The Development of Masculinity in Ulwaluko kwa Xhosa

In the amaXhosa culture, the identification of manhood occurs when certain attributes are possessed. For them, manhood is symbolised in undergoing ulwaluko kwa Xhosa; a traditional male initiation. Highlighting the significance of culture and tradition in the socialisation of African masculinities, this traditional circumcision and initiation into manhood is practiced by about 80-90% of amaXhosa males from the Eastern Cape province. Just like hegemonic masculinity, the practice of ulwaluko is learned culturally through the process of socialisation, intentional teaching or personal experience and specifies which behaviours are desirable and forbidden for members of the culture. 

Ulwaluko kwa Xhosa signals the complete transition from childhood to adulthood for the initiate. For the Xhosa male to become a man, the amaXhosa initiation practice of ulwaluko has to be fully undergone for a period of about a month in seclusion. The event is so significant for the construction of manhood that amaXhosa males who have not gone to the mountain are said to be non-deserving of ubudoda (manhood). And with that, regardless of a male’s age, one is not considered an adult unless they have been traditionally circumcised (surgical removal of the foreskin) and initiated. 

Ulwaluko attempts to promote some effective forms of manhood. Undergoing ulwaluko means that initiates are put in a social setting that promotes unanimity and instills the attitude of reciprocity and mutual care among men. As the elderly teach them valuable life lessons at initiation school, their fostered unification of communal accomplishment of manhood forges long-lasting relationships that are unified by loyalty. These teachings of faithfulness and dependability are observed in the manifestations of loyalty both during initiation school and after leaving the initiation school camps. Positives associated with ulwaluko are noticeable in the stressed lessons concerning good moral values, self-respect and responsibility. With its efforts to create a bond and unity within the participating men and inherently enhancing self-esteem, ulwaluko kwa Xhosa contributes a collective or communal demeanor in continuing cultural traditions. Manhood’s symbolism is also found in the encouragement of each initiate to be altruistic towards each other - essentially benefiting the culture and society as a whole. AmaXhosa men have expressed how ulwaluko is a dominant part in their lives and how hegemony is expressed through the power of elderly men who have the authority to teach and decide on the duration of the ritual and punishment of non-conformity. Although ulwaluko kwa Xhosa is a sacred rite that is hidden from the views and opinions of the world and outsiders, public debate and academic discourse have been welcomed by the controversies surrounding the practice.

In some cases ulwaluko subjects its initiates to severe psychological, emotional and sexual issues. For instance, traditional initiations are a cause for concern because of botched initiation procedures that cause negative life changing and health implications. Catastrophic consequences that disrupt ulwaluko induce pressure on boys to conform to ideals that are set out. With the self-pride of remaining strong and successfully completing the initiation process, initiates are normalised into believing that their masculinity is constructed in this manner. In so doing, hegemonic masculinity subordinates and marginalises “other” masculinities. The hierarchical ordering of masculinity in this context induces pressure on boys to live up to standards that are stated. Ulwaluko is reflected on to see what constitutes being a man. And with that, ulwaluko is constructed through a hegemonic course which can be seen in the way in which amaXhosa males who have not been initiated (regardless of age) are considered as boys, and as such puts them at the bottom of the social hierarchy. The sense that there is a particular or an “ideal ulwaluko initiated man” supports the hegemonic course of having a dominant version of manhood that is a rival of other forms of masculinity. Although the institution of ulwaluko attempts to promote effective masculinities, it unintentionally promotes hegemonic masculinity in the process. 

As a researcher, the conception of hegemonic masculinity can be used to understand men in a cultural perspective. Because it legitimises the domination of women by men, hegemonic masculinity in the South African context can be used to explain men’s problematic behaviours such as their domination, violence against women and rape. Hegemonic masculinity is equally individualised and communal, having its foundations in the fundamental idea that it is a culturally ideal form. The term may also be described as the established values of men in power. These values are established over women and some men in order to systematise society in gender disparate ways. From this point of view, the term hegemonic masculinity is defined by the difference from the expected dominant ideals of masculinity. 

Although ulwaluko is a coming-of-age educational institution with a strong socio-cultural significance aiming to teach initiates about good conduct, social responsibilities, respect and ubuntu, there is a possibility that it may do some harm. The sometimes-harsh nature of the ritual could lead to the development of serious psychological and social issues that are later on expressed in their social environment post initiation school. Consequently, initiates may develop dominant ideals of hegemonic masculinity and harmful notions that perpetuate issues such as gender inequality, social pressure and sexual entitlement as a result of attempting to embody the set “ideal” standards of masculinity.


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