Journal of Southern African Studies, Volume 34, Number 1, March 2008

Cutting Tradition: the Political Regulation of Traditional Circumcision Rites in South Africa’s Liberal Democratic Order
Louise Vincent
(Rhodes University, South Africa)

The South African Xhosa ethnic group, the majority of whom live in the country’s Eastern Cape province, are one of several ethnic groups in southern Africa that practise the ritual of circumcision as part of a rite admitting boys to manhood. Recent years have seen a rise in casualties among those participating in traditional circumcision rites. Since 1995 more than 6,000 boys have been admitted to Eastern Cape hospitals, more than 300 have died and 76 have had their genitalia amputated due to botched circumcisions. The state has responded by putting in place a variety of mechanisms to regulate the practice, most recently in the form of the 2005 Children’s Bill which gives male children the right to refuse circumcision and makes those who circumcise a child against his will guilty of an offence punishable by imprisonment. Attempts by the state to regulate traditional practices (of which circumcision is just one and virginity testing is another) have been met with outrage and resistance in some quarters. Rituals are commonly identified as mechanisms contributing to social order in all societies, maintaining the organisation of groups into hierarchies, specifying the performance of roles linked to factors such as age and gender, renewing group unity and a means for the transmission of values across generations. But in a society so deeply penetrated by colonialism, apartheid and industrialisation, as South Africa is, what role do these rites play in the contemporary context? In a liberal democratic constitutional state, social order is conceived as a contract between the individual and the state in which the state upholds the rights of individual citizens. The state, in this conception of order, is the sole source of social authority. Final recourse is to the impersonal mechanism of the constitution as interpreted by the courts. Traditional rituals seem to suggest alternative loci of authority and alternative conceptions of the production and maintenance of social order. As a result, they can be seen as threatening to the liberal democratic version of order. This article examines how these conflicting conceptions of authority and order have played themselves out with regard to traditional circumcision in South Africa.

South Africa is sometimes termed the ‘rainbow nation’, a reference to the complexity and cultural diversity of its population of over 45 million. Eleven languages are officially recognised in the country; nine of these are indigenous. While the ANC’s accommodation of cultural rights in the terms of South Africa’s negotiated transition was, at the time, largely a response to the separatist agenda of a section of the white Afrikaans-speaking community which, alarmed at the prospect of a black majority government, called for their own volkstaat (people’s state), the question of cultural rights has become a much broader concern in the past ten years. While the volkstaat issue has faded into the background of South African politics
ISSN 0305-7070 print; 1465-3893 online/08/010077-15 q 2008 The Editorial Board of the Journal of Southern African Studies DOI: 10.1080/03057070701832890

David Philip. Health and Sexuality. to regulation by the central state in the form of the 2005 Children’s Bill.4 These two faces of South Africa’s nation-building project find themselves in constant tension with one another. around the values and relationships which characterised pre-colonial institutions’. or anybody who is obliged to protect a child and allows that child to undergo such a test. NLB. liberal democracy and market economics . the African Renaissance focuses on heritage and legacy. p. Section 12 (5) states: ‘Taking into consideration the child’s age. Kymlicka. South African Politics Since 1994 (Cape Town. 1 (January 2006). every male child has the right to refuse circumcision’. Two prominent recent examples concern the practices of virginity testing and of ritual male circumcision. At the same time. however. The Children’s Bill was met with outrage and resistance among those who style themselves ‘traditionalists’. the vision of the African Renaissance is itself double-edged. A decade into South Africa’s democratic transition. Multicultural Citizenship (New York. The Break-up of Britain (London. controversially. W. With regard to ritual circumcision.2 The President’s advocacy of the concept of the ‘African Renaissance’ suggests that the nation-building project looks to the African continent and its pre-colonial legacy for succour in facing the challenges of the present. new questions have come to the fore concerning the rights of indigenous communities. 8. Section 12 (6b) states that ‘A person who circumcises a male child against his will or a person who is obliged to protect a male child against maltreatment.1 Section 12(4) of the bill prohibits testing children for virginity and makes anybody who performs such a test on a child. international markets and electronic technology can somehow be humanised and adapted to African needs. 5 See for example. Culture. need to be understood in the context of a broader nation-building project. 99.78 Journal of Southern African Studies with the waning political significance of the white Afrikaner right-wing. 4 Lodge. arguing that state regulation of these practices contravenes the constitutional protection of their cultural rights. a brave new world in which African citizens would click their way into a new millennium of prosperity and progress’. Clarendon Press. or whether. both the state’s approach to ritual circumcision and the ways in which this approach has been contested. Nairn. The troubled relationship between the right to culture and a culture of rights is well documented in the literature on multiculturalism. abuse or degradation and who allows that child to be circumcised against his will is guilty of an offence’. Lodge. p. South Africa has embraced its role in the world economy along with all the accoutrements of rights-based liberal individualism and market capitalism. maturity and stage of development. the 1 For a discussion of virginity testing see L. Chapter 2. One of the ways in which these tensions play themselves out is in the presentation of rights and culture as existing in a binary and antagonistic relationship to one another. Indeed. This is a renaissance in which African communities succeed in reconstructing themselves around tradition. which suggests that ‘the impersonal forces of modern bureaucracies. South African Politics. Both of these practices enjoy widespread support in some sections of the South African population and both have recently been subject. the article wishes to examine whether these tensions represent intractable conflicts between differing ontologies of the self. legacy and heritage. 2 T. ‘Virginity Testing in South Africa: Re-Traditioning the Postcolony’. With regard to virginity testing. As is typical of such projects. as Cowan and others have argued. 3 T. . 1977). . 1995). 1999). 17–30. In addition. . On the one hand it presents a modernist agenda in which progress will be ‘brought about by means of fibre-optic cables. 97. Vincent. nation-building in South Africa is Janus-faced.5 The present article examines how the paradoxes in these competing discourses play themselves out in relation to ritual male circumcision. guilty of an offence. pp.3 On the other hand. In particular.

apartheid and industrialisation as South Africa surely is. the Muslim Middle East. There are many aspects of the practice that are shared in common among a variety of different ethnic groups across southern Africa. . who have now largely abandoned the practice. 7 E. Cowan.000 boys have been admitted to Eastern Cape hospitals. until relatively recently. the article asks what role these rites play in the contemporary context. 16. seen among the Bhaca. the circumcision ritual is a complex one involving a number of different stages each with its own closely policed regulations and requirements. Wilson (eds). Apps. Xhosa authors Mayatula and Mavundla 6 J. Culture and Rights: Anthropological Perspectives (Cambridge.6 In a society so heavily constructed by colonialism. Recent years have seen a continued rise in casualties: since 1995. Aboriginal Australia. M. p. Traditionally. not all Xhosa groups circumcise. Peter Mtuze.12 Initiation allows Xhosa males to share in the full privileges and duties of the community. for example.8 Powerful taboos are attached to the discussion of circumcision rites with outsiders and this has meant that. p. Cambridge University Press. 33 (2004). 11 P. 2001). 10 P. including the Zulu.K. ‘Deaths Prompt Action on Circumcision Schools’. Mavundla. 419–45. Silverman. The practice is not. 8 Historically other South African ethnic groups have ritually circumcised boys. media and medical community began to focus attention on ritual circumcision as a result of increasing numbers of documented deaths associated with the traditional practice. the ritual is performed most commonly on boys ranging between the ages of 15 and 25. more than 300 have died. more than 6. A. Xesibe or Ntlangwini. are one of several ethnic groups in southern Africa that practise the ritual of circumcision as part of a rite admitting boys to manhood. for example. Curationis (September 1997). the Sotho and the Shangaan. Annual Review of Anthropology. Southeast Asia. Dembour and R. and elsewhere.Political Regulation of Traditional Circumcision Rites 79 tension is overstated as a result of a form of ‘strategic essentialism’ in which ‘culture’ is presented as static and reified in order to serve other political ends. pp. 10. we might ask. There can be little doubt about its significance in Xhosa culture.9 However. the subject has not been widely researched or discussed in South Africa. Mtuze. the Pacific Islands. On the other hand. p. Mayatula and T. how do we make sense of the post-apartheid state’s introduction of new regulatory mechanisms that appear to curtail the freedom of precisely those subjects the state intended to liberate? Ritual Xhosa Circumcision Ritual circumcision of young males (and females) is a practice seen in many cultures across the world including sub-Saharan and North Africa. p. 12 Ibid.11 Not uncommonly. to acquire knowledge which is otherwise unavailable. 28. Citing their own experience. In Xhosa custom. Lovedale Press. Mpondo. Mtuze uses a religious analogy to demonstrate the importance of initiation for the amaXhosa: ‘[it] is the gateway to manhood in the same way that baptism is the gateway to Christianity’.41. the Tswana. 9 V.10 Male initiation is a highly significant Xhosa rite of passage. and 76 have had their genitalia amputated following ritual circumcision. how are we to understand the continued significance of traditional circumcision in a state that styles itself along modern liberal democratic lines? Alternately. ‘A Review on Male Circumcision Procedures among South African Blacks’. In the face of injury and death.. in his Introduction to Xhosa Culture describes the coming out ceremony as ‘the greatest day in every boy’s life’.7 The South African amaXhosa. p. to gain respect and to be entitled to marry. in the late 1990s. Reuters/IOL (28 July 2005). 48. 2004). the Jewish diaspora. the South African government. the majority of who live in the country’s Eastern Cape province. ‘Anthropology and Circumcision’. it acts as the instrument for the transition from boyhood (ubukhwenkwe in Xhosa) to manhood (ubudoda). Introduction to Xhosa Culture (Alice.

the experienced ingcibi would be well versed in appropriate traditional practices including the use of herbal medicines. mobility and cultural rupture. the Eastern Cape Health Department closed over 31 ‘illegal schools’ in the wake of charges that included the circumcision of boys with un-sterilised knives. . Department of Health spokesperson Sizwe Kupelo. 13 Mayatula and Mavundla. . As a result. are required to be registered with the provincial health department and registered surgeons are subject to monitoring and must agree to follow particular procedures. poverty and uneven processes of urbanisation impacted negatively on ritual circumcision in a variety of ways. in particular insisting on the registration of circumcision schools that allows for a distinction to be drawn between ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ schools. . The distinction between legality and illegality that underpins this response evokes a wider discourse of human rights. 17. p. the rule of law and the sanctity of human life. 18. however. ‘Review on Male Circumcision Procedures’. as well as the traditional surgeons and nurses that run them. Part of the Department’s intervention involves providing sterilising chemicals and checking and treating each initiate for sexually transmitted diseases and pneumonia. fatalities and amputation of penises resulting from incorrectly performed circumcision and the onset of gangrene. the procedure (which is conducted without anaesthetic) in a bid to alleviate pain. The schools themselves. It is considered the only manner in which a boy . can attain manhood and adulthood. Contemporary reports. irrationality.. and after. those who do not observe the health standards prescribed face penalties of up to R10. 14 Ibid. alcohol has been implicated in excessive bleeding sometimes leading to death. Some injuries occur as a result of incorrect surgery with. the latter is associated with the threat of return to an unsavoury. During the circumcision season of winter 2005. the South African government’s response to traditional circumcision has been one of regulation. Traditional nurses are required to obtain a permit to administer an initiation school. the use of blunt instruments and a lack of appropriate hygiene mechanisms at many circumcision schools. the training and competence of ingcibi is not always assured. which is set up in contrast to its binary ‘other’: savagery. and alarm about the risk of HIV infection with a single instrument used repeatedly to circumcise several boys in turn. In the Eastern Cape. While not trained in western medical practice.14 Related to the problem of the training and competence of traditional surgeons are questions of hygiene. the correct use of appropriate instruments and sterilisation. democracy and the defeat of apartheid. Christian or non-Christian. in a contemporary period characterised by much greater social change. for example. uncivilised and unsafe past. While the traditional surgeon (ingcibi) is ideally a person trained by his predecessor with skills being handed down from one generation to the next.80 Journal of Southern African Studies write that ‘[m]ale circumcision is the most widely accepted cultural practice among the Xhosa speaking people whether educated or illiterate. Used prior to. The use of alcohol by initiates themselves also represents a danger.’13 The social upheaval caused by apartheid. highlight the re-use of instruments without cleaning or sterilisation. there are concerns about infection and the spread of venereal disease and HIV. p. too much skin being removed. for example. While the former is associated with progress. which in part accounts for the rise in circumcision casualties seen in recent years. A recurring charge in recent years is that of surgeons operating while under the influence of alcohol or narcotics.000 and/or ten years in jail. superstition and outdated beliefs that endanger the well-being of citizens. State Regulation of Traditional Circumcision Rather than outright banning.

raiding and breaking up illegal traditional circumcision schools. Kupelo comments.’18 Here.. by implication. Explicitly contrasting tradition with modernity. He is not a man. In support of state regulation and the medicalisation of ritual circumcision. Mwelo Nonkonyana. in a huge operation involving over 425 officials. ‘Deaths Prompt Action on Circumcision Schools’. Regulated circumcision can result in those who attend legal schools being stigmatised and branded ‘amadoda phepha’ (paper boys). leaving at least 20 boys dead in the province.Political Regulation of Traditional Circumcision Rites 81 calling for respect for human life and tough sentences for illegal traditional surgeons. liberal individualist ontology. you are not regarded as a man. ‘[w]e’re trying to persuade people that times have changed’. has argued that people are ‘being killed in the name of custom. ‘Many Traditional Surgeons “Let Off” by Police’. 18 Cited in ‘City Clinic Performs 50 Free Circumcisions’. 16 It is common in South Africa to refer to a person undergoing traditional circumcision as ‘going to the bush’. (19 August). But these ideals are not universally acclaimed. cleanliness. You can’t be proud of something that kills’. predictability and the application of orderly scientific procedure. the Eastern Cape Health Department arrested fifteen traditional health practitioners and rescued 535 boys who ‘had been left to die in the bush16 after their circumcision’. advocates of hospital circumcision fail to take seriously the fact that ritual circumcision is not simply about the removal of a piece of skin. to murder. the unsafe and improper circumcisions that take place at traditional initiation schools. Between 2001 and 2004. 19 Cape Argus. the claim of neutrality as the primary response of the liberal state to ethnocultural diversity requires interrogation. However. white walls and white-coated functionaries is a stark physical embodiment of the ideals of modernity: rationalism. This term evokes the rural. Such people are called abadlezana. For one thing.15 Traditional surgeons are frequently brought before the courts and tried under the Eastern Cape’s circumcision laws with charges ranging from running an illegal circumcision school for which a suspended sentence may be given. has argued that ‘if you are not circumcised through custom in the mountain. As one doctor put it: an ‘initiate’ is wheeled into a hospital surgery and wheeled out 20 minutes later ‘with a broad smile on his face. a woman who gives birth in a hospital ward. outdoor location where circumcision traditionally takes place. 17 Sapa/IOL. The modern hospital with its chemical smells. For example. Pretoria News (28 June 2004). ‘Eastern Cape Circumcision Schools Rebel’ (10 December 2003). In the 2005 winter circumcision season. The season had seen the circumcising of an estimated 5. Doctors and hospitals are one of the primary mechanisms through which certain practices are authorised and rendered legitimate while others are marginalised and rendered illegitimate. the Head of the Congress of Traditional Leaders in the Eastern Cape. at least 42 traditional surgeons were arrested in the Eastern Cape and eighteen of these were convicted of crimes related to circumcision rituals gone wrong. You are a social outcast. announcing “I am a man”.833 boys. South African doctors have called for ‘safe and proper circumcisions’ to take place in hospitals as opposed to. controlled and policed by trained medical doctors. comprising police and Department of Health officials. the state has sought to manage ritual circumcision by bringing it within the ambit of conventional medical practice. In addition to these more overt mechanisms of policing and control. hospital 15 Cited in Apps. . 239 admitted to hospital and five genital amputations.17 The operation saw the teams. discreet and sanitised appears self evident in a western. he is the equivalent of a woman’. ‘better’ than ‘bush’ circumcision. eighty 4 £ 4 vehicles and three helicopters on standby to rescue initiates in trouble.19 While the promise of circumcision achieved in a way that is relatively safe. the state and its medical emissaries purport to be applying a neutral standard of health and bodily integrity to the problem of ritual circumcision: simply protecting the life and wellbeing of its citizens by mandating that certain practices should be authorised.. Some traditional leaders have actively discouraged use of the regulated system.

Rwanda. Married women should be excluded from all contact with the initiate during the entire period of the ritual. Blackwell. 65 (2005). dietary taboos and testing are a central part of the practice and typical in many different cultural settings.. while. Young. traditionally. S.22 Should the constitutional injunction be interpreted as entailing a necessary acceptance of the hardship. Daily Telegraph. Likewise. Beirut. 1952). many initiates acknowledge the role that suffering and risk will play in their transition to manhood and expect little mercy at the hands of traditional surgeons. Initiation into manhood at the hands of a spear or knife-wielding ingcibi is meant to be agonising. 27. Riches (ed). 23 January 1997. Bosnia. Schools are encouraged to operate in the winter months not only to prevent dehydration but also because warmth and humidity aggravate the onset of infection.21 As Wilson and others have noted.D. It is possible.P. as is suggested in the naming of these schools in the Eastern Cape after war-torn cities and countries: Afghanistan.2 20 See for example. for hospitals to make special arrangements for circumcision by a circumcised male nurse following which the initiate is immediately returned to the bush. Traditional healers then take over those non-medical aspects of the rites relating to teachings about custom. seclusion. suffering and risk play in the ritual as part of the process of demonstrating manhood and fitness for the respect and communal privileges that go along with that approbation. 21 Silverman. ‘it is the undergoing of hardships and bearing of pain (ukunyamzela) that are necessary to becoming a man. American Anthropology. once hospitalised. a programme in the Eastern Cape town of Alice treats cases in the bush where necessary. It also means that proposals for incorporation of circumcision within western medical practice are problematic since. education in the expectations of manhood and so forth. Billed as ‘part of bringing democracy to the people’. be they nurses.82 Journal of Southern African Studies circumcision employing anaesthetic ignores the important part that pain. ‘Anthropology and Circumcision’. Holdredge and K. Treatment is accompanied by an educational and awareness component around issues such as the use of surgical scalpels and the need for the use of a new blade for each operation. p. have been less successful. 202. C. Panama City. 661–69. Beidelman. p. The Anthropology of Violence (London. then his manhood is not disparaged’. Heald. 22 M. If the state is to take seriously its constitutional commitment to respecting cultural diversity then it cannot simply dismiss these sorts of requirements. 36–40. 37 (1935). T. The endurance of physical brutality. Man. pp. W. in D. suffering and sacrificing of comforts that have traditionally been so central to the practice? For their part. American Anthropology. 1986). the mutilations and deaths that followed inevitable slips of the hand were dismissed as ‘a sign that the victim had not been destined to reach manhood’. 29 (1927). doctors or visitors to the institution. Shuter and Shooter. the R1. such as the Western Cape government’s 2004 proposal to establish ‘cultural villages’ in which Xhosa people could ‘practise their culture’. Other purported ‘compromise solutions’. p. for example. 421. ‘Circumcision Rites among the Bajok’. ‘The Ritual Use of Violence: Circumcision among the Gisu of Uganda’. 23 ‘Ancient Practice of Tribal Circumcision Divides South Africa’. Wilson et al. Hambly. II (Pietermaritzburg. If a boy undergoes those.20 while initiates are commonly ‘expected to endure circumcision stoically’. . pp. it is one of the most basic tenets of traditional circumcision that it is a ritual reserved for males. Social Structure: Keiskammahoek Rural Survey Vol. Kuwait. it is very difficult to prevent contact with married females. ‘Notes on Boys’ Initiation Among the Ngulu of East Africa’. Acknowledging that initiates are not permitted to leave the bush to obtain medical assistance.23 The initiation ritual is not merely a psychological journey into manhood but is centrally a bodily one with healing part of the transformation process. This presents a serious problem for those who have to be hospitalised as a result of complications following traditional circumcision. ‘Tribal Initiation of Boys in Angola’. pp. 143–47.O.

of life-giving western medicine versus life-threatening tradition. in his Introduction to African Religion25 argues that initiation has a religious significance that is dependent upon the (public) shedding of blood. Layered on to this theme of savagery is a discourse of AIDS panic with government intervention in traditional schools legitimised by way of reference to unsafe practices such as the use of a single blade to circumcise large groups of boys. p. It is estimated that people in the poorest quintile must 24 On the other hand. for many South Africans who find themselves on the margins of social life there is little in their immediate experience to suggest the veracity of this discourse of life-giving progress through medical science. The blood shed in this way binds the person to the land and hence to the ancestors. Mbiti. hampering the dominant statesanctioned narrative of South Africa as a place of vibrant progress. John Mbiti. which is subsequently burned along with belongings to mark the end of seclusion and the start of a new phase in the lifecycle and a new status. physical separation is a central part of ritual circumcision. Medicalised simplification of the procedure calls into question what is being achieved. Momoti. 28 Cited in ‘Illegal Circumcision Schools Shut Down’. Seclusion in the bush and building and living in a temporary lodge. A recurring trope in the public conversation surrounding traditional circumcision deaths is that of ‘primitive’ and savage practices in contrast to the sanity and rationality of medical science and individual human rights. Moreover. are central tenets in the practice. involving as it does. To question the medicalisation of what is meant to be a complex and painful transition to manhood is to emerge as a force for conservatism. The Daily News. 58. The public ceremonies. What it means is that if the first boy out of the 29 is HIV-positive. ‘We must adapt to changing times’. However. 93.28 However. ‘Law and Culture in the New Constitution’. Rhodes University. 1997). the private and individualised nature of hospital circumcision removes from the practice its necessarily public dimension in which the community bears witness to the individual’s changed social and legal standing. As a recent survey of service delivery indicated. Holomisa is quoted as saying. Introduction to African Religion (London. ‘many poor households are unable to have access to service facilities such as clinics and hospitals as a result of distance from such facilities. Heineman. . ‘[t]his illustrates the reason the department has had to intervene in traditional circumcisions. the process is also not ‘merely’ physical. While circumcision involves the permanent alteration of the body. 27 Momoti. Contralesa’s Phathekile Holomisa has argued that hut burning has long not been widely practised with many contemporary initiates ordinary houses and only the belongings of the initiate burned. p. p. the scars of initiation are also scars of identity. 24 June 2005. 2 March 2004). the rest of the boys have probably been infected with the virus’. there is little room for manoeuvre.26 Mbiti argues that once the individual sheds his blood he ‘joins the stream of his people and truly becomes one with them’. 7. For Eastern Cape Department of Health Spokesperson. (Afrol News. 25 J.27 In this sense. in the binary of progress versus backward superstition.24 Like many rites of transition. 2002). feasting and celebration associated with initiation serve to strengthen communal bonds and renew the vitality of a community. Hospitalisation is thus strongly resisted by many who see themselves as champions of threatened cultural legacies.Political Regulation of Traditional Circumcision Rites 83 million initiative met with little enthusiasm from traditional leaders who pointed out that the burning of initiation huts so central to the symbolism of the rite would not be possible in a designated cultural village consisting of state-owned permanent facilities. ‘Law and Culture in the New Constitution with Specific Reference to the Custom of Circumcision as Practised in the Eastern Cape’ (Master of Law Thesis. the crucial acquisition of cultural knowledge such as instruction in courtship and marriage practices so that men who have experienced initiation are said to be distinguishable by their social behaviour and vocabulary. 26 N. Reports of ‘car seatbelts used as bandages’ and the use of drugs and alcohol by initiation nurses abound. Sizwe Kupelo.

For instance. in South Africa Survey 2001/2002 (Johannesburg. South African Institute of Race Relations. Schlemmer and J.000 ‘western trained’ medical practitioners.34 Deborah Posel has written of how life and death are fundamental preoccupations in all social imaginaries: ‘in making sense of death . This is explicitly exemplified in the fact that when deaths result from circumcision of boys attending schools designated ‘legal’ by the state’s regulatory regime – as was the case for example with a boy from the Engcobo district near Umtata who died of septicaemia in June 200533 – the traditional surgeon is not prosecuted as he would be had the school been ‘illegal’. traditional authority structures: ‘We are aware that we are not the custodians of tradition. ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ (Wiser. p. 2001). 34. Symbolic Exchange and Death (London and New Delhi. State of the Nation South Africa 2004– 2005 (Pretoria. Southall and J. ‘A Better Life for All? Service Delivery and Poverty Alleviation’ in J. p. Draft Paper. are a series of desires. all societies thereby define the conditions of living. the regulation of health (and death) is highly infused with norms of appropriateness and acceptability. . 70 babies died of klebsiella and other hospital-acquired infections in South Africa31.35 Posel cites here Jean Baudrillard’s contention36 that the wielding of power is 29 D. Between 2003 and 2005. Daily News. Foucault. 1993). 32 M. 31 ‘NGO to Probe Into Baby Deaths’. . 33 ‘Illegal Schools Shut Down’. Daniel. As Foucault pointed out. Vintage Books. . No doubt it is not unrelated to these statistics that. . Hemson and K. Services may also fail the poor as a result of their inability to pay for the cost of medical care. Wilson. p. Baudrillard. R. and safe in contrast to the barbarism of tradition persists.32 Death is acceptable when it occurs within the ambit of the state and its accompanying approved medical bureaucracy. ‘Initiate Dies During Circumcision Rite’. according to the Medical Research Council. . which authorizes it not only to distribute advice as to a healthy life. South Africa has one doctor for every 1. p. 36 J. p. 7. pp. but people are dying’. . Posel. The Mercury. in the ordering of human existence medicine ‘assumes a normative posture. ‘Social Development’. between 75 and 80 per cent of South Africans regularly consult traditional healers. 1973). HSRC. 34 Sapa.000 traditional healers in the country in contrast to some 31. The contention is. Within the ambit of any social imaginary . 6. 35 D. life-giving. 130. Owusu-Ampomah.30 Unsafe practices on the part of medical staff who fail to wash their hands have been implicated in the death of babies in state hospitals. p. 2004). There are an estimated 200. 21 June 2005. Yet the idea of hospitalisation as self-evidently progressive. 515–6. . A medical doctor told the Pretoria High Court that hospitals in the Northern Province ‘were so badly run that patients had to be sent home for lack of running water. 4. rational-bureaucratic response to a problem. reasonings and practices attached to the modalities of life and death in that society’. and essential medication was either out of stock or not provided’. The Birth of the Clinic (New York.000.500 people but in rural areas (where ritual circumcision is most commonly practised) this figure falls to one in 26. 2005). 24 June 2005. overcrowding. there can be no compromise. under-equipment and repeated use of equipment to save costs listed as contributing factors in the babies’ deaths in hospital neonatal units.’29 Overall. Far from being a neutral. Klebsiella killed a further 22 babies in May and June of 2005 with poor hand-washing. and unacceptable when it does not. they had to lie in their own urine for days. 30 L. the Department of Health’s Sizwe Kupelo argues that in matters of life and death the centralised state ought to prevail over localised.84 Journal of Southern African Studies travel almost two hours on average to obtain medical attention . Lutchman (eds). but also to dictate the standards for physical and moral relations of the individual and of the society in which he lives’. that tradition and cultural diversity are all very well but where mortality is in question. Sage. then. 54. equipment was regularly stolen. effectively. The risk of death features very centrally in the state’s logic of control. understaffing. 27 July 2005.

In the context of the country’s high rate of infection (between four and five million South Africans are estimated to be HIV-positive). . Coates. Cape Argus. ‘Life and Death’.37 This is in stark contrast to a system of beliefs that places symbolic death as well as the actual dead (in the form of ancestors) at the centre of life. In the case of circumcision. Huff. p. A person who has undergone the ritual is expected to think and behave in a new and constructive manner unlike before.38 The banishing of death from the ordinary flux of life has been rendered virtually impossible in South Africa in the era of HIV-Aids. when he was a boy and all manner of antisocial acts were tolerated from him. Mayatula and T. Rather. one who will contribute to its values and orderly existence. privation and isolation is an essential precondition for life.41 others have pointed out that the United States has a very high rate of circumcision coupled with the highest HIV infection rate in the developed world. through pain and isolation from the society. and associate director for international and health policy research at the UCLA Aids Institute. August 2000). ‘Male Circumcision: Cutting the Risk?’ (American Foundation for Aids Research. it is the manner of death that is at stake. ‘Review on Male Circumcision’. rights-based constitution. While some have hailed this finding as ‘the most important breakthrough in HIV prevention since the efficacy of the male condom was unequivocally demonstrated in laboratory and human studies’. symbolic death through pain.40 A French study completed in South Africa and released at the International Aids Society meeting in Rio de Janeiro found that male circumcision could reduce the probability that a man will acquire HIV from an HIV-infected person by up to 70 per cent. 38 V. Mavundla. 9. ‘The Snip Could Save Many Lives’. In most West African countries. . p. As Mayatula and Mavundla write. the advent of the democratic era saw the country’s vision of itself as modern and ‘civilised’. 41 Thomas J. HIV prevalence levels are between one and five per cent. Clearly it is not death itself that presents the most pressing problem for South Africa’s nascent liberal order of individual rights. ‘Anthropology and Circumcision’. from which springs new life and rebirth as a new being. Central to this particular logic of progress is the ‘banishing of death and dying from the ordinary flux of living’. 23 November 1999. 31 October 2005. People die in every society but there are more or less troubling ways of dying and these are determined according to dominant norms and expectations.39 Discrepancies in regional HIV infection rates may partially be explained by differing circumcision practices.Political Regulation of Traditional Circumcision Rites 85 dependent very fundamentally on the ability to regulate death: ‘power is established on death’s borders . where male circumcision is widespread. writing in an opinion piece. . a spate of recent research has argued that the higher prevalence of HIV in Africa is linked to lack of male circumcision. professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine. 18. Xhosas see initiation rites as a symbolic death. Silverman. in the final analysis. The Star. while Scandinavia on the other hand has one of the lowest rates of circumcision in the world coupled with a comparatively low incidence of HIV infection. 40 ‘Circumcision May Cut the Risk of Aids’. 426. who has outgrown everything related to childhood. compared with 25 per cent in many of the predominantly non-circumcising east and southern African nations. 39 See for example B. a public political discourse of individual freedom and autonomy coupled with an essentially neo-liberal economic programme. for example. de-racialised and given renewed impetus with the adoption of a liberal. 37 Posel. It is on the manipulation and administration of death that power. It enables incorporation into the society as a new responsible member. p. a man. Although South Africa’s aspirations to modernity predate the demise of apartheid in 1994. The ritual encompasses a whole set of values and norms and not merely excision of the prepuce. In a new twist however. is based’. the threat of HIV has been discursively employed to legitimise regulation of traditional circumcision.

891. p. 2 (1992). E. The contention that cultural practices of one sort or another have a pristine form that is at risk of contamination as a result of outside interference is. employment. ‘Is Multiculturalism the Solution?’. pp.. 43 Lagarde et al. as some commentators have pointed out.43 The vision advanced by some South African AIDS activists of mass ‘chop shops’ where volunteers are expected to come forward in numbers to have their foreskins quickly removed in order to increase their chances of withstanding HIV infection is in stark contradistinction to the collective moral hand-wringing at the barbarism of traditional bush circumcision and its well-documented accompanying health risks. it is now common to point out..86 Journal of Southern African Studies The argument is. of course. there is the risk that ‘tradition’ is calcified and presented in opposition to ‘modernity’. Journal of Nurse-Midwifery. 17. 5 (1998). what is of interest is what the collision of rhetorics reveals about a society in transition and its forces of dominance. Cultural identities. 45 Mtuze.44 traditions are inventions which convey ‘the very working of modernity’. Moreover. and its accompanying vigorous Christian attacks on indigenous circumcision rites. Ethnic and Racial Studies. 89. including by members of non-circumcising cultures. ‘Circumcision: A Medical or a Human Rights Issue?’. AIDS. as are claims for the inevitability of progress that modernity brings. Tradition is always in the process of being reinvented and contemporary realities constantly intrude and reorganise social conventions. advocating circumcision as a protection against HIV can lead to unsafe practices by providing a false sense of security. 1 (January 2003). Colonialism. served further to enhance the importance of these practices as a form of resistance to conquest: ‘the assertion that regardless of the forces of education. is being advocated at precisely the moment when the state has brought its regulatory machinery firmly to bear upon traditional circumcision rites.42 disingenuous. Claims for the preservation of a pristine cultural practice are thus always rhetorical. the Xhosa mind and spirit has not been conquered or colonised by aliens or modernity’. marginalisation and exclusion. 37. as Michel Wieviorka points out in his remarks on multiculturalism. . status. circumcision rituals were hardly left unscathed by the impact of colonisation. a common rhetorical flourish on the part of those who wish to resist intervention on the part of a central state from which they feel estranged in some way. 21. 50. Lagarde et al. power – may inform such resistance but whatever these may be. Wieviorka. apartheid and industrialisation. are neither stable nor fixed but are rather liable to decomposition and re-composition. However. 89–95. Introduction to Xhosa Culture. Culture and Authenticity By presenting the debate about the regulation of ritual circumcision as a clash between discrete ontologies or different value systems. ‘Acceptability of Male Circumcision as a Tool for Preventing HIV Infection in a Highly Infected Community in South Africa’. It is ironic that large-scale circumcision for non-ritualistic purposes. p. Milos and D. pp. ‘Acceptability of Male Circumcision’. p. Government itself has not emerged as uniformly or unproblematically positioned on the side of progress and western modernity. 44 M. Clearly disease is caused by contact with specific organisms and the spread of disease is prevented by reducing contact with these organisms through education and altered practices rather than through the amputation of healthy body parts.45 But notwithstanding colonial intrusion. Any of a number of motivations – ideology. Macris. economics which have accompanied and outlived colonial conquests. 87 –96. finance. Far from simply presenting its regulation of 42 See for example M. religion.

. BMJ. Eastern Cape House of Traditional Leaders chair and ANC MP.49 The apartheid state chose to shore up the system of chiefs. Traditional leaders frame their vigorous opposition to the regulation of circumcision by appealing to the arcane intricacies of the practice. women must not be involved in any way with the rituals of manhood. by the country’s Minister of Health. which are frequently interpreted in their most uncompromising form. The picture is politically complicated by the fact that opposition to state regulation of tradition comes from within the ruling party as much as it does from without. For example. according to tradition. The rational/bureaucratic logic that has been applied to reforming traditional circumcision practices is matched by the repeated advocacy. in the state’s nation-building rhetoric we typically see recourse to both these visions at different times.46 This is one indication that the state’s nation-building project is not unequivocally liberal individualist in nature but rather continues to be influenced by widespread support for alternative worldviews among its majority constituency. Democracy. making a mockery of our culture’ and bringing ‘shame and doubt’ on traditional practices. Saturday Star. The intrusion of state influence into a domain where some of the poorest and most marginalised in the society seek to maintain a limited hold on power is resisted by way of reference to the incontrovertible requirements of culture. Arguing that they alone are the rightful custodians of culture. government has enlisted the support of some traditional leaders and has argued that the problem is not with the tradition itself but with its practice by ‘bogus’ initiation schools which. 10 November 2001.47 The project of installing liberal individualist mores in South Africa is by no means completed even among the country’s political elites.Political Regulation of Traditional Circumcision Rites 87 circumcision in the language of individual rights and autonomy it has also. some of whom were paid government functionaries. opposing the Eastern Cape’s regulatory regime. Mwelo Nonkonyana. not least. I am indebted to an anonymous reviewer for raising this example in this context. traditional leaders protest that the new regulatory regime fails to provide for them to be included in such processes as the registration of iingcibi and amakhankatha. has led to concerns on the part of traditional leaders that they will lose their power in the new dispensation and. as a means of rule by proxy. ‘Mother of Dead Initiate Barred from Funeral’. with its paraphernalia of elections and universal suffrage. ‘claim the lives of our innocent children . Contralesa described the law as ‘an insult to our tradition’ and vowed to stop medical officers having anything to do with ritual circumcision. called the province’s Application of Health Standards in Traditional Circumcision Act (2001) ‘nonsensical’ as it stripped traditional leaders of their power to administer the custom and 46 47 48 49 Sapa. the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa) argued that the law was unacceptable because women were on the team that drafted the legislation and. . Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. alcoholism and ignorance of tradition associated with contemporary society. for example. at times.48 The injunction against the involvement of women was taken to a bizarre extreme in the case of one mother who was barred from attending the funeral of her son who had died at initiation school after being beaten by the school leader following an attempt to escape from the school. 28 June 2002. as National House of Traditional Leaders spokesperson Sibusiso Nkosi put it. The appeal to authenticity is also of course a key component of the ideological armoury of the opponents of state regulation. ‘Eastern Cape Tightens Law on Circumcision to Stem Casualties’. Similarly. . of the African potato (a herbal remedy that has been found to inhibit the effectiveness of antiretrovirals) and other traditional herbal remedies in the fight against HIV/AIDS. 29 June 2005. ‘Leaders Urge Probe after Circumcision Death’. Concerned to legitimise its regulation of traditional circumcision. their income. sought discursively to position its regulatory regime as the protector of culture in its most authentic form from the corrupting influences of greed.

53 Traditions. p. and allows schools to be inspected by health department officials. 51 Cape Argus. A Critical Reader (Oxford.52 For Makang. 50 The Mail and Guardian.50 Nonkonyana has declared that he would be prepared to go to jail rather than comply with the act and his own son was illegally circumcised at an unregistered school. With each initiate being charged a fee by the traditional surgeon. 8 December 2003. although the actual circumcision surgery was performed by a doctor with western medical qualifications – the important point for Nonkonyana was that the doctor was himself a circumcised man. authentic practices are at risk from corrupting outside influences. ‘Law vs Tradition in Circumcision Debacle’.88 Journal of Southern African Studies vested those powers in the provincial Health Minister and ‘his doctors’ – some of whom may themselves not be circumcised. A recurrent theme in the overarching discourse of African cultural purity is that of the contaminating influence of western materialism: ‘The modern Bantu. ageless wisdom of the ancestors. 10 December 2003. In a country characterised by very high levels of poverty and unemployment (estimated at over 30 per cent). or customs that are handed over by the ancestors of the tribe to subsequent generations’. 327. Postcolonial African Philosophy. 326. and of everything that was stable in Bantu tradition. . 55 Ibid. however. in E. others have advocated outright civil disobedience in their response to government regulation. 52 J. This use of tradition coins it narrowly as an unchanging or static corpus of representations. ‘Of the Good Use of Tradition’. but has become a Europeanized Bantu. While some traditional leaders such as Zwelinzima Mtirara. Chukwudi Ezw..54 It is ironic that this ahistorical view of tradition associated with western scholars of Africa is proposed by cultural entrepreneurs of the present who suggest that pure.’55 The corrupting influence of financial gain as opposed to pristine cultural integrity is frequently cited as a cause of loss of life and injury associated with ritual circumcision. The Health Standards Act provides for penalties of up to R10. p. p. In reality of course.51 Those who style themselves as the rightful custodians of culture evoke the notion of pristine tradition corruptible by outside influence. chief of the abaThembu tribe and ANC MPL. circumcision is big business and there have been reports of boys as young as eight years old being kidnapped from their homes to increase numbers at circumcision schools. ‘tradition’ is often depicted as designating a mode of thought that is ‘in opposition to modernity or progress. ‘Eastern Cape Circumcision Schools Rebel’. for example is on record as saying that ‘if an uncircumcised man is found near an initiation school he will be detained and circumcised’ while ‘traditionally a woman found in the area near a circumcision school would be killed but because of the human rights thing she’s detained and dealt with in another way by the people’. as Makang points out. 53 Makang. 1997). rules. 325. financial factors inevitably intrude to create incentives other than ‘purely’ cultural for keeping initiates under the control of the traditional school and its leaders.000 and ten years in jail for those who do not observe prescribed health standards in traditional circumcision. have taken a more accommodationist stance. are never frozen in time but are continually ‘adapting themselves to new historical circumstances’. who has lost the sense of the old. Contralesa has argued that the Act is unconstitutional as it infringes on the traditional rights of communities protected by the Bill of Rights (Section 30 provides for citizens to ‘participate in the cultural life of their choice’). 54 Ibid. it is precisely the flexibility of African belief systems that accounts for their survival in the face of a history of invasion and political domination. ideas. is not an authentic Bantu any longer. Blackwell. beliefs. Makang. who has been corrupted by his exposure to European materialism. ‘Of the Good Use of Tradition’. Nonkonyana. values.

Campbell. Gender Transformations and the Crisis of Masculinity’. Chatto and Windus. any other currency and that which they do own is not readily convertible into the coinage of a modern liberal capitalist order. unemployment. director of the Kara Heritage Institute decry ‘opportunists taking practices like circumcision as business ventures and people leading the schools. ‘Learning to Kill? Masculinity. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. The high levels of violence. bodies and sexuality. proud beings. 18. 621. pp.58 As levels of male violence in the society have increased.56 However. p. can be understood as a manifestation of this sense of crisis. In a society beset by a mesh of illiteracy.59 In one sense. those who find themselves marginalised in the democratic order see in ‘tradition’ a limited currency with which to trade for power. The resultant conflict is rendered more acute by the fact that the latter frequently neither own. 28 June 2002. Journal of Southern African Studies. ‘Mother of Dead Initiate Barred from Funeral’. Saturday Star. 1 (March 2000). 3 (September 1992). with financial gain implicated centrally in the mushrooming of fly-bynight circumcision schools and bogus traditional surgeons. The result of this is that men feel alienated and displaced in their families as well as in township communities. or more precisely masculinity. but to make money out of the African people’s quest to meet their cultural aspirations’. to put away childishness and to take on the mantle of responsible and proper behaviour expected of a man. traditional leaders such as Dr Mathole Motshekga. men. Young men. assaults and torture not infrequently resulting in the death of would-be initiates. However. 5 August 2002. 57 See for example. the results are often tragic. in which younger men are placed under the authority of older men into whose hands they literally place their lives. are meant to behave differently. is widely perceived to be in crisis of one sort or another. not for the purpose for which they were created.Political Regulation of Traditional Circumcision Rites 89 In response. a project of hermetically sealing tradition from the exigencies of life in a modern capitalist state is of course dead in the water. violence against women and children. as with any mechanism of social control there are no guarantees. [o]lder men are struggling to reconcile what they would call the traditional view of men as potent. The accused had recently graduated from initiation school and reportedly gang raped the woman to remove a white substance (ifutha) that is used as part of the initiation process. ‘The Trouble with Men? Young People. as well as repositories of community wisdom and experience. An important feature of the appeal to cultural authenticity to legitimise traditional circumcision is the idea that social order has broken down as a result of the corrupting impact of ‘foreign’ ideas and practices. then. The Independent on Saturday (South Africa). circumcision schools. mainly perpetrated by males in South Africa. Where the conversion does take place. With few marketable skills and limited opportunities for the assertion of power or status. with a set of social relations where as black workers they fall low in the current social hierarchy and have little power within the family. A. On Men: Masculinity in Crisis (London. Ritual circumcision is thus defended on the basis of its usefulness as a mechanism for the maintenance of social order. As Catherine Campbell has noted. brutal beatings. conflict. the Family and Violence in Natal’. McDowell. 2000). once circumcised. State regulation of tradition risks devaluing the value of this currency and those who own it. . 201 –209. ritual circumcision has itself become an increasingly violent practice with abduction. L.57 To pretend that ritual circumcision is going to make a major difference to this crisis is clearly disingenuous as is perhaps most vividly demonstrated in a recent case in which eight initiates were accused of gang raping a 27-year-old woman. nor have ready access to. Clare. can 56 Cited in ‘Greed Blamed for Death of Initiates’. extreme poverty and wealth disparities. 24. powerful. 59 See for example. The sense of crisis in contemporary African masculinity occurs in the context of a longestablished process by which African patriarchy has been eroded and provides the overall setting within which the tradition of circumcision is being re-interpreted. 58 C.

but we will go ahead with it. 60 C. . have been victims of abuse and/or violence . are alienated from their families or job or school . For this reason. chronic disappointment for many. or hostile to. The vast majority of South Africans are of indigenous African descent but this formulation of ‘Africanness’ masks a great deal of cultural diversity. economic structures and dominance of western ideologies . elders and guardians. leaving the older generation looking enfeebled and emasculated. 23 January 1997.. Stevens and R. p. . in the South African case. ‘Coca Cola Kids: Reflections on Black Adolescent Identity Development in PostApartheid South Africa’. in S.61 The negotiation of this shift has been more difficult for some than for others. Now the only way to hold your head high is to be circumcised’. . severely undermined by apartheid.63 However. Lockhat. it is not always the older generation.90 Journal of Southern African Studies be read as an attempt to re-establish the sense of order in which youth have respect for the older generation. Today’s middle-aged South African black males are both better educated than their fathers and more highly politicised. are not involved in organization or structure.18. But high levels of unemployment have continued into the post-apartheid era and the pace of transformation has been slow. 50. . 61 G. 63 Ibid. men won glory by fighting against the colonists. Democratisation brought with it high expectations and. . a sense of continued political and economic marginalisation in the postapartheid era has acted as a spur for the revalorisation of precisely these markers. and western liberal individualist on the other. L. . . by which he means a common language and social institutions rather than common religious beliefs. At the same time there are many who would propose that there are features of an indigenous African identity that are held in common across different ethnicities and which differ sharply from the identity of those who are not of indigenous African descent. a 1993 survey found that black South African youth: see themselves as having little or no future .60 Stevens and Lockhat argue that the democratic era has forced black youth to effect a shift in their identities from young lions to ‘young entrepreneurs’ where ‘new role models. the changes taking place in South Africa . p. p. as is well documented. 27. in search of stable identities in troubled times – who insist on ritual circumcision in the face of opposition from parents. nor those in rural communities that are the guardians of ‘tradition’. family customs or personal lifestyles. . Sibusiso Soji. Conclusion As Kymlicka points out. 4 (1997). CO. This sense of order was. the creation of a societal culture is very complex. Rienner Publishers. 253. Viewed in this way. The bravado of struggle rhetoric notwithstanding. on the one hand. is a component of nation-building in all liberal democracies. . . p. ‘At War With the Future? Black South African Youth in the 1990s’. promoting integration into a ‘societal culture’. Every young African should do this. South Africa: the Political Economy of Transformation (Boulder. Previously. Daily Telegraph. have now encouraged an ideological shift from collectivism to individualism’. concomitantly.62 Far from being regarded as an outdated relic. . 1994). Bundy. Steadman. have a poor self-image . which catapulted young males into the forefront of resistance as the ‘young lions’ of the antiapartheid struggle. . the appeal to the putative certainties of tradition can act as a bulwark against uncertainty and loss of status. South Africa’s nation-building project can be described as beset by the tension between two powerful dominant cultural forms – indigenous African communal. are out of touch with. South African Journal of Psychology. According to one eager would-be initiate. . 62 Cited in ‘Ancient Practice of Tribal Circumcision Divides South Africa’. it is often youth – frequently marginalised urban youth. ‘Our fathers will almost certainly try to stop us. For those whose marginalisation has only been enhanced by rapid social change. While markers of ethnic distinctiveness were a source of derision in the antiapartheid mobilisation. 27.

and now in contemporary South African. D. the contrast can be viewed another way: between a culture of rights whose structuring ideas include individualism. Culture and Rights. p. disillusionment with the rainbow nationalist project on the part of those who have not felt themselves to be among its significant beneficiaries mirrors criticisms of the melting pot ideal among Native American and black activists in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. Grahamstown 6140. The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford.69 The ensuing identity politics. Habermas. 1971). Blackwell. most prominently poverty and its allied forms of social marginalisation. as Cowan and others have pointed 64 65 66 67 68 69 Cowan et al. Local Knowledge (New York. p. has seen a revivification of markers of ethnic distinctiveness. Human rights 184. This sense of culture and rights existing in a relationship of binary opposition is. To bring culture within the ambit of legal rational norms in this way is. LOUISE VINCENT Department of Political and International Studies.65 Behind essentialised appeals to culture often lie political strategies for combating other social ills. religion and superstition have long troubled the project of modernity. 6. then. In the first instance. Here again the South African state has attempted to grapple with what this may mean. Basic Books. Harvey. E-mail: L. Ibid.A. J. Traditional circumcision practices are but one prominent example. 2001). Cultural rights are enshrined in the Constitution but recent legislation regulates cultural practices like traditional circumcision and female virginity testing in ways that appear to undermine the idea of a right as a claim trumping other competing considerations.Political Regulation of Traditional Circumcision Rites 91 Alternatively. progress and the revelation of the eternal. which bases itself upon rationality. Towards a Rational Society (London. part of ‘a distinctive manner of imagining the real’. Dembour and R. . 112. Culture and Rights: Anthropological Perspectives (Cambridge. PO Box 94.64 rooted in a much older politico-philosophical antagonism: the Romantic nineteenth-century nationalism exemplified by Herder and the universalism of the Enlightenment tradition.66 Cultural belief systems which appear to verge dangerously close to myth. and the celebration of cultural particularity. 2. Geertz. as Geertz has suggested. Republic of South Africa. J. is at the same time giving expression to a very particular imagining of the real saturated with what Habermas refers to as a ‘technocratic consciousness’. Rhodes University. 4. A second possible resolution of the supposed tension between ‘culture’ and ‘rights’ lies in the formulation of the relationship as one of a right to culture. M. p. p. Cowan. p. universalism and legal/technical processes on the one hand. group membership and ethical duties on the other. 27. 1989). Does an awareness of cultural difference.K.. 1983). Heinemann. Wilson. both in that context. p. immutable qualities of humanity. Cambridge University Press. which present themselves as efforts at compromise between tradition and modernity emerge in reality as mechanisms for the extension of centralised state power as expressed through the sanctioned medical bureaucracy into arenas where it was previously absent or contested by alternative authority structures. On the other hand.68 Solutions to the controversy.67 Attempts to sanitise traditional circumcision give the appearance of accommodating difference while erasing its most troubling features.. while proposing its universality. require of us the rejection of a discourse and politics of rights? A variety of possibilities for resolving the tension present themselves. we might suggest that ‘culture’ is not ‘really’ what is at issue in many cases in which the apparent antagonism arises.

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