The recently released South African film Inxeba (The Wound) has been met with widespread critical acclaim internationally but seems to have divided local audiences who claim the movie disrespects an age-old Xhosa tradition called Ulwaluko. This rite-of-passage ritual involves young Xhosa initiates being circumcised by elder mentor figures to welcome them to ‘manhood.’

Inxeba tells the story of a factory worker who joins other men of his community on a journey to the mountains to initiate a group of teenagers into manhood. However, his existence quickly starts to unravel when a defiant initiate discovers his secret sexuality. The film has been so controversial that local cinemas have pulled it from its schedules due to protests, and many have called for it to be banned.

There are two primary reasons behind the outrage: firstly, Inxeba depicts a homosexual relationship, which is still considered a taboo in many African cultures, despite being legally accepted in South Africa; and secondly, it supposedly reveals too many secrets about the traditional practice that is considered to be sacred.

However, the lid has been blown off the secret ritual for some time now; not only does Nelson Mandela write quite candidly about it in A Long Walk to Freedom, but vast amounts of information on the tradition can be found online as well.

Every year, many young initiates are either left disfigured or even lose their lives due to being circumcised in medically unsafe conditions. Thus, many people have argued that the more that is known about the ritual, the better because it means that proper processes, which don’t interfere with traditions, can be implemented to ensure the safety of the initiates.

So, with lives potentially at risk, where does the law stand on this traditional initiation practice?

According to the Customary Male Initiation Practice Act, anyone who conducts or opens an initiation school without written permission from the MEC for Health, and written approval from relevant traditional leadership, is guilty of a criminal offense and can be fined up to R20 000 or be sent to prison for 12months, or both. What’s more, it also provides that if any illegal initiation school results in injury or death, those responsible can be charged with attempted murder or murder, which, upon conviction, may result in a sentence of up to 25 years in jail.

Furthermore, the law states:

  • A parent or guardian must give written permission to approve their son’s admission into an initiation school.
  • The prospective initiate cannot be younger than 18 years.
  • The traditional surgeon must be registered and recommended by a respected and experience traditional leader.
  • The traditional nurses who assist the surgeon must be registered and well-known in the community.

According to LAW FOR ALL Managing Director, Adv. Jackie Nagtegaal, the topic of Inxeba is a culturally sensitive one, and most Xhosa people feel uncomfortable to express their personal and sometimes even professional opinions on the matter. “On one side some people argue that this ancient Xhosa tradition is negatively impacted by Western ideas of the “proper way of doing things” and much of this sacred ritual’s essence is lost by incorporating what is perceived as “more civilized” methods,” says Nagtegaal. “Others feel that, while traditions are important and significant, improved processes should be implemented to protect innocent people losing their lives.”

Whether or not the law is effective remains to be seen. So is there a middle ground? Can the essence of a traditional stay intact and evolve with the times? It is a contentious issue that still needs rigorous interrogation and thought.

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