Raymond Suttner, Notions of manhood: Initiation tragedies should not blind us to dangers beyond those that are part of public discourse


The ANC and the Minister of Health have correctly deplored the spate of deaths resulting from initiation practices, in the Eastern Cape and other areas.  The circumstances leading to these deaths needs full and extensive investigation, since those conditions also produce a range of other physical and psychological injuries that are sometimes unpublicised and need to be averted.

The ANC statement of yesterday refers to these young people making ‘the transition from childhood to manhood in an age old custom that remains an entrenched and necessary part of our cultural fabric.’

What we need to ask is whether this question of transition to manhood should not be part of a wider conversation. The question of initiation, which cannot be reduced to circumcision relates to what qualities are instilled in boys who are in the process of becoming men.  The conditions under which they are circumcised are one of a range of factors that emphasise a particular notion of manhood, related to capacity to endure hardship and physical endurance.  This is underlined by the ‘initiation season’ being at the coldest time of the year.

It may be that I as a white man am, according to some who also try to silence ‘clever blacks’, supposed to have nothing to say about an ‘age old custom’ that is a necessary part of ‘our’ cultural fabric. But I claim my right to speak on any matter of public concern.  What type of men our society produces affects us all.

 The qualities of physical endurance of harsh conditions are possessed by some and not all.  The qualities we require of men need to be openly articulated and discussed.  Is gentleness no part of becoming a man?  What are the overall rounded qualities we wish to instill in young men?  Nelson Mandela, whom we all now revere, was both tough and gentle.  He was a boxer, a soldier and also someone who showed qualities of tenderness, manifested obviously in his love of children, but in many other ways.

There is a particular urgency that makes it of public concern to interrogate what transition to manhood means.  We live in a society that is beset by episodes of violence, perpetrated overwhelmingly by men, sometimes against other men and very often against women.

One of the features of current discourse is that there is a concerted effort to close debate on the meaning of culture and custom and to freeze these.  Custom has never been static and especially in the context of a democratic constitution, there needs to be a review of the meanings of these customs, and to ask, to what extent there is a uniform meaning given to ‘age old customs.’ 

If there is no such uniform meaning, as much research reveals, should we not be enquiring which meanings should be encouraged in line with developing notions of manhood that are in line with the principles of gender equality in our constitution?





4 thoughts on “Raymond Suttner, Notions of manhood: Initiation tragedies should not blind us to dangers beyond those that are part of public discourse

  1. Thank you, Raymond for this bold & thought provoking piece. I think it would be great that we got a wider platform and space to have serious conversation on manhood, masculinity, culture and rites of passage. It is a debate that many of us can no longer afford to leave to a few.

    • Thanks for this comment. I believe that the question of masculinity may be a central feature of the current crisis in SA, in that the level of violence is primarily masculine or patriarchal violence against women, the vulnerable and including other men. The contest over Mandela’s legacies needs also to include careful consideration of the meanings of the notion of manhood that he represented. I believe Mandela knew when to fight, but also that there was a time for peace and also gentleness

  2. Nomboniso and Raymond – thanks for your pieces on questions surrounding initiation practices. Quite coincidentally, my work partner, Janine, and I heard in community dialogue in the Eastern Cape on Thursday last how in some communities the return of initiates is anticipated with fear by many women because of the abusive way some of the returning initiates behave towards them. They were questioning, as you both have, what kinds of masculinity are being promoted in some “ulwaluko” schools and calling for broad community engagement, including by women, around this valued cultural practice, to ensure that it does not result in injury, to the initiates or to women and vulnerable people.

    • Thanks Patrick. Interesting that you have come across this. I think that the debate in the media is focusing almost exclusively on initiation deaths and reducing the meaning of initiation to circumcision, but also failing to engage with models of manhood and appropriate conduct. There needs to be a wider debate on ‘being a man’, and open up for discussion and practices in line with gender equality and other qualities in line with the constitution

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