The rite thing

Ini­ti­a­tion can be abused, but why the dif­fer­ence be­tween ‘black’ and ‘white’?

Finweek English Edition - - Nothing Sacred - STEPHEN MUL­HOL­LAND stephenm@fin­week.co.za

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?

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