The fruits of superstition in South Africa.

In most African cultures boys must be initiated into manhood (by having circumcision performed).  This often takes place in ingoma (initiation schools) and often without the most sanitary of instruments.  Recently a story broke of a particular school where 28 boys died following the procedure.  To a mind unchained by traditional beliefs formed free from the burden of science or critical thinking, the solution is simple.

But when you have grown in a culture steeped in explanations that fall back to “magic”, it’s not so easy.  Those deaths are now being blamed on witchcraft, which is taken very seriously in South Africa (and much of the rest of Africa):

The office of King Mabhoko III of the Ndebele tribe has blamed the deaths of 28 initiates in Mpumalanga’s highveld area on witchcraft.

Ndzundza Tribal Authority (NTA) spokesperson Prince Dumisani Mahlangu told a Sapa correspondent this week the number of deaths was unusually high.

“These deaths are not normal, kune buloyi la [there is witchcraft here],” said Mahlangu, who was also critical of the House of Traditional Leaders (HTL).

So strong is the belief in witchcraft in that culture that the MEC in charge of health and welfare for the province, Candith Mashego-Dlamini, won’t touch the issue.

“I can’t really move beyond tradition and the (circumcision) schools,” she admitted when asked whether her department would consider shutting some illegitimate circumcision schools.

Just days before, Mashego-Dlamini had to fend off a barrage of criticism about this powerlessness to intervene in the ingoma (traditional circumcision schools). Now, she reaffirmed her stance: the ingoma was uncharted territory for her.

“There are issues that are cultural – that don’t need me,” she said.

Whether it’s using goats to cast magic spells over jealousy of a fruit garden, or people ignoring gangrene because they saw a faith healer instead of a doctor, or when faith-healers are killed so their brain can be converted into magic powder, South Africa is a grand (well, not exactly grand) example of what happens when people searching for answers settle upon “magic”.

Maybe the Catholic Church can help them with an exorcism.

Or maybe, just maybe, the solution is education, critical thinking, and valuing the products of those things over tradition.  I don’t merely condemn the use of barbaric procedures that results in the deaths of 28 boys (and more, this was just one occasion), but I also condemn the strict adherence to tradition and the mindset that allows human beings who care about those children to submit them to that procedure.

So many of the apologists for magic (when it goes by the name of religion) insist we should condemn the acts but not the beliefs and the thought-processes that lead to them.  They must learn that the two are inseparable.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • baal

    It’s a bit dated (from the mid 70s) but my parents used to live on the Ivory Coast. the servants were great until you asked them to wash the car. They refused citing devils biting their feet. My father investigated by washing the car – his feet were not bit. This didn’t bother the locals, whites aren’t always attacked by devils (QED). Some time later on a different repair, it turns out the house wasn’t grounded properly and if a large amount of water was on the ground in that area, you could get shocked – but not if you were wearing shoes. So my father washed the car with his shoes off and the devils bit his feet (and then they fixed the grounding and no ones feet were bit). My parents also paid for an exorcism so that the servants would wash the car again.

    As to male circumcision practices in Africa (big place) the various videos I’ve seen were frightening. The technique was to pull the foreskin as far as possible (with a cord? how did they tie it?) and swing a machete between the end of the skin and the head. I can only hope that was an aberrant and non-representive technique.

  • Zinc Avenger

    I’d love to hear how that discussion went down.

    “28 boys have died. Maybe we’re doing something wrong?”

    • kagekiri

      That sounds about right, though calling it a discussion seems…wrong.

  • James Shorten

    A small correction: an MEC is a provincial authority. Candith Mashego-Dlamini is not in charge of health and welfare for the country but only for the province of Mpumalanga, a relatively small province (both by population and area).

    That’s not to say that old animist beliefs combined with christianity are not hugely problematic in my country.

    • JTEberhard

      Fixed! Thank you!

  • Andrew Kohler

    “ ‘I can’t really move beyond tradition and the (circumcision) schools,’
    she admitted when asked whether her department would consider shutting
    some illegitimate circumcision schools. ”

    *Some* of the schools? Just the “illegitimate” ones!?

    Hmm, sort of like New York mayoral candidate John Liu saying he’s just fine with metzitzah b’peh (sucking on the circumcision wound) despite documented cases of transmission of herpes, leading to severe illness and even death. He doesn’t even support Michael Bloomberg’s picayune attempt at regulation:

    And Erick Salgado, another candidate, has the same position.

    I cannot fathom any mindset that defends “tradition” over protecting children from forcible mutilation (why do I doubt that these “circumcision schools” are entirely voluntary?), risk of further complications, and even death. And I hope that I never can fathom it.

    I recently came across the Godless Bitches podcast on genital mutilation (Episode 1.8)–I recommend it very highly.