Conflicts Between Traditional Leaders and Authorities

Since the media has brought attention to a high fatality rate and a number of botched circumcisions, there has been more focus on medical aspects of the initiation process, prompting the provincial government to increase its efforts to diminish the health concerns that arise during the ritual. In 1996, the authorities instructed the traditional leaders to help reform the surgical procedure carried out by traditional surgeons and clearly defined consequences for those who did not follow their procedures (City of Cape Town, 2009). In 1999, the authorities met with traditional leaders to form a cooperative relationship. Two years later, in the Eastern Cape the provincial government tried to formalize the procedure of initiation by creating the Application of Health Standards in the Traditional Circumcision Act.  This legislation created age requirements, a mandatory physical examination before initiation, surgical procedures, and health care standards. However, while enforced in some urban areas, the Act was largely not implemented by traditional leaders, who did not ensure that traditional surgeons and nurses were taking proper care of the initiates (Minutes of the City of Cape Town Inaugural Initiation Indaba held at Fountain Hotel 2009).    Traditional leaders have at times expressed anger and resentment towards the government intervention, and it has been difficult for the authorities to find a way to incorporate modern health practices, while preserving tradition.

Different surgical procedure and medical care are one of various processes not well received by the South African community.  Thembele Kampa wrote in his medical journal article that there was a circumcision device called a “Tara Klamp” created in 1999.  This device was supposed to make the circumcision procedure far safer and less likely to cause cross infection during the course of multiple uses.  However, the device was to be short-lived because traditional leaders would not replace traditional cutting tools in favour of this new technology.

In 2007, the City of Cape Town considered creating one initiation site amidst deep concerns of whether or not it had the authority to intervene and release communal lands for the construction of a cultural facility (Peltzer et al., 2008).  The plan for the creation of 11 sites in 2010 compared to 1 in 2007 shows the change in government policy towards site development.  Knowing that a large number of those who will undergo circumcision do so for cultural purposes (88.2% of those surveyed in an evaluation of safer male circumcision training for traditional nurses and surgeons), the City of Cape Town opted to make initiation sites accessible to ensure that the ritual can take place (Karl Peltzer, 2008).

The government and traditional leaders are aware of the current challenges, and are confident that initiation will remain an integral part of South African culture in urban environments—as General Secretary of the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa, Mwelo Nonkonyana said in 2007, “We want all boys who become men in the city to be equal to their counterparts who (observe) the custom in areas controlled by our chiefs” (Mtyala, 2007).