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What is a Man?

What is a Man?

by Unathi Kondile / Images by Andre du Plessis / 27.06.2012

Translated from the original isiXhosa by Pumla Dineo Gqola.

“Manhood lies in conduct rather than age” – BB Mkonto

Tetse, a lad of 20, lived with his mother near Matatiele. Every year he would broach this question to her, “O’lady, when will it be my turn to attend initiation school?”. This question was echoed each December and July.

Last year, the youngster decided to enter traditional manhood initiation without parental permission. He joined a group of boys whose school in the Matatiele hills would fall under Tat’ uJwarha’s supervision. Jwarha was a man now famous for the meandering walk of the intoxicated. A skillful traditional surgeon in bygone days, alcohol abuse had long erased his talent.

The long and short of my tale is that Tetse did not graduate from initiation school. Rumour has it he died from dehydration and an unnamed ailment. In 2011, he was among the 25 other initiates who died.

As I write this, July is again upon us, and as is the case in many years, youngsters are itching and acting out in anticipation of their turn to be turned initiate. Not all of them will graduate to manhood. Some will be news headline fodder, and as readers we will be cautioned against traditional manhood initiation processes (ukwaluka). We will be told by Westerners and the fools among our own, controlled by the former, screaming “change this custom”, “This is thuggery, boys are dying!” and so forth.

All of this because of the irresponsibility of Jwarha-types and the uncontained excitement by the likes of Tetse.

If I appear to lay the blame at the feet of Jwarha and Tetse, this is by design. There is nothing amiss in the actual custom. When we speak of custom, we refer to the procedures of a people according to their faith systems. In historical writing, Sonkqishe and others, defined tradition as that which is adhered to in each home in accordance with that family’s belief system. There would be customary correlation within the same family lineage (isiduko). There is also the belief that custom is medicine – that people who exists outside of it can fall ill or be badly behaved.

From the above, then, the source of contemporary problems with men and manhood is evident. Many men today emerge out of initiation schools not with custom but with bad behaviour. The textures of this need extensive investigation. There are also distracting (destructive) conflations of traditional manhood initiation (ukwaluka) with mere circumcision (ukwaluswa). This simplistic merging of a process and an event is particularly evident in the noise on television and newspaper pages.

Traditional manhood initiation processes used to be a protected custom, but it has since become an openly discussed matter. What is troubling is how few Xhosa men have intervened into these discussions of what has gone wrong. I am not sure whether this is due to jealousy or civilisation. Jealousy seems to be at the heart of the matter for me. Otherwise, how do you explain those of us who have benefitted from the lessons of traditional manhood initiation refusing to pass on this very same wisdom to the youngsters who come after us? Is it because we no longer see the role of ukwaluka in society? Then how dare we exclaim in horror when youngsters deemed officially to be men are so crude in behaviour?

They rape old women and children, beat up women, terrorise communities, kill one another – ask for cigarettes and alcohol from boys, are openly intoxicated in public, they live for alcohol.

That is the situation. We have been so infatuated with “Western” ways of being that we have forgotten that before a person was a person through communion with others, people were human through adherence to their own customs.

Perhaps all matters to do with custom are hard to swallow for some because of the involvement of venerating the ancestors, something new Christians are repulsed by. Why are our people so ready to worship imported gods when these are as unscientific as ours? Why is it so easy to make the leap of faith towards that of an other but not towards our very own? While we look down on all matters ancestor related we worship at the very throne of other faith narratives.

Yes, faith is a private matter. You have a right to choose. But as a Xhosa person, your starting point should be custom and ancestry referenced as a source of strength, growth and protection. Instead we are saddled with men who are not only badly behaved in communities and society at large, they also abdicate their responsibilities within families. This is a crisis.

We need to ask again: what is a man?

Is it enough to simply go through a stage, end of story followed by celebrations? Last I checked, being a man meant graduating from boyhood in accordance with ukwaluka. A man is he who has been counselled by experts who have gone before, along with other wise elders. A Xhosa man is he who takes care of royalty, leaders and protects office bearers as per African tradition. No man lives alone. When the home is beset by problems, a man seeks counsel from his peers. Such a man supports others in the community and ensures that his home is well nourished. These days you notice how women shoulder all of the responsibilities I have listed, while men choose the infantile behaviour of boys. Today’s “men” choose the easy way out.

Can such an individual still be called a man? No. Why do they even bother going to traditional manhood school (esuthwini) these days? Given how such men behave, it becomes easy to look down on ukwaluka as an ineffective custom. No wonder outsiders call for the elimination of ukwaluko; there is no discernable difference between boys and these new men.

As a man who continues to go home, I am pained when I visit initiates in rural villages and townships alike and find their traditional caretakers (amakhankatha) gone missing, the places of confinement for initiates (amabhoma) littered with beer bottles competing for space with KFC packages. I see any random men from the environs taking liberties with these initiates, offering inappropriate advice. Why then should initiates take such an institution seriously as a dignified station and role. It has simply become procedure, another stage, just so they can also declare “I am a man” at the end.

This is a problem. If we take neither responsibility nor pride in our own custom, how dare we expect outsiders to take us seriously? The calls for the end of this custom will continue to gather momentum.

I predict that larger numbers of initiates will enter hospitals, where their amabhoma will be a Ward number. These numbers will explode because most children are singlehandedly raised by their mothers. Where are the fathers? They have gone astray. They are indifferent to who will initiate their sons. What do we think of this enormous burden we continue to place on these single mothers? Do we really expect these women, who stay and parent, will knowingly enter their sons into this disastrous situation?

We have long ceased caring, and our carelessness will be our decline. We bear witness to the fruits of that disregard. Yet we keep asking ourselves, “what is wrong with today’s youth?” And “what is wrong with today’s men?” We threw away customs that built us and now we feign shock and horror.

Although it is forbidden to discuss the internal workings of the initiation process, we have come to a place where we need to deviate from this secrecy and start writing the procedures down. Otherwise, we run the risk of further damage by pseudo-experts. We have come to a juncture where we also need cultural Bibles, like other peoples in the world. We certainly cannot rely on traditional leaders on this count, given the dire state of those positions. Let us open this discussion and get the support we need in order to strengthen one another in the open, rather than harm ourselves in private. The priority needs to be ensuring adherence to custom in order to see how we can improve our collective fate again.

We, Xhosa people, have elaborate leadership and governance structures, advice giving and rehabilitation mechanisms that predate and survive the introduction of “Western” styles of rule. For example, this past weekend I was at a Gugulethu joint called Corner Lounge, where I suddenly saw different types of beverages arrive along with a group of men who settled next to me. I soon realised from the conversation that all of this alcohol was compensation paid by two men: one who had beaten his wife up and another who had been badly behaved in the community. Witnessing this made me happy to see traditional Xhosa dispute resolution practices at play. People get punished in Xhosa society in ways that quickly address the wrong. The first man’s wife was reassured by these other men that should he behave inappropriately again, they would sort him out.

Don’t we agree that punishment is universal in Xhosa idiom?

The solutions to our problems lie before our very eyes. Let us return to exploring what manhood is. What does it mean to be a Xhosa man?

Let me conclude.

I started out by pointing to the onset of July, some initiates have entered ukwaluka and some will not come out. We will be inundated by newspaper reportage on the evils of this custom. We will be unable to defend it. We will remain silent insisting on respecting the expected insider secrecy. We will miss an opportunity to educate society on the importance of making men, through education, respect, through support and affirming counsel.

This custom tries to build, not to kill.

We will not ensure that those like Jwarha do not open their own initiation schools in the wild; we will not ensure that boys understand why they are there. We will not ensure that no boy enters without parental permission. We will not ensure that men in the community strengthen this custom or that we standardise its practice today.

While some say custom can embarrass us, I say to abandon it is to surrender the future.

*Read the original isXhosa “Ukukruneka KweKrwala” here.

**Opening image © Andre du Plessis.

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  1. CM says:

    Elaborate leadership and governance structures? A wife gets abused, her husband buys all the men in the village a beer and everything is ok. What a joke.

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  2. Han says:

    Hey, thanks for the piece. I don’t think setting this up as a “white people’s misperceptions” vs. “tradition” is a helpful way of thinking about this though. Let’s not forget, tradition is deeply dynamic and responsive – there is no final, uncorrupted, authentic and original tradition which just needs to be regained. As time changes and circumstances change, the shape and possibilities of certain traditions are irreperably changed and express themselves differently.

    Xhosa culture is, for better or worse, now very much part of a larger cultural context and the many forces are now working against and with each other to produce a very complex picture of how tradition (and ideas of masculinity) do/can operate. We need to think about these together and not isolated. The above is not to suggest you don’t do this, but rather an encouragement for more people to do so.

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  3. anothergaymansays says:

    It appears that tradition is just another form of religion and the fear is that if you do not COMPLY you will fall into evil ways. I find this paternalistic and backward if not insulting. Free yourself from tradition and religion and become a REAL man. It has nothing to do with chopping off yr foreskin. That’s sick.

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  4. Phumlani says:

    To CM and anothergaymansays, if you don’t know what to say and have nothing of substance to put forward why write?

    Han, I get what you’re trying to say and it’s based on a principle of progression I suppose. But the note of cultural alienation and polarisation still play a heavy role in the outlook put forward in this text. We can’t move forward in a dynamic and responsive manner without a firm rooting of identity and knowledge of self. If anything by quickly jumping to the notion of getting with the times, you’re perpetuating the complex system of historical corruption and moreover destruction.

    The text raises a lot of questions that a lot find valid today and are grappling to resolve within the constantly shifting global landscape; defined through a dominant ideology that appreciates indulgence others have deprived of.

    To merely accept a small part of what makes you up and jump on the popularity train is to deprive yourself entirely, because you’ll forever be the groups new member, trying to work your way up to the leaders status.

    Definition starts with the acceptance of the reflection in the mirror. Then whatever else comes, is a contribution to the complexity of being.

    And if you haven’t realised it yet, it’s not about having your foreskin chopped off!

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  5. Opinionist says:

    Pretty pathetic way of dealing with domestic violence. By some booze for a group of men and all is forgiven. If the perpetrator beats his wife again just buy some more booze.

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  6. willemLanga says:

    A Xhosa mate of mine had his foreskin chopped by a doctor, didn’t do the initiation school. Doesn’t tell any one for fear of being ostracized. A real gent. A gentle man too. Respects women. And his fellow man. Loves his Xhosa heritage. What do you make of him Unathi, and Phumlani?

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  7. Andy says:

    “Although it is forbidden to discuss the internal workings of the initiation process, we have come to a place where we need to deviate from this secrecy and start writing the procedures down. Otherwise, we run the risk of further damage by pseudo-experts. We have come to a juncture where we also need cultural Bibles”

    I’m with Unathi on this. So much kak gets done in the name of “African culture” because there is no accepted norm or standard.

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  8. Anonymous says:

    Personally I think the fuck up lies at the point where people are looking for such definitions to be made. At the end of the day we’re individuals and shape the world according to our personal perceptions of it. I’ve chosen for a very long time to participate in a western world surrendering power to the people who already have it, but this does not mean I cannot speak truth to it, nor does it I mean I am not allowed to move away from it, in the pursuit of making sense of it in a way that I can completely understand and engage with.

    People who are not directly involved should have no say in how things should work.

    The argument Unathi has put forward is merited on the basis that it is an individual opinion and should there be communal resonance from direct participants of this cultural practice then so be it. The bible reference for me doesn’t hold weight cause I am not a religious man and do not believe that anything deserves to be static in any form. Again personal opinion.

    So Andy your comment, while I understand that it comes from a place of sincerity in that it is in the ideal of human commonality and “empathy” I have to disregard it’s weight purely based on your point of departure in life.

    Mr Langa I say each to his own, but be able to substantiate your position because fear is a reason and not justification.

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  9. Phumlani says:

    Shit that was me up there, as anonymous, just wanted to add that Mr Langa should be careful about the phrase gentleman and the framing of it’s use.

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  10. Anonymous says:

    Butchering your penis doesn’t make you a man. Nor does going though puberty, nor does being able to make a child. One becomes a man when you act like one.
    Batman said “don’t judge a man by who he is, judge him by what he does”

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  11. Unathi says:

    Andaz’ba ndizakunicenga ‘de kubenini na ukuba nisuse lomfanekiso niwoneke nesisibhala… andazi…. aninokhe nisuse obubuvuvu bomfanekiso na? *etica* ingath’ niyalibala ukuba amehlo awaphakelani, kwaye lento yenu yokuqhela ukubhalelwa ziiCoconuts kufuneka iphele! AndiyoCoconut yenu mna. Kwaye andiwuvumi tu lomfanekiso nikhethe ukuba ukhaphe amazwi am… Ndingafincanga makhe ndihlomle kulomba wabantu abakhalaza ngokudliwa neeWomen Abuse njalo-njalo. Impendulo yam apho: aningeni ndawo – ukudliwa kusebenza bhetele kunokuchophisa abantu kwiinkundla zenu zobubhanxa.

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  12. Tumi says:

    Just in case you’re wondering, Unathi just stepped into the room, smacked most of you, and walked out.

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  13. the present says:

    Thanks for clearing that up Tumi 🙂 Now we can all move on. A really important, noteworthy piece of writing by Unathi though, whether one likes to agree with his points or not.

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  14. firebrand says:

    Damn! Did the censors get hold of my illustration? And that was the version without the fluids….

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  15. NAS says:


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  16. Anonymous says:

    That was beautiful.

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  17. Kukho ingoma ethi ukuzenza indoda akufani nokwenziwa.true indoda asiko sikwa jwabi.ukwaluka kuqulathe into eninzi ukuba wayenza yonke lanto uzoyazi.lento yathethwa ngu yehova ukuba mayenzeke ,wena zungayenzi uyawkuphoswa yeyona nto inkulu ebomini.abo bafa says:


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  18. Anonymous says:

    Ukwaluka does not mean you are a man a real man is a man who is responsible for his action so I say ukwaluka does not mean anything

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  19. Anonymous says:

    People please remove suchinformation from the internet this ie very sensitive nibhentsisa isiko lethu that is totally unfair please…

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  20. MIHLE MADUNA says:

    it is our custom after all whether u guys lyk it or not nd will carry on practising it for as long as we lyk nd it’s nt lyk ppl are forced to go to initiation school.

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  21. mihle maduna says:

    Ukwaluka is a custom that tries to build not to kill.while some say custom can embarrass us,well mna ndithi ukulahla amasiko wethu is to surrender iksasa lethu.

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  22. Avuyile says:

    Nam ndiyaxhasa ndiyindoda yesiXhosa mayisuswe le mifanekiso apha..andothuki phof lo walemifanekiso andiqondi ba woluka uyafana nenkwenkwe engazange yaya esuthwini yayalwa ngamadoda…mayisuswe le mbanxo apha please…asiwongawo amadodana apha kwa Xhosa singamaDoda umthetho makube ngumthetho wethu maXhosa hayi wezifundiswa ezihambisa inkcukacha zethu zakwantu kwiiINTERNET bububhanxa obo

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  23. Avuyile Mhlonyane says:

    Khona izinto zamadoda zolwaluko beziyinton kwiINTERNET…hay saphela isiszwe sakwantu zizifundiswa eziswela umthetho…iimfihlelo zamadoda makube zezabo hayi zee internet ndiyayilwa le nto

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  24. sibabalo says:

    Butchering ur penis doesn’t make u a man.uyikaka yenkwenkwe anonymous uyateta nje kuba naku utanda indaba ukwaluka its not about ukususa ujwaba kuphela subasisbhanxa senkwenkwe ethanda indaba apha wena keep ur opinion ebhedayo 2 urself uhlale nelojwabalakho.

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  25. khonza says:

    To hell with this custom.Do the initiates even know why circumcision is carried out in the river? There’s a kingdom of water spirits; demonic spirits that feed on the blood, pain and fear.People should know what they are getting themselves into.

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  26. ken says:

    hi i am a white parent of a xhosa boy my question is he has just informed us that he will be going to the bush this december and that he has arranged this with his biological uncle we as his parents were never consulted about this although i am not against this practise of rite to passage i firmly believe that men do not go to school and have always requested that this be done after he matriculates which would be at the end of 2015 however he chooses to disrespect our wish and is insistent on going ahead with this if he has this approach now what will he be like when he comes out the bush

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  27. Anonymous says:

    Kukunya lena into ndiyimona apha kwi itaneti

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  28. Kwak'kwanje phina says:

    if you look at the towns falling under the old Transkei eg queenstown, Cofimvaba, Cala, Ladyfrere, tsomo all the surounding town to Idutywa we excercise our customs 99% and as results we don’t loose initiates +average initiates age is 19 upwards.
    Unlike the old Ciskei surondings, the famouse Likisiki, Mampondweni etc. who seem to undergo this custom as early as 10 years, incontrast Indoda yiyo ngezenzo, how possible is that to a 10 year old Makrwala’s.

    But is is not an INTERNET issue

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  29. asavela says:

    bt niziphethe kakubi uba ningabhala ngento enizenza le entabe.besingazi uba kusikwa amajwabi bt nw we do hw can we tyk u crus nje ngabant aba ngomama

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  30. Dambalaza mninimzi says:

    Yabona le ithethwa ngumbhali bubuxoki, futhi ubuyakukholeleka kubantu abafana naye abangalazi uLwaluko. Mna ndiyindoda yomthembu eMatatiele, oko ndavela zange kwafa’mkhwetha esuthwini jikelele iMatatiele iphela . Hay..hay ndoda imfundo yakho yobukuba nguQgirha mayingasichaphazeli thina Bantu beSiko..plz torho siyeke thina siqhube nobudoda bethu.

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