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Posted by on May 24, 2013 in Philosophy | 0 comments

A culture of dying

A few months back, I wrote about a young boy who had lost his feet after trying to run away from an initiation school in South Africa. He was caught, beaten, and had his feet burned with fire. The column below opens with that story, which some of you might remember, but then goes on to discuss how 20+ children have already died this year in similar ceremonies – as they do every year. Defenders of these rituals cite culture – but this is a culture of death. And while I’m not at all opposed to voluntary participation in ritual, it’s unclear how much volition operates here. Furthermore, I’ve yet to hear why you can’t have the rituals alongside circumcisions performed by trained professionals, under sterile conditions.


Originally published in the Daily Maverick

Kabelo Mokgweetse ran away from his initiation school in Pampierstad in November last year, to look for food. He was tracked down and thrashed with a sjambok, before having his feet burnt as further punishment. Then, he was left for dead at the side of the road, where a passing motorist happened to spot him.

Initially only his toes were amputated, but the nerve damage eventually required further surgery, where his right foot was removed in its entirety, along with most of the left. The question that’s difficult to ask – never mind answer – is whether he might prefer to instead be one of the 23 youth who recently died as a result of initiation ceremonies in Mpumalanga.

Mokgweetse and thousands of boys like him are sent (and often willingly go) to initiation schools to mark the transition between boyhood and manhood, undergoing ritual circumcision and being instructed about their social responsibilities. And in most years, children die in the course of “becoming men”. It’s so typical, in fact, that a government news agency can use a headline like “Traditional leaders welcome no initiation deaths”.

That headline was for a story about Limpopo in particular, and dealt with the 2010 season, where attendance at initiation schools was reportedly down by 75% thanks to the World Cup. Limpopo does seem to be a province that has taken the health of initiates particularly seriously, with deaths in the low single-figures for the past few years.

The key question that arises for outsiders like myself is this: do the children who go to initiation schools, the parents who send them there, and the Ramophato (initiation school owner) think that this is a fair price for preserving these cultural practices? And if one death is a fair price, how many would be too costly?

Part of the reason for the continued survival of poorly regulated initiation schools is surely that they provide a narrative to life – a structure, and a reinforcement of community and communal values. But if those goods can be acquired at a lower price – and they undoubtedly can be – then the dozens of deaths we’ve seen so far this year are surely not only too many, but also reason for widespread outrage as well as legal action against those responsible.

Because this is a matter of culture, though, people prefer to tread lightly, tempering their criticisms with politically correct noises about tolerance and respect. But isn’t this in itself condescending, perhaps even racist? Could we instead wonder whether, if the average adolescent in Mpumalanga knew that they had a decent prospect of a good education, a good job and so forth, they’d rather be joining protests against such schools – opting for medical circumcision at the very least, if not entirely rejecting cultural instruction of this sort?

But it’s been – and will continue to be – a long wait for more people to have a better shot at a good life through adequate healthcare, education, and those goods many of us take for granted. And what we put in place as substitutes to give meaning to life – namely cultural practices such as these – result in initiation schools, genital mutilation, corrective rape, culturally embedded homophobia, sexism and so forth.

“Culture” is used as an excuse for all sorts of things (in South Africa, often as a simple vote-getter). But it’s only when you get to choose what your “culture” is – and not have it forced upon you – that it stands a chance of being respectable. And even then, it should never be a stand-alone justification for doing or believing something.

Culture can explain why we do things, even if they appear to be irrational to outsiders. Justification is a different matter, though – if not, how could we complain if a Eugene Terre’Blanche, for example, cites culture as a reason to keep black slaves? Culture cannot serve alone as a reason for doing something.

Equally, culture should not serve as a reason to avoid intervening when needless deaths can be avoided. Last week, a caller to Radio702 recounted his experience of an initiation school (where a close friend of his happened to have died). The caller, Sam, explained that deaths were common thanks to initiates being deprived of water until the last week of proceedings, and also poorly fed – meaning that they had few physical reserves to cope with the gruelling nature of the rituals.

Furthermore, they would also be less able to fight off infection, more common as a result of the lack of qualifications of many who perform the circumcisions. All of these factors can be managed, and to some extent have been managed in Limpopo. This is clearly not the case in Mpumalanga.

Interviewed on eNCA, the MEC for Health in Mpumalanga said that, as a woman, she couldn’t get involved. Her precise words were: “This is a tradition. This is a tradition. So in other tradition whether there are deaths or what but a woman can’t come closer to that”. A competing tradition here involves avoiding needless death, and doing your job. Someone who chooses the tradition of turning a blind eye to death deserves to lose her job, at the very least, and seems at least partly responsible for any future deaths.

Appeals to culture, tradition and the like have causality entirely back-to-front: things could become cultural norms because they are good norms; but the fact that something is a cultural norm has no bearing on whether it’s a good or respectable norm or not. And a cultural practice in which there is no age of consent, poor or no medical oversight, and wilful ignorance on the part of government officials is problematic, to say the least.

“Only God knows who’s going to die, when” was Msebenzi Masombuka’s (a representative of King Mabhoko) comment following the deaths in Mpumalanga. Even if one does believe that, we’d still present ourselves as candidates for earlier or later deaths, through our actions or inactions.

Or sometimes, it’s others we present as candidates for an earlier death. And we sacrifice them on the altar of “culture”. In May 2013, culture killed at least 23 boys – yet we should respect it, just … because.