Cutting Tradition: the Political Regulation of Traditional Circumcision Rites in South Africa's Liberal Democratic Order

Journal of Southern African Studies (Impact Factor: 0.46). 03/2008; 34:78-91. DOI: 10.1080/03057070701832890

ABSTRACT The South African Xhosa ethnic group, the majority of whom live in the country's Eastern Cape province, are one of several ethnic groups in southern Africa that pra

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    ABSTRACT: This paper analyses a tension between traditional leaders and the post-apartheid government in South Africa, concerning the crisis in ritual male circumcision. Over the last two decades, following ritual male circumcision, thousands of youth have been admitted to hospitals, hundreds have undergone penile amputations and hundreds have died. Following the government's intervention through legislation and other health measures, traditional leaders allege that this is a violation of cultural rights enshrined in the Constitution. Drawing on newspaper and journal articles, books, policy documents, and legislation, as well as informal interviews with initiates and their parents and field observations in the Eastern Cape Province (2002-2009), this paper explores the validity of the traditional leaders' challenge, arguing that the crisis in the ritual should be seen in a broader context than the tension between traditional leaders and the state. Finally, the paper argues the tension between traditional leaders and government, and the sensational reporting of this by the media, unfortunately takes away focus from the health crisis in the ritual.
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    ABSTRACT: In this article, I propose, against earlier missionary and anthropological narratives that construct Tswana girls’ initiation as abjectifying, subjectifying, and violent, that the Tswapong girls’ puberty ritual, the mothei, endows novices with seriti, a quality that implies an active sense of autonomy, dignity, respect, and self-respect. I argue that the mothei rites enact a conjunctural, embodied dialectics of fertilization, respect, and empowerment as the novice is moved in and out of the hut–womb in a series of transformative phases, from passivity to agency and from darkness to protective shadow. In addition, the secret singing, dancing, and performance in the hut—the cult's esoteric lore—create moments of transgressive sexuality, creativity, fun, and conviviality as well as posing challenging physical ordeals. Despite the mothei's creation of a viable and vibrant society of village women, a growing tendency has been to abandon the ritual in the name of “progress,” arising from teachers’ and girls’ understanding of themselves as “modern” subjects. I reflect on this trend, spelling out some of the dilemmas and implications for an anthropological ethics of salvage anthropology and critical nostalgia. [puberty rituals, initiation, Tswana–Botswana, Tswapong, missionaries, women and agency, cultural authenticity, critical nostalgia]
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Jun 1, 2014