A Historic Perspective of the Initiation Ritual

Initiation Process

The time in a male’s life to participate in initiation was based upon age, family perspective, and culture. Typically young males between the ages of 16 and 23 underwent initiation (City of Cape Town, 2009). When the time came for a male to commence his initiation, all the potential initiates gathered to learn songs, herd cattle, collect firewood, cut saplings, fashion ropes for construction, and worked for their respective chief in order to prepare for manhood and the initiation ceremony (Afolayan, Funso, 2004).

Prior to the act of circumcision, the initiated men of the community began constructing a frame for an ibhoma, the hut that the initiates live in during their initiation, and women begin to thatch the ibhoma. The hut was set in isolation from the rest of the community in a location chosen by the chief. The isolated ibhoma is a symbol of the divide between the initiate and his former identity (T. R. Mavundla, Netswera, & Toth, 2009).

Before the initiates started the initiation ceremony, they spent time wearing headdresses, painting themselves in ochre, and roaming the countryside and conducting mischievous acts. This time of roaming was the last time the initiates couldan be irresponsible and immature and would be their last acts of boyhood (Afolayan, Funso, 2004).

The commencement of initiation can be marked by a feast, a slaughtering of an uncastrated bull or ram, a procession of the initiates led by skilled stick fighters, or any of the many other commencement rituals. With the commencement completed the elders of the community warned the initiates to put behind their childish ways and to conduct themselves as men from that point on. The initiates were then stripped of their clothes and washed away of all relics of their childhood.

Finally, the initiates were circumcised and told to exhibit courage and endurance when the ingcibi, the circumciser, cuts. According to Zolani Ngwane of Haverford College, it is a disgrace to grimace or show pain during circumcision (T. Mavundla et al., 2009). When the cut is made the initiate says, “I am a man” and the ingcibi responds, “You are a man” (Afolayan, Funso, 2004). The foreskin was then destroyed or buried, in order for the initiates to be kept away from witches and evil spirits. The wound was then bound and wrapped with izichwe plant. The izichwe plant is said to have antibiotic and pain relieving properties to aid in the healing and help with the pain (Afolayan, Funso, 2004).

After the circumcision the initiates were left in seclusion with the ikhankathas, (assigned guardians) in order to heal their wounds. Young uninitiated males provided food, wood, and basic necessities for the boys going through the initiation process. During the time of healing, the chief avoided the seclusion huts. The boys were directed not to contact married women or to speak ill of others (Bottoman, Mavundla, & Toth, 2009).

After the boys have healed, the chief returned. White ochre was washed off of the initiates, and red ochre was applied. The chief leads them away from their seclusion huts and displayed his paternal power by riding on a horse and firing a gun. This display of dominance was used to ensure that he will maintain his new subjects. At the conclusion of the initiation ceremony, the initiates burned their huts to symbolize the end of their childhood. They were not to look back, for the hut, like their childhood, is in the past.  The initiates were then brought back into the community as men, where they then feast with their community (Afolayan, Funso, 2004).

Consequences of not being initiated

“An umntu, [an uninitiated male], is sometimes referred to as an inja, a dog, to show the relationship of legal dependency existing between Chief and subject, or between father and child. The word inja is used to denote both the responsibility of the father for the torts or misdemeanours of his child, and the lack of capacity of the child to acquire and maintain rights for itself: Inja yakho, i bambela wena (inja i bambela umniniyo): the dog catches for its master. When used of the relations between chief and subject, it denotes the power of the Chief over his subject” (Momoti, 2002).

For many Xhosa, Sotho and Hlubi, the execution of the ritual gives the people a sense of community, reinforces individual social identity, and gives the initiated male a greater sense of belonging to his family. The ritual teaches the initiates many social practices, protocols, and responsibilities that are acquired with the status of manhood.  For example in the Xhosa tradition, initiated males are able to own cattle, inherit property, become part of their ancestral family, and marry (Ngwane, 2001).

The responsibility of manhood allows South African males to partake in decision-making situations in their tribe and in their household.  Horner and Brett claim that an initiate holds the respect of other men while an uninitiated boy is not respected. The uninitiated are considered boys and treated as children regardless of their age (Horner, 2006).

Those who go through the initiation ceremony benefit from knowledge that is passed down among men.  Associated parts of the ritual including isolation, thirst, and loneliness reportedly prove that the boy is ready to become a man and gain access to this knowledge.  This respect is not something that can be obtained in any other fashion.  With this newly earned respect, comes the expectation that initiated men will demonstrate greater knowledge in the areas of socialization, language use, courtship, marriage, employment, traditional dancing, hunting, and civic duties (van Dijk, 2002). Likewise, those who have not been initiated are not held to this standard of behaviour.

To gain access to this essential knowledge, and to prevent their separation from adult society, Mavundla states that uninitiated males receive pressure to undergo the initiation ritual (T. Mavundla et al., 2009).  Their opinions and voice in the community are discounted when any decisions are made.  Females will not even consider entering a formal relationship with an uninitiated male. Women are forbidden to date or marry males who have not undergone initiation.  Mavundla makes even stronger claims:

The failure to be initiated brings shame and dishonour to the name of the family, and it discounts their eligibility to be heirs of the family property and wealth (T. T. R. Mavundla, 2010). Often, members of South African abantu who fail the test of the ritual are forced to leave the community and start a life where their uninitiated status is unknown.

Social privileges are not the only area of loss for an uninitiated person.  Their dignity is often targeted, and their integrity questioned. Mavundla states that the uninitiated are stereotypically associated with laziness and dishonesty, they face constant discrimination and have lower social, economic, and political status; the lives of the uninitiated are often hindered by disrespect and abuse (T. T. R. Mavundla, 2010).  These discriminations are principally based on the stereotypes associated with being uninitiated.