The rite thing
Initiation can be abused, but why the difference between ‘black’ and ‘white’?
A GREAT DEAL OF prominence has been given to the case of alleged initiation abuses that took place at a leading Johannesburg school, Parktown Boys High. For example, The Star made the story its front page lead, with headlines of a size and hysteria justified by a major newsbreak.
Twelve matriculation students of the school have been questioned in connection with this affair and there can be no doubt the custom of initiation, while it can be constructive, is also open to abuse with potentially traumatising effects. It appears the initiates at Parktown were placed in humiliating situations in which they were naked, beaten on their buttocks and made to rub a heat-producing embrocation on their genitals.
This sort of juvenile hazing is believed by its practitioners to be a sort of passage of entry into membership or manhood. It is, of course, practised not only by schoolboys and it’s been around for many thousands of years.
The wonderful Wikipedia tells us: “A rite of passage is a ritual that marks a change in a person’s social status. It’s a universal phenomenon that can show anthropologists what social hierarchies, values and beliefs are important in specific cultures.
“Rites of passage are often ceremonies surrounding events such as childbirth, menarche or other milestones within puberty, coming of age, marriage, weddings and death. Initiation ceremonies such as baptism, confirmation and bar or bat mitzvoth are considered important rites of passage.”
Your ageing correspondent was subjected 55 years ago to initiation in search of full membership of what are known on university campuses in the United States as “fraternities” or brotherhoods. His late father, being a stonemason, was automatically expected to join the secret society of Masons, an honourable order with secret initiation that does good works and cares for its members.
Over the years university authorities in the US have taken steps to curb what they perceived to be excesses in the initiation process, but one gathers it continues.
As a recruit in the US Army Armour Training Corps at Fort Knox in Kentucky in 1960, I was subjected to the travails of “boot camp” – where I was kept short on sleep and long on exercise, such as forced marches in searing heat bearing a rifle (call it a “gun” and it was 50 push-ups) and a full backpack with hardened veteran officers and sergeants from the Second World War and Korea showing no mercy.
When a soldier is in the trenches under enemy fire it will be of some comfort to have alongside colleagues with whom you have shared physical and psychological stress in rites of passage designed to prepare you for combat or, on the other hand, rule you out.
You understand the Springbok rugby team has its own initiation ceremony, not to be confused with the notorious Kamp Staaldraad run by Rudolph Strauli, and it’s probably fair to assume the players hold the process in high regard and consider it a privilege to share it with their team mates.
Again, in the heat of Test rugby battle those with whom you have shared a rite of passage will more readily stand by you.
This debate isn’t a new one and it will go on endlessly. However, what’s puzzling is that while The Star treated the Parktown matter as a spectacular piece of news, it buried a report on another initiation involving young men.
In that matter eight young men weren’t humiliated or bruised. They were, in effect, killed. They were the victims of a traditional initiation school in Mpumalanga, where what must have been crude and unhygienic methods led to their deaths after what would surely have been periods of intense, unbearable pain as infections poisoned their systems while the wounds inflicted on their penises suppurated.
Perhaps there’s in that a reflection of the double standards that appear to be at work in SA’s media. For example, those stupid Free State University boys who viciously subjected innocent cleaning ladies to humiliation were widely described as “white” racists.
Fair enough. But how about black criminals who terrorise white homes, gratuitously murder their residents, rape white women and usually disappear, escaping the law. Do you read of “four black men” committing such crimes? Do you read of “black racists” who kill even when their victims surrender their possessions and pose no threat?