Dying to be Men


This month the Men’s sector is supporting the Department of Health on the re-launch of Medical Male Circumcision (MMC). As we continue to mobilize men and boys to sign up for this important intervention in the compendium of combination strategies we pause and ponder the recent tragic deaths of young people in Mpumalanga and Limpopo.

Some years ago a colleague within the men’s sector and Global co-Chair of MenEngage, Gary Barker, wrote a book, “Dying to be men” as a contribution to the discourse on positive male involvement in the quest for gender equality.

This riveting book focuses on issues of masculinity, culture and gender. I was reminded of this seminal work while we as a nation were recovering from the shock, and dare I say, shame of the deaths of young men in Mpumalanga and Limpopo following botched circumcisions.

There has been a lot of understandable furore, caused by the media reports on these needless deaths. My mind wondered, as my soul felt the pain at its deepest level, as excuses dominated the public space while those responsible for leadership in these matters once again sought to sweep the issue away under the guise of ‘respect for culture’. I am amazed how the quest for popularity can make leaders so insensitive to the loss of life at such a scale.

I was reminded by my conscience that only a few months ago 34 miners were mowed down at Marikana and the headlines screamed, ‘massacre’. My conscience was gnawing at the back my mind; Marikana affected the price of a precious commodity, Platinum, and by implication dividends for the elite in our society. So, who cares if 36 young African boys die ‘on the mountain’? After all, as one Traditional leader’s spokesperson said something to the effect that, ‘everyone dies, it is God’s plan’.

Well, this matters to some of us. It matters to many South Africans. I would even suggest that it matters to that Traditional leader. It matters to the mothers who have lost their sons in such a brutal manner. It matters to the community from whence these young men came. It matters to their peers who still have to conclude their training at the very same initiation schools where their comrades fell. It should matter to us all as South Africans because the values in our Constitution affirm the sanctity of human dignity and the right to life. It matters because these young men placed their trust in elders who simply failed them miserably.

It is of concern that the MEC responsible for Health in Mpumalanga feels that she should defer to culture and not uphold her core responsibility to the constitution and her mandate in law. This is further complicated by comments attributed to a key leader who chides everyone not to take those responsible to task in the public domain. This is the essence of Gary Barker’s assertion in his book that patriarchy places so much pressure on men and boys to expose themselves to such risky practices. Why should our young men be placed in such invidious positions that they are willing to die to be socially accepted as real men?

I am sure as I pen this piece that this is not the end of it. Sadly, more young men will continue to be sacrificed at the altar of cultural expediency. As we all know culture is not static, but rather dynamic. Are we as South Africans prepared to take a leap, especially on practices that expose our young to such vulnerability? Can we adapt to new and safer technologies that will ensure that lives are not lost and that injuries are eliminated?

Of course what has been obfuscated in the public debate on this matter is the equally appalling number of botched circumcisions on the many young men who are in hospital and others suffering silently at home. The effect of these is unimaginable. Many a young man suffers untold trauma and stress arising from the injuries in such circumstances. Some may not regain proper functioning of their genitalia. This is unpardonable. Many live with these scars for the rest of their lives.

What needs to be done?

First, those responsible for these deaths must be held accountable for their action. A clear message needs to be sent out through the justice system that this is not acceptable.

Secondly, related departments need to show leadership and put systems in place to ensure that established legislation related to these matters are implemented effectively, notably; the Northern Province Circumcision Schools Act No. 6 of 1996; Application of Health Standards in Traditional Circumcision Act No. 6 of 2001 (Eastern Cape); the Free State Initiation School Health Act No. 1 of 2004. The 2001 Eastern Cape Application of Health Standards in Traditional Circumcision Act: “provides for the observation of health standards in traditional circumcisions with penalties of up to 10 000 rand and 10 years in jail”. This must include a tight monitoring system that assures parents and communities that their young men are in safe hands as they practise their culture.

Thirdly, we need to see more leadership at all levels of society on these matters, and avoid the many excuses and arguments that divert attention from the fact that lives have been lost. Leadership demands that all those tasked with the responsibilities of implementing applicable laws not look the other way when this is not done. For once, accountable leadership will go a long way to rebuild the trust of the communities on state institutions. We need to see the President leading from the front on this to assure the South African public that no one is above the law!

Fourthly, we need a sustained dialogue on what it means and what it takes to become a man. The role and effectiveness of practices such as these needs to be interrogated. What do these practices mean in the democratic dispensation we live in? How can we practise them in ways that uphold the values of our nation?

Lastly, we all need to remain vigilant as a society. We need to do all in our power to ensure that such incidents are never allowed to recur in our society. We cannot afford to look the other way.