Members of the Zulu royal family are meeting with local authorities in South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal Province to discuss making male circumcision services available at public hospitals in a bid to reduce HIV infections.
Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini announced on 4 December that he intended reviving the practice of circumcision among young Zulu men in response to recent studies showing that circumcsied men are 60 percent less likely to become infected with HIV through sex than uncircumcised men. More than a million of the estimated 5.5 million HIV-positive South Africans live in KwaZulu-Natal, the province with the highest HIV prevalence.
"The King is concerned about the HIV/AIDS toll on his nation. The delegations are discussing how circumcision could be adopted as government policy before it is introduced in government hospitals," said Ndabezinhle Sibiya, spokesman for the KwaZulu-Natal Premier, Dr Zweli Mkhize.
The practice has been out of favour among Zulus since the 19th century, when King Shaka banned it because he believed it robbed his army of warrior-age men for months at a time, but South Africa's Xhosa and Sotho peoples undergo traditional circumcisions as a rite of passage into manhood.
Circumcision is already being promoted as a weapon in the fight against HIV/AIDS in other southern African countries. In Swaziland, for example, where the custom of removing the foreskin also died out in the 1900s, young men are lining up at clinics and hospitals for the cut.
Zwelithini said he would like to see male circumcision services rolled out in the province before the end of 2010, but the government is concerned about the capacity of public hospitals, already under severe strain due to HIV/AIDS and understaffing, to conduct the procedure on a large scale.
"We ... would like to see men being circumcised as soon as possible, but we understand that we have to take the government on board, so that it can release resources for this," said Prince Mboniswa Zulu, a spokesman for the Zulu royal household.
Zulu said the King would prefer the procedure to be conducted at health facilities by trained doctors to avoid the regular fatalities resulting from botched circumcisions conducted at illegal initiation schools, mostly in rural Eastern Cape Province.
But a general practitioner at a government hospital in Durban also expressed doubts about the capacity of local hospitals. "There is no doubt that this is a timely intervention to fight the scourge of AIDS, but I don't think it will work. Already doctors are overworked dealing with normal diseases."
|There is no doubt that this is a timely intervention...but I don't think it will work. Already doctors are overworked.|
Medical and cultural experts widely commended Zwelithini's decision. "[It] is a simple procedure," said Prof Nceba Gqaleni, deputy dean of the Nelson Mandela School of Medicine at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. "A patient can walk in for an appointment and a urologist would conduct the circumcision, and the patient would walk out with medications within a short period of time."
Gqaleni works closely with traditional healers on issues relating to HIV/AIDS, who also welcomed King Goodwill's decision. "They feel that the King is the custodian of Zulu culture, and ... has the right to make interventions when circumstances require it," he said.
The Zulu monarch has also supported the controversial comeback of virginity testing for young Zulu girls as a strategy for preventing and raising awareness about HIV.
Nhlanhla Mntaka, a political analyst and an expert on Zulu cultural issues, said he believed young men would heed the King's call. "I foresee this as the beginning of a massive awareness programme. When virginity testing was reintroduced, people said girls would boycott them, but today thousands proudly participate in them. It would be the same thing with young men."
Siyabonga Memela, 23, an architect, said: "My approach is simple: if it is going to help fight AIDS, why not do it? If I am given a chance to cut my foreskin for free, I would do it."
But Francis Myende, 29, a restaurant employee, said he was against reintroducing the practice. "Our fathers did not use circumcision, and I am not about to change that," he told IRIN/PlusNews. "Starting to circumcise now would be adopting other people's cultures. I think there are other ways of preventing HIV."
SOUTH AFRICA: Male circumcision: why the delay?