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Culture - Arts | Society

Controversial state aid for old Xhosa rite

afrol News, 2 March - The provincial government of Western Cape (South Africa) is to establish cultural villages to practice the traditional initiation rites of the Xhosa people, which require isolated tracts of land. This has been made necessary by the booming urbanisation of the Cape Town area. Traditionalists however fear the rite now will change its basic character.

The announced investment by the Western Cape government has however caused some controversy among the coordinators of the Xhosa initiation rite - or the Sod-turning ceremony, as it is correctly named. Traditionalists say this will force the rite to change in content as the youngsters will not be able to burn the huts where there have been isolated after the ceremony is over. Traditionally, the initiates burn all remnants of the Sod after the ceremony.

Nevertheless, the Western Cape government this week proudly announced its "initiative seeks to establish an Initiation Village where Xhosa people may practice their culture." The celebration of the sod had been complicated due to the urbanisation of the Cape area.

The Xhosa people have celebrated these land-extensive initiation rituals for centuries. The Sod initiation ritual is very sacred in Xhosa culture as it is a rite of passage for many boys entering manhood. Young initiates may spend several weeks sequestered at an initiations school learning about life and values.

This cultural practice has "always been a challenge in urban areas" such as Cape Town because of the non-availability of appropriate land and associated facilities, the local government acknowledges. "As part of bringing democracy to the people, the Western Cape Government has seen it fit to provide an appropriate facility for people to practice their initiation culture," a local government communiqué said this week.

- This being the year to mark and celebrate ten years of democracy, the 'Turning of the Sod' is also in celebration of ten years of democracy in our province, the press statement added. The local Department of Environmental Affairs has provided rand 1.2 million towards construction of the Initiation Village and the 'Turning of the Sod' this week marks the start of construction.

The initiative by the Western Cape government has received a mixed welcome by coordinators of the Sod. The construction of state-owned Sod villages with permanent huts will endanger the original meaning of the ceremony, Xhosa traditionalists hold.

This is mainly because the permanent huts may not be burned, as the traditional performers of the Sod have used to do. The ceremony is ended with the ritual burning of all the remnants of the initiation rite, including the hut. This burning traditionally symbolises the beginning of a new life for the boys-turned-men.

But most Xhosa warmly welcome the Western Cape government's initiative, calling for the provincial governments of the south to construct even more initiation villages. Xhosa representatives in far away East London of the Eastern Cape Province say that constructing such villages should be on their government's agenda. The problems of urbanisation are equally hitting the Xhosa of Eastern Cape.

Answering the critiques of traditionalist Xhosas, those calling for state assistance say that also Xhosa rites and traditions must adapt to modernity.

Phathekile Holomisa, President of the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa), told the East London 'Daily Dispatch' that many Xhosa for a long time turned to the re-use of huts and houses for the ceremony. In Transkei province, he said, initiates were using ordinary houses.

- These houses are not burnt as expected in the old traditional way, Mr Holomisa told the 'Dispatch'. "Instead the material used by the initiate is burnt. The fact that the hut is not going to be burnt does not make the tradition illegitimate," explained Mr Holomisa. "We must adapt to changing times."

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