NATAL WITNESS, Pietermaritzburg, Monday, 15 July 2002.


A plague on culture

Because circumcision is cultural does not make it acceptable

Now, let me get this right. To be a man, what you need to do is to wait until you are 16. Then you need to join what in this part of the world gets called a "school". The "principal" of this said "school" takes you off into the mountains in the middle of winter, strips you, beats you to a pulp, starves you, refuses you water, makes you sing and then chops off your foreskin with a blade that is likely to cause an infection of one sort or another so that, in all likelihood, you either lose you penis in its entirety or, worse, your life.

That's what has been going on here lately. And believe me, not for the first time either. It happens every winter. And every winter we all watch shivering 16-year-old survivors of circumcision schools lying in hospital. We see anguished parents saying they didn't know that their child had gone to the school and now they are dead. And then we have to sit through this Africanist and that traditionalist saying how important it all is and this nurse and that doctor saying how tragic it all is.

But it is culture and God forbid we should dare actually to criticise it, let alone reject it outright or condemn it as nonsense of the highest possible grade. No, that we can't do because everyone is so keen to tango on the cultural eggshells. Thank God for the Zulus, I say. Because they once had a leader who was brave enough and sure enough of himself and sensible enough and (some would say) pragmatic enough just to do away with the ghastly practice with a majesterial wave of his royal hand.

And so began another culture just as strong---this time with foreskins, proving once and for all the utter senselessness and stupidity of those who would argue that life as a man can only begin once a God-given piece of you is chopped off. The cultural contradiction is thus fully exposed. But put a Zulu and a Xhosa man in the same room, the latter circumcised and the former not, and I promise you there will be a merry showdown about who is a man and who is not and why. Thank God for the Zulus, because otherwise the whole thing could so easily be turned into something racial as well (forgetting that the Americans circumcise routinely, of course).

If we object to female circumcision on grounds of barbarism, what on earth makes us not reject male circumcision as a cultural practice? There is no logic in the argument. But culture, as we all know so well, seldom operates on the level of logic.

Many years ago, in the eighties, I helped six or seven young Cosas members who were in trouble. The noose of the security cordon around Grahamstown was being tightened and they were in grave danger of being caught. I helped them to get across the border to Lesotho.

And something I will never forget is when we were driving towards the Lesotho border, suddenly one of them got very agitated. The freedom songs ground to a halt and a serious discussion took place in Xhosa. I asked what was going on, because one of the boys looked extremely worried. They told me. They were all very excited about leaving the country. They were very excited indeed about joining the underground. But how were they going to get circumcised in Lusaka?

I had a discussion the other day, with an intern from Wits University who is working on our project, about the subject. He is Xhosa. He went to circumcision school and it clearly had a very large impact on his life. When he talks about it, he shows no regret. He says there are things that he can't talk about. Would he force his son to do it? No, he says, he would allow his son to make up his own mind. He would put to his son the benefits as he saw it and leave it at that. I believe he would, but what I don't think he is able to see is that the pressure to conform culturally would be quite enormous and would far outweigh any notion of objective decision-making on his son's part.

That is what culture can, and does, do. It pushes you into a corner. It forces you to conform and in the end, it leaves you with very little indeed, if you are not deeply critical about it. And in the end, we are left staring at each other's penises in the effort to determine which of us is in the in group and which of us is not, not unlike the Nazis did to the Jews.

I believe that circumcision schools should be banned. I believe that those who run them should be charged and put in prison. I think circumcision is completely wrong when it is practised by adults on children and I think it is a complete violation of their rights to their own bodies.

I have no view whatsoever on adults who want to mutilate themselves. I have only mild nausea about people who want to stick pins through their tongues, noses, belly buttons, ears and other available parts of their bodies. If people want to walk over fire, let them do so. If they want to hammer swords into their stomachs, please, be my guest. I accept that this is entirely, completely, absolutely their own business and my nausea is mine. But not children. That is a different thing altogether. And not 16-year-olds who can be persuaded by just about anything anyone around them does. These are different matters entirely.

The fact that it is tied up with someone or other's culture is entirely irrelevant to the argument in just the same way as we would need to reject most other forms of inhuman treatment dressed up in cultural garb, such as ritual murder for instance. Because a thing is cultural makes it neither good nor acceptable in its own right. Because a thing is cultural, or even because a thing is widely practised, gives it no credibility at all on its own.

Human rights has got to be the standard here. We have no other. Every form of religion, in its own way and some more viciously than others, has people doing things that others regard as crazy or inhuman or degrading. So religion cannot provide us with any standard.

Human rights must judge culture. Or if not that, it must hold it very firmly in check.

Michael Worsnip is programme manager for the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, run by the Gauteng Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Environment and Land Affairs.

Publish Date: 15 July 2002

(File prepared 16 July 2002)