Gender theory and amaXhosa manhood

Circumcision amongst African autochthons, to whom the amaXhosa belong, is a centuries-old practice that has long initiated youth into manhood (Maggs, 1986; Caldwell, Orubuloye, & Caldwell, 1997). Despite an historical rooting for this engendered, embodiment of African personhood and gendered reciprocity, an encounter with colonisation, apartheid, and a globalising modernity has fragmented discourse and practice, uncomfortably positioning Xhosa manhood under a democratic ‘umbrella’ of hegemonic masculinity (Nascimento & Connell, 2017). In South Africa this has brought the study of men and masculinity, to sit alongside that of women and feminism in gender studies. Remarking on the importance of negotiated discourses, politics, and practice under democracy, Ainslie & Kepe (2016) argue that this brings, “the symbolic restoration of the dignity of black South Africans’’. Their comment sits in the context of their critique that traditional leaders in claiming authority over cultural practices have co-opted resources and political power. They caution about a reinvention of tradition under this authority stating that although “many South Africans derive meaning from their African roots, values and customs, including some elements of culture, that traditional authorities claim to embody”, it is important that these are situated in relation to this constitutional democracy (Ainslie & Kepe, 2016, 32). Potentially this misinterprets African patriarchy amongst autochthons and how this embodied complex, egalitarian reciprocity relations which were hierarchically, structured in descent-based practices. Debate around these conflicted tensions is the subject matter of this book on amaXhosa circumcision.

A hegemonic masculinity

Defining a concept for hegemonic masculinity in a global context, the gender theorist, Ghaill (1994) wrote, “in addition to oppressing women, hegemonic masculinity silences or subordinates other masculinities”. Morrell, Jewkes, & Lindegger (2012) argue that Connell’s concept began to influence South African society in advocacy for men and instigated research into masculinities during the transition from apartheid to democracy in 1994. Employing a too broad rubric, Morrell (1994,1998,2001) argued for at least three masculinities that tended to hegemony in South Africa; ‘white’, rural African’ and an urban ‘black’. This emergent discourse sought to address men’s issues in the way that feminism had done for women, subsequently incorporating the study of men into gender studies. Morrell, Jewkes, & Lindegger (2012) describe a long history of women’s activism and subsequent feminist discourse and studies in South Africa; this being especially powerful in human rights advocacy during apartheid. Mohanty (1988) argues that gender studies harbour colonial structures. Inherent therefore are ‘oppositional’ definitions that mirror bureaucratic categories for male, female and today, definitions for ‘other’ gendered identities. This has relevance in the decolonising of Africa because this imbalance manipulates socio-political discourse and practice further negating the embodied and meaningful nature of gendered states (Mohanty, 1988; McQueeney, 2013).

Whilst a Eurocentric discourse on feminism has, until recently, dominated gender studies, in Africa, Ogunyemi (1985) & Hudson-Weems (1998) argue for a different interpretation of womanhood in ‘womanism’ which incorporates notions of balanced reciprocity and egalitarian relations with men. This has important implications for a hegemonic masculinity that politically subsumes an embodied patriarchy. It means that gendered socio-political constructs for masculinity or femininity tend to claim authenticity and sublimate and invade local, engendering discourses. Realisation that theoretical constructs can alter gender-described behaviour has led to an increased focus on genderbased research (Schmidt, 2010). In this respect, South Africa has a vibrant discourse in academic and advocacy forums on subjects such as a topography of manhood and how men in the taxi industry gain status (Gibbs, 2014; Levon, Milani, & Kitis, 2017). Jacobs (2013), embracing the freedom in this constitutional democracy, discusses how young people, when coming of age, retain cultural values but choose to break the silence around corrupt cultural practices. While these men choose to engage with modernity and the global, Burchardt (2018) argues that charismatic Christianity saved men from hegemonic masculinity. These authors impact amaXhosa circumcision not just in discourse but practice. Breaking the taboo around seclusion, Ntozini & Ngqangweni (2016) explore issues of gay men in circumcision. Gay love, a different aspect of gender relations, featured in the movie ‘Inxeba, The Wound’ (Cape Times, 2017). In discussing ‘Inxeba’ and attempts to have it banned, Siswana & Kiguwa, (2018) commend social media representations of black masculinity. Yet, this inclusion of the indigenous in modernity questions how a practice such as circumcision is interpreted out of a hegemonic masculinity. Does, for example, Ntozini & Ngqangweni’s (2016) discussion of gay men in circumcision speak to a current discourse about a new phenomenon, i.e. gay love, or have they merely touched on one, previously unexplored facet in the engendering of personhood in Africa.

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