Cutting Tradition: the Political Regulation of Traditional Circumcision Rites in South Africa's Liberal Democratic Order
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: 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]American Ethnologist 07/2009; 36(3):441 - 458. · 1.41 Impact Factor
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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.Social Science [?] Medicine 03/2010; 70(5):729-35. · 2.73 Impact Factor
Cutting Tradition: the Political Regulation
of Traditional Circumcision Rites in South
Africa’s Liberal Democratic Order
(Rhodes University, South Africa)
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 practise the ritual of
circumcision as part of a rite admitting boys to manhood. Recent years have seen a rise in
casualties among those participating in traditional circumcision rites. Since 1995 more than
6,000 boys have been admitted to Eastern Cape hospitals, more than 300 have died and 76
have had their genitalia amputated due to botched circumcisions. The state has responded by
putting in place a variety of mechanisms to regulate the practice, most recently in the form of
the 2005 Children’s Bill which gives male childrenthe right to refuse circumcision andmakes
those who circumcise achild against hiswill guilty of an offence punishable by imprisonment.
Attempts by the state to regulate traditional practices (of which circumcision is just one and
virginity testing is another) have been met with outrage and resistance in some quarters.
Rituals are commonly identified as mechanisms contributing to social order in all societies,
maintaining the organisation of groups into hierarchies, specifying the performance of
roles linked to factors such as age and gender, renewing group unity and a means for
the transmission of values across generations. But in a society so deeply penetrated by
colonialism, apartheid and industrialisation, as South Africa is, what role do these rites play
in the contemporary context? In a liberal democratic constitutional state, social order is
conceived as a contract between the individual and the state in which the state upholds the
rights of individual citizens. The state, in this conception of order, is the sole source of social
authority. Final recourse is to the impersonal mechanism of the constitution as interpreted by
the courts. Traditional rituals seem to suggest alternative loci of authority and alternative
conceptions of the production and maintenance of social order. As a result, they can be seen
as threatening to the liberal democratic version of order. This article examines how these
conflicting conceptions of authority and order have played themselves out with regard to
traditional circumcision in South Africa.
South Africa is sometimes termed the ‘rainbow nation’, a reference to the complexity
and cultural diversity of its population of over 45 million. Eleven languages are officially
recognised in the country; nine of these are indigenous. While the ANC’s accommodation of
cultural rights in the terms of South Africa’s negotiated transition was, at the time, largely a
response to the separatist agenda of a section of the white Afrikaans-speaking community
which, alarmed at the prospect of a black majority government, called for their own volkstaat
(people’s state), the question of cultural rights has become a much broader concern in the past
ten years. While the volkstaat issue has faded into the background of South African politics
ISSN 0305-7070 print; 1465-3893 online/08/010077-15
q 2008 The Editorial Board of the Journal of Southern African StudiesDOI: 10.1080/03057070701832890
Journal of Southern African Studies, Volume 34, Number 1, March 2008
with the waning political significance of the white Afrikaner right-wing, new questions have
come to the fore concerning the rights of indigenous communities. Two prominent recent
examples concern the practices of virginity testing and of ritual male circumcision. Both of
these practices enjoy widespread support in some sections of the South African population
and both have recently been subject, controversially, to regulation by the central state in the
form of the 2005 Children’s Bill. With regard to ritual circumcision, Chapter 2, Section 12 (5)
states: ‘Taking into consideration the child’s age, maturity and stage of development, every
male child has the right to refuse circumcision’. In addition, Section 12 (6b) states that
‘A person who circumcisesa male child against hiswill or a person who isobliged toprotect a
male child against maltreatment, abuse or degradation and who allows that child to be
circumcised against his will is guilty of an offence’. With regard to virginity testing,1Section
12(4) of the bill prohibits testing children for virginity and makes anybody who performs
such a test on a child, or anybody who is obliged to protect a child and allows that child to
undergo such a test, guilty of an offence.
The Children’s Bill was met with outrage and resistance among those who style
themselves ‘traditionalists’, arguing that state regulation of these practices contravenes the
constitutional protection of their cultural rights. A decade into South Africa’s democratic
has been contested, need to be understood in the context of a broader nation-building project.
As is typical of such projects, nation-building in South Africa is Janus-faced.2The President’s
looks to the African continent and its pre-colonial legacy for succour in facing the challenges
of the present. At the same time, however, South Africa has embraced its role in the world
economy along with all the accoutrements of rights-based liberal individualism and market
Indeed, the vision of the African Renaissance is itself double-edged. On the one hand it
presents a modernist agenda in which progress will be ‘brought about by means of fibre-optic
cables, liberal democracy and market economics ... a brave new world in which African
citizens would click their way into a new millennium of prosperity and progress’.3On the
other hand, the African Renaissance focuses on heritage and legacy, which suggests that ‘the
impersonal forces of modern bureaucracies, international markets and electronic technology
can somehow be humanised and adapted to African needs. This is a renaissance in which
African communities succeed in reconstructing themselves around tradition, legacy and
heritage, around the values and relationships which characterised pre-colonial institutions’.4
These two faces of South Africa’s nation-building project find themselves in constant tension
with one another.
One of the ways in which these tensions play themselves out is in the presentation of
rights and culture as existing in a binary and antagonistic relationship to one another. The
troubled relationship between the right to culture and a culture of rights is well documented
in the literature on multiculturalism.5The present article examines how the paradoxes in
these competing discourses play themselves out in relation to ritual male circumcision. In
particular, the article wishes to examine whether these tensions represent intractable conflicts
between differing ontologies of the self, or whether, as Cowan and others have argued, the
1 For a discussion of virginity testing see L. Vincent, ‘Virginity Testing in South Africa: Re-Traditioning the
Postcolony’, Culture, Health and Sexuality, 8, 1 (January 2006), pp. 17–30.
2 T. Nairn, The Break-up of Britain (London, NLB, 1977).
3 T. Lodge, South African Politics Since 1994 (Cape Town, David Philip, 1999), p. 97.
4 Lodge, South African Politics, p. 99.
5 See for example, W. Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship (New York, Clarendon Press, 1995).
78Journal of Southern African Studies
tension is overstated as a result of a form of ‘strategic essentialism’ in which ‘culture’ is
presented as static and reified in order to serve other political ends.6
In a society so heavily constructed by colonialism, apartheid and industrialisation as
South Africa surely is, the article asks what role these rites play in the contemporary context.
In the face of injury and death, how are we to understand the continued significance of
traditional circumcision in a state that styles itself along modern liberal democratic lines?
Alternately, we might ask, how do we make sense of the post-apartheid state’s introduction of
new regulatory mechanisms that appear to curtail the freedom of precisely those subjects the
state intended to liberate?
Ritual Xhosa Circumcision
Ritual circumcision of young males (and females) is a practice seen in many cultures across
the world including sub-Saharan and North Africa, the Muslim Middle East, the Jewish
diaspora,Aboriginal Australia, the Pacific Islands,Southeast Asia, and elsewhere.7The South
African amaXhosa, the majority of who live in the country’s Eastern Cape province, are one
of several ethnic groups in southern Africa that practise the ritual of circumcision as part
of a rite admitting boys to manhood.8Powerful taboos are attached to the discussion of
circumcision rites with outsiders and this has meant that, until relatively recently, the subject
has not been widely researched or discussed in South Africa.9However, in the late 1990s, the
South African government, media and medical community began to focus attention on ritual
circumcision as a result of increasing numbers of documented deaths associated with the
traditional practice. Recent years have seen a continued rise in casualties: since 1995, more
than 6,000 boys have been admitted to Eastern Cape hospitals, more than 300 have died, and
76 have had their genitalia amputated following ritual circumcision.10
transition from boyhood (ubukhwenkwe in Xhosa) to manhood (ubudoda). In Xhosa custom,
the ritual is performed most commonly on boys ranging between the ages of 15 and 25.
Traditionally, the circumcision ritual is a complex one involving a number of different stages
each with its own closely policed regulations and requirements. There can be little doubt
about its significance in Xhosa culture. Peter Mtuze, for example, in his Introduction to Xhosa
Culture describes the coming out ceremony as ‘the greatest day in every boy’s life’.11Not
uncommonly, Mtuze uses a religious analogy to demonstrate the importance of initiation for
the amaXhosa: ‘[it] is the gateway to manhood in the same way that baptism is the gateway to
Christianity’.12Initiation allows Xhosa males to share in the full privileges and duties of
the community; to acquire knowledge which is otherwise unavailable; to gain respect and to
be entitled to marry. Citing their own experience, Xhosa authors Mayatula and Mavundla
6 J.K. Cowan, M. Dembour and R. A. Wilson (eds), Culture and Rights: Anthropological Perspectives
(Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 10.
7 E. Silverman, ‘Anthropology and Circumcision’, Annual Review of Anthropology, 33 (2004), pp. 419–45.
8 Historically other South African ethnic groups have ritually circumcised boys, including the Zulu, who have now
largely abandoned the practice, the Tswana, the Sotho and the Shangaan. On the other hand, not all Xhosa groups
circumcise. The practice is not, for example, seen among the Bhaca, Mpondo, Xesibe or Ntlangwini. There are
many aspects of the practice that are shared in common among a variety of different ethnic groups across
9 V. Mayatula and T. Mavundla, ‘A Review on Male Circumcision Procedures among South African Blacks’,
Curationis (September 1997), p. 16.
10 P. Apps, ‘Deaths Prompt Action on Circumcision Schools’, Reuters/IOL (28 July 2005), p. 28.
11 P. Mtuze, Introduction to Xhosa Culture (Alice, Lovedale Press, 2004), p. 48.
12 Ibid., p.41.
Political Regulation of Traditional Circumcision Rites 79
writethat ‘[m]ale circumcision isthe mostwidelyaccepted cultural practiceamong the Xhosa
speaking people whether educated or illiterate, Christian or non-Christian. It is considered the
only manner in which a boy ... can attain manhood and adulthood.’13
The social upheaval caused by apartheid, poverty and uneven processes of urbanisation
impacted negatively on ritual circumcision in a variety of ways, which in part accounts for the
rise in circumcision casualties seen in recent years. While the traditional surgeon (ingcibi)
is ideally a person trained by his predecessor with skills being handed down from one
generation to the next, in a contemporary period characterised by much greater social change,
mobility and cultural rupture, the training and competence of ingcibi is not always assured.
Some injuries occur as a result of incorrect surgery with, for example, too much skin being
removed. A recurring charge in recent years is that of surgeons operating while under the
influence of alcohol or narcotics. The use of alcohol by initiates themselves also represents a
danger. Used prior to, and after, the procedure (which is conducted without anaesthetic) in a
bid to alleviate pain, alcohol has been implicated in excessive bleeding sometimes leading
to death.14Related to the problem of the training and competence of traditional surgeons
are questions of hygiene, the correct use of appropriate instruments and sterilisation. While
not trained in western medical practice, the experienced ingcibi would be well versed in
appropriate traditional practices including the use of herbal medicines.Contemporary reports,
however, highlight the re-use of instruments without cleaning or sterilisation, the use of blunt
instruments and a lack of appropriate hygiene mechanisms at many circumcision schools.
As a result, there are concerns about infection and the spread of venereal disease and HIV.
State Regulation of Traditional Circumcision
Rather than outright banning, the South African government’s response to traditional
circumcision has been one of regulation, in particular insisting on the registration of
circumcision schools that allows for a distinction to be drawn between ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’
schools. Traditional nurses are required to obtain a permit to administer an initiation school.
The schools themselves, as well as the traditional surgeons and nurses that run them, are
required to be registered with the provincial health department and registered surgeons are
intervention involves providing sterilising chemicals and checking and treating each initiate
for sexually transmitted diseases and pneumonia. In the Eastern Cape, those who do not
During the circumcision season of winter 2005, the Eastern Cape Health Department
closed over 31 ‘illegal schools’ in the wake of charges that included the circumcision of boys
with un-sterilised knives, fatalities and amputation of penises resulting from incorrectly
performed circumcision and the onset of gangrene, and alarm about the risk of HIV infection
with a single instrument used repeatedly to circumcise several boys in turn. The distinction
between legality and illegality that underpins this response evokes a wider discourse of
human rights, the rule of law and the sanctity of human life, which is set up in contrast to its
binary ‘other’: savagery, irrationality, superstition and outdated beliefs that endanger the
well-being of citizens. While the former is associated with progress, democracy and the
defeat of apartheid, the latter is associated with the threat of return to an unsavoury,
uncivilised and unsafe past. Department of Health spokesperson Sizwe Kupelo, for example,
13 Mayatula and Mavundla, ‘Review on Male Circumcision Procedures’, p. 17.
14 Ibid., p. 18.
80Journal of Southern African Studies
calling for respect for human life and tough sentences for illegal traditional surgeons, has
argued that people are ‘being killed in the name of custom... You can’t be proud of something
that kills’. Explicitly contrasting tradition with modernity, Kupelo comments, ‘[w]e’re trying
to persuade people that times have changed’.15
Traditional surgeons are frequently brought before the courts and tried under the Eastern
Cape’s circumcision laws with charges ranging from running an illegal circumcision school
for which a suspended sentence may be given, to murder. Between 2001 and 2004, at least 42
traditional surgeons were arrested inthe Eastern Cape and eighteen of these were convicted of
crimes related to circumcision rituals gone wrong. In the 2005 winter circumcision season, in
a huge operation involving over 425 officials, eighty 4 £ 4 vehicles and three helicopters on
standby to rescue initiates in trouble, the Eastern Cape Health Department arrested fifteen
traditional health practitioners and rescued 535 boys who ‘had been left to die in the bush16
after their circumcision’.17The operation saw the teams, comprising police and Department
of Health officials, raiding and breaking up illegal traditional circumcision schools. The
season had seen the circumcising of an estimated 5,833 boys, leaving at least 20 boys dead in
the province, 239 admitted to hospital and five genital amputations.
In addition to these more overt mechanisms of policing and control, the state has sought to
manage ritual circumcision by bringing it within the ambit of conventional medical practice.
In support of state regulation and the medicalisation of ritual circumcision, South African
doctors have called for ‘safe and proper circumcisions’ to take place in hospitals as opposed
to, by implication, the unsafe and improper circumcisions that take place at traditional
initiation schools. As one doctor put it: an ‘initiate’ is wheeled into a hospital surgery and
wheeled out 20 minutes later ‘with a broad smile on his face, announcing “I am a man”.’18
Here, the state and its medical emissaries purport to be applying a neutral standard of health
and bodily integrity to the problem of ritual circumcision: simply protecting the life and well-
being of its citizens by mandating that certain practices should be authorised, controlled and
policed by trained medical doctors. However, the claim of neutrality as the primary response
of the liberal state to ethnocultural diversity requires interrogation. Doctors and hospitals are
one of the primary mechanisms through which certain practices are authorised and rendered
legitimate while others are marginalised and rendered illegitimate. The modern hospital
with its chemical smells, white walls and white-coated functionaries is a stark physical
embodiment of the ideals of modernity: rationalism, cleanliness, predictability and the
application of orderly scientific procedure. But these ideals are not universally acclaimed.
Regulated circumcision can result in those who attend legal schools being stigmatised and
branded ‘amadoda phepha’ (paper boys). Some traditional leaders have actively discouraged
use of the regulated system. For example, the Head of the Congress of Traditional Leaders in
the Eastern Cape, Mwelo Nonkonyana, has argued that ‘if you are not circumcised through
custom in the mountain, you are not regarded as a man. You are a social outcast. Such people
are called abadlezana, a woman who gives birth in a hospital ward. He is not a man, he is the
equivalent of a woman’.19
While the promise of circumcision achieved in a way that is relatively safe, discreet and
sanitised appears self evident in a western, liberal individualist ontology, ‘better’ than ‘bush’
circumcision, advocates of hospital circumcision fail to take seriously the fact that ritual
circumcision is not simply about the removal of a piece of skin. For one thing, hospital
15 Cited in Apps, ‘Deaths Prompt Action on Circumcision Schools’.
16 It is common in South Africa to refer to a person undergoing traditional circumcision as ‘going to the bush’. This
term evokes the rural, outdoor location where circumcision traditionally takes place.
17 Sapa/IOL, ‘Many Traditional Surgeons “Let Off” by Police’, (19 August).
18 Cited in ‘City Clinic Performs 50 Free Circumcisions’, Pretoria News (28 June 2004).
19 Cape Argus, ‘Eastern Cape Circumcision Schools Rebel’ (10 December 2003).
Political Regulation of Traditional Circumcision Rites 81
circumcision employing anaesthetic ignores the important part that pain, suffering and risk
play in the ritual as part of the process of demonstrating manhood and fitness for the respect
and communal privileges that go along with that approbation. The endurance of physical
brutality, seclusion, dietary taboos and testing are a central part of the practice and typical in
many different cultural settings,20while initiates are commonly ‘expected to endure
circumcision stoically’.21As Wilson and others have noted, ‘it is the undergoing of hardships
and bearing of pain (ukunyamzela) that are necessary to becoming a man. If a boy undergoes
those, then his manhood is not disparaged’.22Should the constitutional injunction be
interpreted as entailing a necessary acceptance of the hardship, suffering and sacrificing of
comforts that have traditionally been so central to the practice?
For their part, many initiates acknowledge the role that suffering and risk will play in their
transition to manhood and expect little mercy at the hands of traditional surgeons, as is
suggested in the naming of these schools in the Eastern Cape after war-torn cities and
countries: Afghanistan, Kuwait, Beirut, Bosnia, Rwanda, Panama City. Initiation into
manhood at the hands of a spear or knife-wielding ingcibi is meant to be agonising, while,
traditionally, the mutilations and deaths that followed inevitable slips of the hand were
dismissed as ‘a sign that the victim had not been destined to reach manhood’.23The initiation
ritual is not merely a psychological journey into manhood but is centrally a bodily one with
healing part of the transformation process.
Likewise, it is one of the most basic tenets of traditional circumcision that it is a ritual
reserved for males. Married women should be excluded from all contact with the initiate
during the entire period of the ritual. This presents a serious problem for those who have to
be hospitalised as a result of complications following traditional circumcision. It also means
that proposals for incorporation of circumcision within western medical practice are
problematic since, once hospitalised, it is very difficult to prevent contact with married
females, be they nurses, doctors or visitors to the institution. If the state is to take seriously
its constitutional commitment to respecting cultural diversity then it cannot simply dismiss
these sorts of requirements. It is possible, for example, for hospitals to make special
arrangements for circumcision by a circumcised male nurse following which the initiate is
immediately returned to the bush. Traditional healers then take over those non-medical
aspects of the rites relating to teachings about custom, education in the expectations of
manhood and so forth. Acknowledging that initiates are not permitted to leave the bush to
obtain medical assistance, a programme in the Eastern Cape town of Alice treats cases in the
bush where necessary. Treatment is accompanied by an educational and awareness
component around issues such as the use of surgical scalpels and the need for the use of a
new blade for each operation. Schools are encouraged to operate in the winter months not
only to prevent dehydration but also because warmth and humidity aggravate the onset of
Other purported ‘compromise solutions’, such as the Western Cape government’s 2004
proposal to establish ‘cultural villages’ in which Xhosa people could ‘practise their culture’,
have been less successful. Billed as ‘part of bringing democracy to the people’, the R1.2
20 See for example, T.O. Beidelman, ‘Notes on Boys’ Initiation Among the Ngulu of East Africa’, Man, 65 (2005),
pp. 143–47; W.D. Hambly, ‘Tribal Initiationof Boys in Angola’,American Anthropology, 37 (1935),pp. 36–40;
S. Heald, ‘The Ritual Use of Violence: Circumcision among the Gisu of Uganda’, in D. Riches (ed), The
Anthropology of Violence (London,Blackwell,1986); C.P. Holdredgeand K.Young, ‘Circumcision Rites among
the Bajok’, American Anthropology, 29 (1927), pp. 661–69.
21 Silverman, ‘Anthropology and Circumcision’, p. 421.
22 M. Wilson et al., Social Structure: Keiskammahoek Rural Survey Vol. II (Pietermaritzburg, Shuter and Shooter,
1952), p. 202.
23 ‘Ancient Practice of Tribal Circumcision Divides South Africa’, Daily Telegraph, 23 January 1997, p. 27.
82Journal of Southern African Studies
million initiative met with little enthusiasm from traditional leaders who pointed out that the
burning of initiation huts so central to the symbolism of the rite would not be possible in a
designated cultural village consisting of state-owned permanent facilities.24Like many rites
of transition, physical separation is a central part of ritual circumcision. Seclusion in the bush
and building and living in a temporary lodge, which is subsequently burned along with
belongings to mark the end of seclusion and the start of a new phase in the lifecycle and a new
status, are central tenets in the practice.
While circumcision involves the permanent alteration of the body, the process is also not
‘merely’ physical, involving as it does, the crucial acquisition of cultural knowledge such as
instruction in courtship and marriage practices so that men who have experienced initiation
are said to be distinguishable by their social behaviour and vocabulary. Medicalised
simplification of the procedure calls into question what is being achieved. Moreover, the
private and individualised nature of hospital circumcision removes from the practice its
necessarily public dimension in which the community bears witness to the individual’s
changed social and legal standing. John Mbiti, in his Introduction to African Religion25
argues that initiation has a religious significance that is dependent upon the (public) shedding
of blood. The blood shed in this way binds the person to the land and hence to the ancestors.26
Mbiti argues that once the individual sheds his blood he ‘joins the stream of his people and
truly becomes one with them’.27In this sense, the scars of initiation are also scars of identity.
The public ceremonies, feasting and celebration associated with initiation serve to strengthen
communal bonds and renew the vitality of a community.
Hospitalisation is thus strongly resisted by many who see themselves as champions of
threatened cultural legacies. However, in the binary of progress versus backward superstition,
of life-giving western medicine versus life-threatening tradition, there is little room for
manoeuvre. To question the medicalisation of what is meant to be a complex and painful
transition to manhood is to emerge as a force for conservatism, hampering the dominant state-
sanctioned narrative of South Africa as a place of vibrant progress. A recurring trope in the
public conversation surrounding traditional circumcision deaths is that of ‘primitive’ and
savage practices in contrast to the sanity and rationality of medical science and individual
human rights. Reports of ‘car seatbelts used as bandages’ and the use of drugs and alcohol by
initiation nurses abound. Layered on to this theme of savagery is a discourse of AIDS panic
with government intervention in traditional schools legitimised by way of reference to unsafe
practices such as the use of a single blade to circumcise large groups of boys. For Eastern
Cape Department of Health Spokesperson, Sizwe Kupelo, ‘[t]his illustrates the reason the
department has had to intervene in traditional circumcisions. What it means is that if the first
boy out of the 29 is HIV-positive, the rest of the boys have probably been infected with the
However, for many South Africans who findthemselves onthe margins of social life there
is little in their immediate experience to suggest the veracity of this discourse of life-giving
progress through medical science. As a recent survey of service delivery indicated, ‘many
poor households are unable to have access to service facilities such as clinics and hospitals as
a result of distance from such facilities. It is estimated that people in the poorest quintile must
24 On the other hand, Contralesa’s Phathekile Holomisa has argued that hut burning has long not been widely
practised with many contemporary initiates ordinary houses and only the belongings of the initiate burned. ‘We
must adapt to changing times’, Holomisa is quoted as saying. (Afrol News, 2 March 2004).
25 J. Mbiti, Introduction to African Religion (London, Heineman, 1997), p. 93.
26 N. Momoti, ‘Law and Culture in the New Constitution with Specific Reference to the Custom of Circumcision as
Practised in the Eastern Cape’ (Master of Law Thesis, Rhodes University, 2002), p. 58.
27 Momoti, ‘Law and Culture in the New Constitution’.
28 Cited in ‘Illegal Circumcision Schools Shut Down’, The Daily News, 24 June 2005, p. 7.
Political Regulation of Traditional Circumcision Rites83
travel almost two hours on average to obtain medical attention ... Services may also fail the
poor as a result of their inability to pay for the cost of medical care.’29Overall, South Africa
has one doctor for every 1,500 people but in rural areas (where ritual circumcision is most
commonly practised) this figure falls to one in 26,000. No doubt it is not unrelated to these
statistics that, according to the Medical Research Council, between 75 and 80 per cent of
South Africans regularly consult traditional healers. There are an estimated 200,000
traditional healers in the country in contrast to some 31,000 ‘western trained’ medical
practitioners. A medical doctor told the Pretoria High Court that hospitals in the Northern
Province ‘were so badly run that patients had to be sent home for lack of running water; they
had to lie in their own urine for days; equipment was regularly stolen; and essential
medication was either out of stock or not provided’.30Unsafe practices on the part of medical
staff who fail to wash their hands have been implicated in the death of babies in state
hospitals. Between 2003 and 2005, 70 babies died of klebsiella and other hospital-acquired
infections in South Africa31. Klebsiella killed a further 22 babies in May and June of 2005
with poor hand-washing, overcrowding, understaffing, under-equipment and repeated use of
equipment to save costs listed as contributing factors in the babies’ deaths in hospital neonatal
units. Yet the idea of hospitalisation as self-evidently progressive, life-giving, and safe in
contrast to the barbarism of tradition persists.
Far from being a neutral, rational-bureaucratic response to a problem, then, the regulation
of health (and death) is highly infused with norms of appropriateness and acceptability. As
Foucault pointed out, in the ordering of human existence medicine ‘assumes a normative
posture, which authorizes it not only to distribute advice as to a healthy life, but also to
dictate the standards for physical and moral relations of the individual and of the society in
which he lives’.32Death is acceptable when it occurs within the ambit of the state and
its accompanying approved medical bureaucracy; and unacceptable when it does not. This
is explicitly exemplified in the fact that when deaths result from circumcision of boys
attending schools designated ‘legal’ by the state’s regulatory regime – as was the case for
example with a boy from the Engcobo district near Umtata who died of septicaemia in
June 200533– the traditional surgeon is not prosecuted as he would be had the school been
The risk of death features very centrally in the state’s logic of control. The contention is,
effectively, that tradition and cultural diversity are all very well but where mortality is in
question, there can be no compromise. For instance, the Department of Health’s Sizwe
Kupelo argues that in matters of life and death the centralised state ought to prevail over
localised, traditional authority structures: ‘We are aware that we are not the custodians of
tradition, but people are dying’.34Deborah Posel has written of how life and death are
fundamental preoccupations in all social imaginaries: ‘in making sense of death ... all
societies thereby define the conditions of living. Within the ambit of any social imaginary ...
are a series of desires, reasonings and practices attached to the modalities of life and death in
that society’.35Posel cites here Jean Baudrillard’s contention36that the wielding of power is
29 D. Hemson and K. Owusu-Ampomah, ‘A Better Life for All? Service Delivery and Poverty Alleviation’ in
J. Daniel, R. Southall and J. Lutchman (eds), State of the Nation South Africa 2004–2005 (Pretoria, HSRC,
2005), pp. 515–6.
30 L. Schlemmer and J. Wilson, ‘Social Development’, in South Africa Survey 2001/2002 (Johannesburg, South
African Institute of Race Relations, 2001), p. 54.
31 ‘NGO to Probe Into Baby Deaths’, The Mercury, 27 July 2005, p. 4.
32 M. Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic (New York, Vintage Books, 1973), p. 34.
33 ‘Illegal Schools Shut Down’, Daily News, 24 June 2005, p. 7.
34 Sapa, ‘Initiate Dies During Circumcision Rite’, 21 June 2005.
35 D. Posel, ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ (Wiser, Draft Paper, 2004), p. 6.
36 J. Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death (London and New Delhi, Sage, 1993), p. 130.
84Journal of Southern African Studies
dependent very fundamentally on the ability to regulate death: ‘power is established on
death’s borders ... It is on the manipulation and administration of death that power, in the
final analysis, is based’.
Clearly it is not death itself that presents the most pressing problem for South Africa’s
nascent liberal order of individual rights. Rather, it is the manner of death that is at stake.
People die in every society but there are more or less troubling ways of dying and these are
determined according to dominant norms and expectations. Although South Africa’s
aspirations to modernitypredate the demise of apartheid in 1994, the advent of the democratic
era saw the country’s vision of itself as modern and ‘civilised’, de-racialised and given
renewed impetus with the adoption of a liberal, rights-based constitution, a public political
discourse of individual freedom and autonomy coupled with an essentially neo-liberal
economic programme. Central to this particular logic of progress is the ‘banishing of death
and dying from the ordinary flux of living’.37This is in stark contrast to a system of beliefs
that places symbolic death as well as the actual dead (in the form of ancestors) at the centre of
life. In the case of circumcision, symbolic death through pain, privation and isolation is an
essential precondition for life. As Mayatula and Mavundla write,
Xhosas see initiation rites as a symbolic death, through pain and isolation from the society, from
which springs new life and rebirth as a new being, a man, who has outgrown everything related to
childhood. It enables incorporation into the society as a new responsible member, one who will
contribute to its values and orderly existence. The ritual encompasses a whole set of values and
norms and not merely excision of the prepuce. A person who has undergone the ritual is expected
to think and behave in a new and constructive manner unlike before, when he was a boy and all
manner of antisocial acts were tolerated from him.38
The banishing of death from the ordinary flux of life has been rendered virtually impossible
in South Africa in the era of HIV-Aids. In the context of the country’s high rate of infection
(between four and five million South Africans are estimated to be HIV-positive), the threat
of HIV has been discursively employed to legitimise regulation of traditional circumcision.
In a new twist however, a spate of recent research has argued that the higher prevalence of
HIV in Africa is linked to lack of male circumcision.39Discrepancies in regional HIV
infection rates may partially be explained by differing circumcision practices. In most West
African countries, for example, where male circumcision is widespread, HIV prevalence
levels are between one and five per cent, compared with 25 per cent in many of the
predominantly non-circumcising east and southern African nations.40A French study
completed in South Africa and released at the International Aids Society meeting in Rio de
Janeiro found that male circumcision could reduce the probability that a man will acquire
HIV from an HIV-infected person by up to 70 per cent. While some have hailed this finding
as ‘the most important breakthrough in HIV prevention since the efficacy of the male
condom was unequivocally demonstrated in laboratory and human studies’,41others have
pointed out that the United States has a very high rate of circumcision coupled with the
highest HIV infection rate in the developed world, while Scandinavia on the other hand has
one of the lowest rates of circumcision in the world coupled with a comparatively low
incidence of HIV infection.
37 Posel, ‘Life and Death’, p. 9.
38 V. Mayatula and T. Mavundla, ‘Review on Male Circumcision’, p. 18.
39 See for example B. Huff, ‘Male Circumcision: Cutting the Risk?’ (American Foundation for Aids Research,
August 2000); Silverman, ‘Anthropology and Circumcision’, p. 426.
40 ‘Circumcision May Cut the Risk of Aids’, Cape Argus, 23 November 1999.
41 Thomas J. Coates, professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at the UCLA David Geffen School
of Medicine, and associate director for international and health policy research at the UCLA Aids Institute,
writing in an opinion piece, ‘The Snip Could Save Many Lives’. The Star, 31 October 2005.
Political Regulation of Traditional Circumcision Rites 85
The argument is, as some commentators have pointed out,42disingenuous. Clearly
disease is caused by contact with specific organisms and the spread of disease is prevented by
reducing contact with these organisms through education and altered practices rather than
through the amputation of healthy body parts. Moreover, advocating circumcision as a
protection against HIV can lead to unsafe practices by providing a false sense of security.43
The vision advanced by some South African AIDS activists of mass ‘chop shops’ where
volunteers are expected to come forward in numbers to have their foreskins quickly removed
in order to increase their chances of withstanding HIV infection is in stark contradistinction to
the collective moral hand-wringing at the barbarism of traditional bush circumcision and its
well-documented accompanying health risks. It is ironic that large-scale circumcision for
non-ritualistic purposes, including by members of non-circumcising cultures, is being
advocated at precisely the moment when the state has brought its regulatory machinery firmly
to bear upon traditional circumcision rites.
Culture and Authenticity
By presenting the debate about the regulation of ritual circumcision as a clash between
discrete ontologies or different value systems, there is the risk that ‘tradition’ is calcified and
presented in opposition to ‘modernity’. The contention that cultural practices of one sort or
another have a pristine form that is at risk of contamination as a result of outside interference
is, of course, a common rhetorical flourish on the part of those who wish to resist intervention
on the part of a central state from which they feel estranged in some way. Any of a number of
motivations – ideology, finance, status, power – may inform such resistance but whatever
these may be, as Michel Wieviorka points out in his remarks on multiculturalism,44traditions
are inventions which convey ‘the very working of modernity’. Cultural identities, it is now
common to point out, are neither stable nor fixed but are rather liable to decomposition and
Colonialism, and its accompanying vigorous Christian attacks on indigenous
circumcision rites, served further to enhance the importance of these practices as a form of
resistance to conquest: ‘the assertion that regardless of the forces of education, religion,
employment, economics which have accompanied and outlived colonial conquests, the
Xhosa mind and spirit has not been conquered or colonised by aliens or modernity’.45But
notwithstanding colonial intrusion, circumcision rituals were hardly left unscathed by the
impact of colonisation, apartheid and industrialisation. Tradition is always in the process of
being reinvented and contemporary realities constantly intrude and reorganise social
conventions. Claims for the preservation of a pristine cultural practice are thus always
rhetorical, as are claims for the inevitabilityof progress that modernity brings. However, what
is of interest is what the collision of rhetorics reveals about a society in transition and its
forces of dominance, marginalisation and exclusion.
Government itself has not emerged as uniformly or unproblematically positioned on the
side of progress and western modernity. Far from simply presenting its regulation of
42 See for example M. Milos and D. Macris, ‘Circumcision: A Medical or a Human Rights Issue?’, Journal of
Nurse-Midwifery, 37, 2 (1992), pp. 87–96; E. Lagarde et al., ‘Acceptability of Male Circumcision as a Tool for
Preventing HIV Infection in a Highly Infected Community in South Africa’, AIDS, 17, 1 (January 2003),
43 Lagarde et al., ‘Acceptability of Male Circumcision’, p. 89.
44 M. Wieviorka, ‘Is Multiculturalism the Solution?’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 21, 5 (1998), p. 891.
45 Mtuze, Introduction to Xhosa Culture, p. 50.
86 Journal of Southern African Studies
circumcision in the language of individual rights and autonomy it has also, at times, sought
discursively to position its regulatory regime as the protector of culture in its most authentic
with contemporary society. Concerned to legitimise its regulation of traditional circumcision,
government has enlisted the support of some traditional leaders and has argued that the
as National House of Traditional Leaders spokesperson Sibusiso Nkosi put it, ‘claim the lives
ofourinnocentchildren ... makingamockeryofourculture’andbringing‘shameanddoubt’
on traditional practices.46This is one indication that the state’s nation-building project is
not unequivocally liberal individualist in nature but rather continues to be influenced by
widespread support for alternative worldviews among its majority constituency. Similarly,
in the state’s nation-building rhetoric we typically see recourse to both these visions at
different times. The rational/bureaucratic logic that has been applied to reforming traditional
circumcision practices is matched by the repeated advocacy, for example, by the country’s
Minister of Health, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, of the African potato (a herbal remedy that
has been found to inhibit the effectiveness of antiretrovirals) and other traditional herbal
remedies in the fight against HIV/AIDS.47The project of installing liberal individualist mores
in South Africa is by no means completed even among the country’s political elites.
The appeal to authenticity is also of course a key component of the ideological
armoury of the opponents of state regulation. The intrusion of state influence into a domain
where some of the poorest and most marginalised in the society seek to maintain a limited
hold on power is resisted by way of reference to the incontrovertible requirements of
culture. Traditional leaders frame their vigorous opposition to the regulation of
circumcision by appealing to the arcane intricacies of the practice, which are frequently
interpreted in their most uncompromising form. For example, opposing the Eastern Cape’s
regulatory regime, the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa)
argued that the law was unacceptable because women were on the team that drafted the
legislation and, according to tradition, women must not be involved in any way with
the rituals of manhood. Contralesa described the law as ‘an insult to our tradition’ and
vowed to stop medical officers having anything to do with ritual circumcision.48The
injunction against the involvement of women was taken to a bizarre extreme in the case of
one mother who was barred from attending the funeral of her son who had died at
initiation school after being beaten by the school leader following an attempt to escape
from the school.49
The apartheid state chose to shore up the system of chiefs, some of whom were paid
government functionaries, as a means of rule by proxy. Democracy, with its paraphernalia of
elections and universal suffrage, has led to concerns on the part of traditional leaders that they
will lose their power in the new dispensation and, not least, their income. Arguing that they
alone are the rightful custodians of culture, traditional leaders protest that the new regulatory
regime fails to provide for them to be included in such processes as the registration of iingcibi
and amakhankatha. The picture is politically complicated by the fact that opposition to state
regulation of tradition comes from within the ruling party as much as it does from without.
Eastern Cape House of Traditional Leaders chair and ANC MP, Mwelo Nonkonyana, called
the province’s Application of Health Standards in Traditional Circumcision Act (2001)
‘nonsensical’ as it stripped traditional leaders of their power to administer the custom and
46 Sapa, ‘Leaders Urge Probe after Circumcision Death’, 29 June 2005.
47 I am indebted to an anonymous reviewer for raising this example in this context.
48 ‘Eastern Cape Tightens Law on Circumcision to Stem Casualties’, BMJ, 10 November 2001.
49 ‘Mother of Dead Initiate Barred from Funeral’, Saturday Star, 28 June 2002.
Political Regulation of Traditional Circumcision Rites 87
vested those powers in the provincial Health Minister and ‘his doctors’ – some of whom may
themselves not be circumcised. The Health Standards Act provides for penalties of up to
R10,000 and ten years in jail for those who do not observe prescribed health standards in
traditional circumcision, and allows schools to be inspected by health department officials.
Contralesa has argued that the Act is unconstitutional as it infringes on the traditionalrightsof
communities protected by the Bill of Rights (Section 30 provides for citizens to ‘participate in
the cultural life of their choice’).
While some traditional leaders such as Zwelinzima Mtirara, chief of the abaThembu tribe
and ANC MPL, have taken a more accommodationist stance, others have advocated outright
civil disobedience in their response to government regulation. Nonkonyana, for example is on
record as saying that ‘if an uncircumcised man is found near an initiation school he will be
detained and circumcised’ while ‘traditionally a woman found in the area near a circumcision
school would be killed but because of the human rights thing she’s detained and dealt with in
another waybythe people’.50Nonkonyanahasdeclaredthathewouldbeprepared togotojail
rather than comply with the act and his own son was illegally circumcised at an unregistered
school, although the actual circumcision surgery was performed by a doctor with western
medical qualifications – the important point for Nonkonyana was that the doctor was himself
a circumcised man.51
Those who style themselves as the rightful custodians of culture evoke the notion of
pristine tradition corruptible by outside influence. In reality of course, as Makang points out,
it is precisely the flexibility of African belief systems that accounts for their survival in the
face of a history of invasion and political domination.52For Makang, ‘tradition’ is often
depictedas designating a mode of thought that is ‘in opposition to modernity or progress.This
use of tradition coins it narrowly as an unchanging or static corpus of representations, beliefs,
ideas, values, rules, or customs that are handed over by the ancestors of the tribe to
subsequent generations’.53Traditions, however, are never frozen in time but are continually
‘adapting themselves to new historical circumstances’.54It is ironic that this ahistorical view
of tradition associated with western scholars of Africa is proposed by cultural entrepreneurs
of the present who suggest that pure, authentic practices are at risk from corrupting outside
A recurrent theme in the overarching discourse of African cultural purity is that of the
contaminating influence of western materialism: ‘The modern Bantu, who has been corrupted
by his exposure to European materialism, is not an authentic Bantu any longer, but has
become a Europeanized Bantu, who has lost the sense of the old, ageless wisdom of the
ancestors, and of everything that was stable in Bantu tradition.’55The corrupting influence of
financial gain as opposed to pristine cultural integrity is frequently cited as a cause of loss of
life and injury associated with ritual circumcision. In a country characterised by very high
levels of poverty and unemployment (estimated at over 30 per cent), financial factors
inevitably intrude to create incentives other than ‘purely’ cultural for keeping initiates under
the control of the traditional school and its leaders. With each initiate being charged a fee
by the traditional surgeon, circumcision is big business and there have been reports of boys
as young as eight years old being kidnapped from their homes to increase numbers at
50 The Mail and Guardian, ‘Law vs Tradition in Circumcision Debacle’, 8 December 2003.
51 Cape Argus, ‘Eastern Cape Circumcision Schools Rebel’, 10 December 2003.
52 J. Makang, ‘Of the Good Use of Tradition’, in E. Chukwudi Ezw, Postcolonial African Philosophy. A Critical
Reader (Oxford, Blackwell, 1997), p. 327.
53 Makang, ‘Of the Good Use of Tradition’, p. 325.
55 Ibid., p. 326.
88Journal of Southern African Studies
In response, traditional leaders such as Dr Mathole Motshekga, director of the Kara
Heritage Institute decry ‘opportunists taking practices like circumcision as business ventures
and people leading the schools, not for the purpose for which they were created, but to make
money out of the African people’s quest to meet their cultural aspirations’.56However, a
project of hermetically sealing tradition from the exigencies of life in a modern capitalist state
is of course dead in the water. With few marketable skills and limited opportunities for the
assertion of power or status, those who find themselves marginalised in the democratic order
see in ‘tradition’ a limited currency with which to trade for power. State regulation of
tradition risks devaluing the value of this currency and those who own it. The resultant
conflict is rendered more acute by the fact that the latter frequently neither own, nor have
ready access to, any other currency and that which they do own is not readily convertible into
the coinage of a modern liberal capitalist order. Where the conversion does take place, the
results are often tragic, with financial gain implicated centrally in the mushrooming of fly-by-
night circumcision schools and bogus traditional surgeons.
An important feature of the appeal to cultural authenticity to legitimise traditional
circumcision is the idea that social order has broken down as a result of the corrupting impact
of ‘foreign’ ideas and practices. Ritual circumcision is thus defended on the basis of its
usefulness as a mechanism for the maintenance of social order. Young men, once
circumcised, are meant to behave differently, to put away childishness and to take on the
mantle of responsible and proper behaviour expected of a man. However, as with any
mechanism of social control there are no guarantees. In a society beset by a mesh of illiteracy,
conflict, unemployment, violence against women and children, extreme poverty and wealth
disparities, men, or more precisely masculinity, is widely perceived to be in crisis of one sort
or another.57To pretend that ritual circumcision is going to make a major difference to this
crisis is clearly disingenuous as is perhaps most vividly demonstrated in a recent case in
which eight initiates were accused of gang raping a 27-year-old woman. The accused had
recently graduated from initiation school and reportedly gang raped the woman to remove a
white substance (ifutha) that is used as part of the initiation process.
The sense of crisis in contemporary African masculinity occurs in the context of a long-
established process by which African patriarchy has been eroded and provides the overall
setting within which the tradition of circumcision is being re-interpreted. The high levels of
violence, mainly perpetrated by males in South Africa, can be understood as a manifestation
of this sense of crisis. As Catherine Campbell has noted,
[o]lder men are struggling to reconcile what they would call the traditional view of men as potent,
powerful, proud beings, as well as repositories of community wisdom and experience, with a set
of social relations where as black workers they fall low in the current social hierarchy and have
little power within the family. The result of this is that men feel alienated and displaced in their
families as well as in township communities.58
As levels of male violence in the society have increased, ritual circumcision has itself become
an increasingly violent practice with abduction, brutal beatings, assaults and torture not
infrequently resulting in the death of would-be initiates.59
In one sense, then, circumcision schools, in which younger men are placed under the
56 Cited in ‘Greed Blamed for Death of Initiates’, The Independent on Saturday (South Africa), 5 August 2002.
57 See for example. A. Clare, On Men: Masculinity in Crisis (London, Chatto and Windus, 2000); L. McDowell,
‘The Trouble with Men? Young People, Gender Transformations and the Crisis of Masculinity’, International
Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 24, 1 (March 2000), pp. 201–209.
58 C. Campbell, ‘Learning to Kill? Masculinity, the Family and Violence in Natal’, Journal of Southern African
Studies, 18, 3 (September 1992), p. 621.
59 See for example, ‘Mother of Dead Initiate Barred from Funeral’, Saturday Star, 28 June 2002.
Political Regulation of Traditional Circumcision Rites89
be read as an attempt to re-establish the sense of order in which youth have respect for the older
generation. This sense of order was, as is well documented, severely undermined by apartheid,
which catapulted young males into the forefront of resistance as the ‘young lions’ of the anti-
of struggle rhetoric notwithstanding, a 1993 survey found that black South African youth:
see themselvesashaving littleornofuture ... are alienated fromtheir familiesor job or school ...
areoutoftouchwith,orhostileto,thechangestakingplaceinSouthAfrica ... havebeenvictimsof
abuseand/orviolence ... haveapoorself-image ... arenotinvolvedinorganizationorstructure.60
Stevens and Lockhat argue that the democratic era has forced black youth to effect a shift in
their identities from young lions to ‘young entrepreneurs’ where ‘new role models, economic
structures and dominance of western ideologies ... have now encouraged an ideological shift
from collectivism to individualism’.61The negotiation of this shift has been more difficult
for some than for others. For those whose marginalisation has only been enhanced by rapid
social change, the appeal to the putative certainties of tradition can act as a bulwark against
uncertainty and loss of status. Democratisation brought with it high expectations and,
concomitantly, chronic disappointment for many. Today’s middle-aged South African black
males are both better educated than their fathers and more highly politicised. But high levels of
unemployment have continued into the post-apartheid era and the pace of transformation has
been slow. For this reason, it is not always the older generation, nor those in rural communities
that are the guardians of ‘tradition’. According to one eager would-be initiate, Sibusiso Soji,
‘Our fathers will almost certainly try to stop us, but we will go ahead with it. Every young
African should do this. Previously, men won glory by fighting against the colonists. Now the
relic, it is often youth – frequently marginalised urban youth, in search of stable identities in
troubled times – who insist on ritual circumcision in the face of opposition from parents, elders
and guardians. While markers of ethnic distinctiveness were a source of derision in the anti-
apartheid mobilisation, a sense of continued political and economicmarginalisation inthe post-
apartheid era has acted as a spur for the revalorisation of precisely these markers.
As Kymlicka points out, promoting integration into a ‘societal culture’, by which he means a
common language and social institutions rather than common religious beliefs, family customs
or personal lifestyles, is a component of nation-building in all liberal democracies.63However,
in the South African case, the creation of a societal culture is very complex. The vast majority
of South Africans are of indigenous African descent but this formulation of ‘Africanness’
masks a great deal of cultural diversity. At the same time there are many who would propose
that there are features of an indigenous African identity that are held in common across
different ethnicities and which differ sharply from the identity of those who are not of
indigenous African descent. Viewed in this way, South Africa’s nation-building project can be
described as beset by the tension between two powerful dominant cultural forms – indigenous
African communal, on the one hand, and western liberal individualist on the other.
60 C. Bundy, ‘At War With the Future? Black South African Youth in the 1990s’, in S. Steadman, South Africa: the
Political Economy of Transformation (Boulder, CO, L. Rienner Publishers, 1994), p. 50.
61 G. Stevens and R. Lockhat, ‘Coca Cola Kids: Reflections on Black Adolescent Identity Development in Post-
Apartheid South Africa’, South African Journal of Psychology, 27, 4 (1997), p. 253.
63 Ibid., p.18.
90 Journal of Southern African Studies
Alternatively, the contrast can be viewed another way: between a culture of rights whose
structuring ideas include individualism, universalism and legal/technical processes on the
one hand, and the celebration of cultural particularity, group membership and ethical duties
on the other. This sense of culture and rights existing in a relationship of binary opposition
is, as Cowan and others have pointed out,64rooted in a much older politico-philosophical
antagonism: the Romantic nineteenth-century nationalism exemplified by Herder and the
universalism of the Enlightenment tradition. Does an awareness of cultural difference, then,
require of us the rejection of a discourse and politics of rights? A variety of possibilities for
resolving the tension present themselves.
In the first instance, we might suggest that ‘culture’ is not ‘really’ what is at issue in many
cases in which the apparent antagonism arises.65Behind essentialised appeals to culture often
lie political strategies for combating other social ills, most prominently poverty and its allied
forms of social marginalisation. A second possible resolution of the supposed tension
between ‘culture’ and ‘rights’ lies in the formulation of the relationship as one of a right to
culture. Here again the South African state has attempted to grapple with what this may mean.
Cultural rights are enshrined in the Constitution but recent legislation regulates cultural
practices like traditional circumcision and female virginity testing in ways that appear to
undermine the idea of a right as a claim trumping other competing considerations. To bring
culture within the ambit of legal rational norms in this way is, as Geertz has suggested, part of
‘a distinctive manner of imagining the real’.66Cultural belief systems which appear to verge
dangerously close to myth, religion and superstition have long troubled the project of
modernity, which bases itself upon rationality, progress and the revelation of the eternal,
immutable qualities of humanity.67Attempts to sanitise traditional circumcision give the
appearance of accommodating difference while erasing its most troubling features. Human
rights discourse, while proposing its universality, is at the same time giving expression to a
very particular imaginingof the real saturated with what Habermas refers to as a ‘technocratic
consciousness’.68Solutions to the controversy, which present themselves as efforts at
compromise between tradition and modernity emerge in reality as mechanisms for the
extension of centralised state power as expressed through the sanctioned medical bureaucracy
into arenas where it was previously absent or contested by alternative authority structures.
On the other hand, disillusionment with the rainbow nationalist project on the part of
those who have not felt themselves to be among its significant beneficiaries mirrors criticisms
of the melting pot ideal among Native American and black activists in the United States
in the 1960s and 1970s.69The ensuing identity politics, both in that context, and now in
contemporary South African, has seen a revivification of markers of ethnic distinctiveness.
Traditional circumcision practices are but one prominent example.
Department of Political and International Studies, Rhodes University, PO Box 94,
Grahamstown 6140, Republic of South Africa. E-mail: L.Vincent@ru.ac.za
64 Cowan et al., Culture and Rights, p. 4.
65 Ibid., p. 6.
66 Geertz, Local Knowledge (New York, Basic Books, 1983), p. 184.
67 D. Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford, Blackwell, 1989), p. 27.
68 J. Habermas, Towards a Rational Society (London, Heinemann, 1971), p. 112.
69 J.K. Cowan, M. Dembour and R.A. Wilson, Culture and Rights: Anthropological Perspectives (Cambridge,
Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 2.
Political Regulation of Traditional Circumcision Rites 91