Xhosa Tradition & the Modern World

How does the modern world collide with Xhosa culture?

“Over a cappuccino in one of Braamfontein’s hipster cafés, I brought the file up on the laptop screen,” wrote Greg Nicolson in the Daily Maverick. “The images made me gag, spitting the coffee back in the cup. I closed the laptop and looked around to see if anyone was looking over my shoulder. When it was clear, I reopened the gallery of injured, rotting penises but couldn’t look and closed it once more.”

This was the website ulwaluko.co.za, released by a Dutch medical doctor in January this year. The pictures are so grotesque that the link itself contains a cautionary note before you enter the site:

“Please be warned that the pages 'complications' and 'photos' contain graphic medical images of penile disfigurement. Besides, some people may find these images to be offensive or disturbing because of cultural sensitivities. You may only enter this website if you are 13 years of age or older.”

These images of circumcision gone wrong caused shockwaves through South Africa. And like the female equivalent - which gets global publicity - traditional culture was vilified by the media and resulted in an angry backlash from tribal leaders. This is the ultimate civil war or culture class - Xhosa is a big part of South African heritage. The language is spoken by about 18% of the population – it is the one with unusual click sounds [YouTube video]. And Nelson Mandela is listed as the most famous son of the people.

The traditional rite of passage that marks the transition from boyhood to manhood in Xhosa culture comprises of a ritual circumcision followed by a period of healing in isolation, often in the mountains. This practice has caused an uproar for years due to the significant number of deaths it causes, along with the spread of sexual diseases through use of a single blade.

In the past these initiation rites were also extremely secret. Now the mass media has blown the head off all this. One controversial series, Umthunzi Wentaba [YouTube clip] was suspended in 2007 due to a media frenzy around the sensitivity of the content.  “This depiction of the ancient tradition has got cultural leaders up in arms,” wrote The South African TV Authority (TVSA).  

It is not right "to expose and reveal things that are supposed to be kept 'private' in Xhosa tradition," wrote Tashi Tagg in a review of the show. "Women are not supposed to know what exactly happens during initiation,” she continued.

In all honesty, ancient traditions cannot remain secret in the modern age and there are clear medical benefits to knowing what really goes on. This has been widely acknowledged and despite the general shouting, the Film and Publication Board of South Africa deemed the ulwaluko.co.za website as “a bona fide scientific publication with great educative value.”

“The website highlights the malice that bedevils this rich cultural practice. It does not condemn this rich cultural practice but make a clear plea for it to be regulated so that the deaths do not occur,” it continued.

The validity of traditional initiation rites might make for an extremely emotive topic, but it also serves as an example of the way culture can be influenced by the modern age. Nelson Mandela himself was Xhosa and an integral part of this culture is an oral tradition, which includes the imbongi or praise singer. Interestingly, from his release from prison in 1990 onwards, Mandela had his own imbongi, Zolani Mkiva, who spent 13 years travelling alongside him performing songs in his honour.

"People came to know me as Nelson Mandela's poet laureate because I had travelled with him throughout the country, the length and breadth of the country, singing his praises. Telling the people who he is, from a cultural perspective," Mkiva told Associated Press.

Today, even without the help of an international statesman, the internet can help maintain oral traditions. And whilst advancing globalisation may cause issues of its own, new technology, eBooks and local services, also serve to keep hyper-local traditions alive.

Yes, there is a clash between Xhosa culture and the modern age. But surely no blend of modern health and traditional storytelling can really be too bad a thing?


Kathryn Cave is Editor at IDG Connect