Some are traditionalists who believe that the only way to be circumcised is to go to the mountains as a rite of passage into manhood. Others are modernists who believe that it’s safer to be circumcised by the hands of a Western medicine practitioner for future health benefits.
Best friends, Manosa Nthunya and Phumele Jabavu, are but only two of a possibly large number of young men who hold opposing views on the matter. The pair are ordinary twenty-something year olds, who both love watching the latest teen flick movies and are very close. However, they are fierce rivals when it comes to the subject of male circumcision.
Twenty two year old Manosa Nthunya intends to get himself medically circumcised, even though his best friend is persuading him to consider traditional circumcision rather.
‘I could list many reasons for refusing to go the traditional route, but mainly, it’s my disdain with the whole practise, in general. A belief that if you go to the mountains’¦ you are now a man! I generally believe that its crap. Going to the mountains (for) a week or a month does not make you a man at all’, says Nthunya.
Nthunya is a mixture of Sotho and Xhosa and has been under pressure from both his parents to go to a traditional initiation school. Both the Sotho and Xhosa cultures staunchly subscribe to traditional circumcision as a rite of passage into manhood. His friends are also advising him to honour his culture. But he feels that he is not disrespecting his cultural obligations, but simply exercising his democratic rights.
‘I believe as an individual, even though I am Sotho, I still have the right to decide what it is that I would like to take from my culture and what it is that I would not take. If we have to follow culture even when it goes against our own logic, then I have an issue with that. But there are certain things from my culture which I genuinely respect, such as the norms we are supposed to keep… you know respecting one’s elders and speaking to people in a certain way’.
Twenty five year old Phumelele Jabavu, who’s studying Law at Wits, disagrees with his best friend’s views. Jabavu was circumcised through the traditional initiation schools and is a proud Xhosa man.
‘I went the traditional route because it was my rite of passage as a Xhosa man. Because the only way I could feel as an authentic Xhosa man’¦ was if I undergo that traditional ceremony’.
So, one wonders if Jabavu feels ‘superior’ or more of a man than his peers since he’s gone to a traditional initiation school.
‘Look, I’ll be honest… manhood… the general term… is not defined by circumcision alone. However, I would have to say that if it’s part of your culture, if it’s part of your tradition and if you do not do it, unfortunately in some cultural settings, you’ll not be recognised as a true man’, he says.
Nthunya and Jabavu will probably remain at odds about whether traditional or medical circumcision makes one a man or not for the rest of their lives. But it would also seem that the practice of circumcision itself is different the way it’s done medically and traditionally.
South Africa recently adopted a policy to roll out medical male circumcision among young men as a means of protecting them from acquiring HIV infection. This follows scientific clinical studies that have shown that medical male circumcision can reduce HIV acquisition by up to 60% in heterosexual men.
‘When one gets circumcised, the foreskin which is the moist mucous membrane of the penis is removed, and that’s where germs usually like to hide or stick. And that’s how one can get HIV or any other sexually transmitted diseases – that it will attach to the foreskin – and if the foreskin is removed, then the penis will be easy to clean and germs cannot attach that easily, including HIV or any other STI’s’ says Dr Limakatso Lebina, a medical circumcision surgeon from Zuzimpilo Clinic, in Johannesburg.
She further explained that there is a difference between traditional and medical circumcision.
‘There has been the notion that, especially with traditional male circumcision, that not the entire foreskin is removed. So, if you still have some foreskin, then we cannot say your risk has been reduced or not’ says Dr. Lebina.
The General-Secretary of the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South agreed that the country is facing a major HIV epidemic facing the country.
‘We encourage our people to go for a test and know their status before they come to us. We will then seek medical advice on how we should deal with this issue. But when there is no disclosure, it becomes something that we did not envision to see’, he said.
But, he pointed out that traditionalists will work with medical circumcision surgeons’ only one condition:
‘We’ve been saying for a long time we don’t have an issue with a medical practitioner coming to our culture to assist us, but we are saying those doctors should be graduates of our own institution. You cannot go to an institution without knowing it, whether you are a qualified doctor and you know how to operate circumcision. Our processes are not limited to that particular operation’ Kgosi Thobejane said.