jar our sensibilities. But we must not repeat the mistakes of the first missionaries to Africa and “the new world” who paternalistically rejected every behaviour by the natives as heathen.

To see God in everything is to seek the face of God in the initiate and the initiation school. More importantly, it is to refuse the lie that life is cheap and can be sacrificed at the altar of upholding a tradition. Traditions are only useful if they are in service to the common good of the community.In recognising that each community has the right to self-identity is to know and recognise the diversity that God has created in humanity.

Mr Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya

Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya is an independent journalist and former editor of The Mercury, The Witness and Sowetan and a senior journalist at many other mainstream South African newspapers.

f.moya@jesuitinstitute.org.za @fikelelom
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