Inxeba and the Customary Initiation Bill: A necessary reflection to be had
Phumezo Masango, GWC Faculty, Church History, Practical Theology, New Testament
In recent months we have witnessed heated debates and discussions around the film ‘Inxeba’. Among other things, the film depicts a challenge facing initiates of homosexual orientation. Responses to this film have polarised. Some have attempted to have it banned while others have been raving about it. I have only seen the film’s YouTube trailer, but I have witnessed the heated debates and the tension it has raised, mainly among Xhosa men.
The Customary Initiation Bill tabled in parliament last week has already drawn widespread criticism from traditional leaders from the Eastern Cape. The bill seeks to regulate initiation schools, some of which have been places of neglect, abuse, botched circumcisions, and even death for hundreds of youth seeking to be men in the eyes of the community. I am not sure if many stake-holders have familiarized themselves with the bill which makes detailed rules, meant to protect initiates. However, for it to have a positive impact it needs parents, initiates, traditional leaders, traditional surgeons, and nurses to put into practice the remedies it proposes.
Space does not permit me to discuss in great detail either the film and the bill. But both present stake-holders in the initiation custom with an opportunity to take the lead in reflecting deeply on the role of initiation in changing times. The Christian church is especially challenged to think through how the custom of initiation might form part of a vehicle for making disciples of Jesus Christ out of the young men.
Following are some of the issues that need urgent attention from the stake-holders, if this custom is to continue adding value to the life not only of the individual initiates, but also to the church and society at large:
One. What are the main purposes of initiation in the 21st century? This question is at the heart of the custom of initiation. The answer to it influences how this custom is done. It also addresses itself to the question of whether or not there might be other alternatives to achieving the purposes of initiation.
Two. How do we put an end to practices that pose a threat to the lives of the initiates? It cannot be denied that there have been instances of physical abuse, and neglect, that have contributed to the hospitalization and death of many young initiates. The Customary Initiation Bill has some very good proposals that needs to be engaged with and implemented.
Thee. In what ways is circumcision (traditional or medical) a significant part of initiation? In my opinion, too much unnecessary focus has been placed on the need to do the surgical procedure in the traditional manner. This emphasis fails to appreciate the historical background to this method, and it does not take into consideration the times and circumstances in which different initiates find themselves in the 21st century. A discussion on methods of circumcision within the context of initiation are long overdue.
Four. Does our understanding and current practice of initiation allow place for people with same sex attraction? Many people in South Africa accept that there are many people who have same sex attraction and some of them love their cultural custom of initiation. Our forebears did not envisage this issue and it would seem that the current practice of initiation has not considered the implications of same sex attraction. Inxeba, it seems, has given us an opportunity to deal with this issue head on.
Five. Are people whose physical conditions do not permit a traditional circumcision included or excluded in the custom of initiation? There are many people whose physical or medical conditions prohibit them from a medical procedure at initiation. Some were born like that and others have had the procedure due to infections early in life and still others have chosen to do the procedure privately at hospitals prior to initiation. Are we saying that they have no place in the initiation school and therefore cannot be men according to our cultural understanding?
Six. What opportunities of sharing the gospel of Christ Jesus can we exploit around this custom? For those of us who are Christians and whose mission it is to make disciples for Jesus Christ, in what way can we utilize the initiation custom?
Seven. How should Christians deal with those elements of initiation that are contrary to the clear teachings of the Bible which is God’s Word to us? As Christians, many of us hold the Bible to be God’s Word and possessing the final authority in our lives. Where cultural expectations clash with the clear teaching of God’s word, we say no to those practices. The question is, how do we go about practicing initiation by maintaining our obedience to God’s word?
Eight. Why is it that older men are increasingly taking less active roles in the initiation process? Except at those moments of ceremonies, we are seeing that older men are no longer consistently present around the initiates. The initiates are usually left with younger men who are of the same age group as them. We need to ask ourselves why this is the case, and what impact it has on those initiates.
Nine. What avenues can we as the church provide for people seeking healing from the deep emotional scars that their painful experiences at initiation school caused? For over two decades now we have seen the pain experienced by those who suffered as a result of physical abuse, neglect, botched circumcisions, and amputations. Many of the victims have suffered in silence. How can we, the Christian people, help facilitate healing of these victims?
Ten. How should we relate to people who have chosen to exercise their right not to go through initiation? We live in a democratic South Africa. People have a right to choose not to go to through initiation. Often they have been ridiculed and that cannot be right. How can we educate people to respect other people’s freedoms on the issue of initiation?
These questions must be treated with sincerity and with sensitivity. Wisdom should be sought from those who have already made significant attempts to address these issues from a Christian perspective.
It is easy to try and convince ourselves that the practice of Xhosa initiation will disappear as more people become exposed to the western ways of life. It is easy to be misled by claims that the majority of young men go through initiation only because they have been pressured by parents, friends and communities, and that they would refuse the practice if given the opportunity. Nevertheless, those who interact regularly with young people, and those who know the statistics around this question, understand that the practice is not nearing its end anytime soon.
As Christians, we would do well to take a leading role in these discussions.