‘Brought into Manhood’ : Christianity and Male Initiation in South Africa in the Early 20th Century

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Peer-Reviewed Research
  • SDG 5
  • Abstract:

    Abstract: In 1922, Umboneli Wezinto (Brilliant Observer) wrote a letter in isiXhosa to the black South African newspaper, Umteteli wa Bantu. In it, he described circumcision as part of the ‘The National Custom’, ‘this matter was set up by God. Circumcision is a sacrament that God gave to mankind’.1 Twenty years later, lay workers and preachers at St Cuthbert’s, an Anglican mission in the Transkei, put forward a different position as they debated Xhosa male initiation practices during one of their quarterly meetings. ‘Christians should work for the uplift of their people and for the abandonment of the custom’.2 These two vignettes show some of the contradictions inherent in African thinking and practice concerning tradition in South Africa in the first half of the 20th century. Between the mid 19th and early 20th centuries, contests over initiation evolved from complete missionary condemnation to substantial accommodation within mainstream Christianity. This change was the result of African Christians engaging their missionary counterparts in a series of debates that continually reiterated the importance of initiation. This process was a delicate one, since it also brought African Christians into conflict with their traditional communities. In this article, I show, through an examination of initiation in a wide range of mission and printed sources, the innovation that African Christians brought to the consideration of custom. Some of this centred on relocating both the practice and the discussion of custom from the secrecy that cloaked its traditional practice to more public spaces. With regard to practice, African Christians went to great lengths either to continue initiation outside the Church or to Christianise it. In published and textual spaces, especially newspapers, they defied customary prohibitions on discussing circumcision, using a range of arguments based on Christian precedent and the Bible both to defend and to denounce it. While men from across South Africa participated in the newspaper discussions, Xhosa men were the most ardent defenders of the practice, emphasising its role in the constitution of Xhosa masculinity...