South African film Inxeba (The Wound) opens with a scene of everyday alienation, as its lead character Xolani performs the repetitive drudgery of factory work. His visage is an expression of firmly disassociated tedium. This brief portrayal of menial waged labour deftly shows the contrast between mindless pay by-the-hour and the ceremonial seasonal work that follows, after Xolani is approached to support an initiate of the ulwaluko manhood ritual in the role of instructor, or care-giver (khaukatha).
Throughout the film, South African actor Nakhane (already well known as both a musical artist and novelist, here in his feature film debut) conveys with skill the repressed emotional palette available to the film’s closeted gay protagonist. A script which could easily have left the character standoffish and inscrutable instead presents him as embroiled in an oblique identity conflict that usually plays out far below a composed, stoic countenance.
Xolani’s new employer is a bourgeois father from Johannesburg, keen to continue amaXhosa traditions (over his wife’s wishes), but concerned that his child Kwanda (Niza Jay) is “too soft” to otherwise survive the initiation rite. Like much in the film, important points are left unstated: we are not told whether Xolani is being consciously hired as a gay umXhosa man, best able to support the father’s gay son, or whether the mental association was more unwitting. (Although Xolani is told the lad was caught in his bedroom with a friend, an example of sexual activity sometimes tolerated as a display of immaturity before ulwaluko, less so after).
The place of gay men in such a rite is a complex one: while expected by their peers to pass through the passage to full amaXhosa manhood, homosexuality’s association with effeminacy is such that they have a tenuous place (at best) in a ceremony intended to drive the effeminacy from the youths participating. This fraught presence is the key criticism presented of ulwaluko by Inxeba: patriarchal normativity obliges queer youths to pass through somewhere they can never truly belong.
While the legal position of LGBT people in South Africa has greatly improved in recent years, and indeed formal protections have become constitutionally enshrined, the lived reality of amaXhosa South Africans depicted in Inxeba is a darker and less reliable thing. While one character compares conditions favourably to living under “the rule of Mugabe” or in Uganda, at the mountain where the ritual takes place the threat of violence is never truly absent. Instead of state persecution, many South African queers lives’ lives defined by the reign of fraught silences. In this context, Xolani is tasked with continuing the traditional rites of the amaXhosa in an especially delicate case, himself a prior survivor of the rite while singled out by his peers and isolated from his community on account of his effeminacy.
With Xolani accepting the task of taking care of Kwanda, and returning to the mountains of the Eastern Cape which he barely survived upon his first visit, the film moves at a brisk rate through the circumcision itself. This feature of the ritual is dispensed with swiftly, in a moment a less original set of filmmakers might have spent much of the narrative building up to. Kwanda, along with the rest of the initiates, is instructed by the ritual circumciser to yell “I am a man!,” as the procedure unfolds repeatedly, and rapidly, off screen. This signals that “the wound” referred to by the film’s title will be the focus of the narrative: Inxeba centers normative trauma, and recovery which takes place in a strictly hierarchical context.
While in a medical context the procedure would be typically carried out while under a general anaesthetic or nerve block, during the ulwaluko surgery and recovery no pain relief is offered besides narcotics. Obliged to avoid crying out or flinching during the procedure, initiates are quite possibly recovering from shock. In the days following a circumcision the basic functions of passing urine (or erections) are accompanied with burning pain, and moving increases the risk of infection, scarring, and other complications. In many regions it’s traditional for instructors to prevent the initiates from sleeping, as they’re believed to be especially vulnerable to witchcraft during the first few nights of recovery. The extremity of the conditions reflects the intention to purge adolescent consciousness (ubukhwenkwe) from the initiates, drawing them out of effeminacy and into manhood.
The early stages of this recovery process are wholly hierarchical, with each instructor overseeing the recovering youths alone. Initiates are initially confined to tents, relying on their caregiver to provide their basic needs while immobilised. In this context, Xolani dresses Kwanda’s wounds, feeds him and offers him water, instructs him to smoke, advises him in facing down bullying, and spends much the rest of the film doing his best to ensure his safety, in a context which gradually shifts from suspicious to openly hostile toward the pair. While sexual abuse is reported as commonplace by the film’s queer actors, on screen Xolani only provides responsible treatment to his ward, while Kwanda is at his most vulnerable.
As depicted here, ulwaluko entails a progression towards manhood in purposefully harsh circumstances: the end of boyhood brought about through an act of endurance, unfolding over three weeks with instructors and initiates secluded from the rest of the world. After the brief prelude introducing Xolani, the whole course of the film follows this rite from start to end, with the final scene covering the return of the initiates and instructors (short Kwanda and Xolani) to a welcoming party of woman and children.
Two relationships (each between two gay amaXhosa men) form the core of this film’s drama: the first between Xolani and Kwanda as instructor and initiate, and secondly a romance between Xolani and his married lover Vija (Bongile Mantsai). Much better established among his fellow amaXhosa, Vija is also serving as an instructor for four initiates. He quickly develops an interest in Kwanda too, which puts Xolani predictably ill at ease.
The regularity of the wounding rite, and their shared role in supporting those in recovery, has offered this pair of former childhood friends an opportunity to remain in reliable (if not fulfilling) contact. While the ulwaluko ritual was clearly intended as a passage of testing and endurance, here it doubles up as an opportunity for an illicit partnership between men to continue. At one point Xolani is asked by Kwanda why he always comes back to the mountain, and while he can offer no direct reply, by the end of the film this is tacitly made quite clear (to both audience, and his initiate).
The pair of instructors, Xolani and Vija, serve as complementary representatives of the prospects for queer life: Vija is an assured and muscular man, whose queerness is presumably concealed in part by his marriage. By contrast, Xolani lives without a wife or children, plays the “passive” role in each of the film’s three oblique sex scenes. As the film passes into its denouement, Xolani is confronted violently by a group of initiates who’ve grown suspicious of his proclivities and is defended physically by Vija, in a move he knows risks exposing him too. However, Xolani’s position as a full-time factory worker affords him a relatively great degree of economic power. Even a bottom-rung proletarian enjoys a good deal more security than South Africa’s sizable industrial reserve army (in 2017 the Eastern Cape province unemployment rate rose to 32%). At first, Vija accepts money offered from Xolani to support his family (allowing him to play provider, albeit in a subversive way), before petulantly returning it when Xolani pressures him to abandon his wife.
The relationship between the two instructors exemplifies the suggestive and delicate approach of the film’s writers to the subject matter. Inxeba displays skilfully the conflict caused by the mixed commitments of closeted queer life: Xolani has resolved to spend his life meeting with his lover, year after year, despite knowing full well that Vija had dedicated himself to a married life. When Vija informs Xolani that he his wife had recently borne his first child, Xolani’s near inability to congratulate him seems to haunt the men’s interactions for the rest of the film. Nakhane’s performance is delicate enough to convey the melancholic resignation present even as he asks his lover to join him over the stability of married, presentably heterosexual, life. When the two men strip and embrace during the film’s third and final sex scene, it seems clear that Xolani is clinging as much to a bygone fantasy of romantic fulfillment as his flesh-and-blood lover.
In contrast to this repressed silence of his instructors, the initiate Kwanda offers criticism of the ritual’s proceedings throughout the film, in this way puncturing whatever unexamined sacred aspect might have prevailed otherwise. Offence is caused both by Kwanda’s irreverent commentary, and very presence as an urbane male with suspiciously feminine-coded mannerisms.
It’s a credit to the film’s production and acting that Kwanda does not appear in any straightforward way as the film’s hero. Inxeba is unusual for a coming of age drama, in that its apparent protagonist is the older Xolani, who had long since survived the ritual (without an instructor, and at one point having to kill a feral dog with his bare hands, according to the on-screen recounting). Yet in the years since, Xolani had still not managed to fully settle into the position of manhood, and his new initiate tests the limits of this insecurity. For his part, although Kwanda is able to upset the awkward rhythm of Xolani’s life, he is not yet conscious enough to serve as his instructor’s saviour. Kwanda offers Xolani the prospect of escape, but cannot clearly articulate where exactly this might be to. True to the reality of young queers in a hostile context, Kwanda clearly finds it easier to denounce the conditions he finds himself than to actively articulate the case for queer living in any positive sense.
In an exemplary scene, with the initiates gathered and encouraged to give voice to their own perspective on the transition from boyhood to manhood, Kwanda does not offer a plea for tolerance and an expanded conception of manhood, nor a full-throated defence of cosmopolitan values and urban pluralism, but instead remains silent (a choice ultimately endorsed by Xolani, who demures that his ward is simply “not ready”). Kwanda further refuses to join with initiates comparing their scars, instead half-heartedly deriding them, as one proudly claims to resemble a Mercedes-Benz logo.
In a more dramatic scene, Kwanda approaches the elders and instructors out of turn, as they sit casually around a fire, demanding of them: ‘What’s next? We have to sit for two weeks watching our cocks heal?’ By the end of the film Kwanda’s brash irreverence has peaked, as he further mocks the foundations of the ritual while he traverses the mountain alone with his instructor: “What is the purpose of having a dick? OK it’s nice, but is it so important? A ridiculous little end, it’s stupid.” As Xolani listens impassively, he continues to offer a derisive assessment of Vija: “He’s a big kid, who thinks he’s a big Xhosa, just like everybody else. You have to get out of that bullshit.”
Kwanda serves as an obvious representative of the genteel and somewhat alien world of Johannesburg — wearing his trainers during forest jaunts in breach of tradition, and admitting to having an iPhone rather than a Blackberry when interrogated on this point by his peers. Despite this apparent association, however, he is unable to serve as an advocate for the metropolis, any more than he can for himself as a young black queer. As such, the role played by Johannesburg in Inxeba is that of an absent, vague temptation: the mountain and the city serve as two rival forces, although the film only serves to provide the fully realised perspective of the mountain. The closest the city has to a direct appearance follows a physical confrontation between Kwanda and the closeted Vija (during which Kwanda was overpowered, narrowly avoiding a sound beating). The initiate illicitly climbs into a parked car’s driving seat, switches on the familiar sub-bass and beat of instrumental dance music, and sinks into the upholstery, closing his eyes. Even when the city appears, its distance from the mountain seems obvious.
Inxeba struggles to provide a climax as strong as the rest of the film. The narrative falters as it approaches the end of the ritual that almost perfectly contains its narrative. While a community elder exhorts the initiates to fill their houses with offspring, gay instructor and initiate find their own way across the mountain. By this point Kwanda’s continued defiance, and typically adolescent intolerance of hypocrisy, has left first Vija, then Xolani, facing down an unwelcome queer interruption to their covert seasonal relationship. In their own way, these two queer instructors ultimately serve as the last line of defence for traditional manhood. The film’s effort to attempt a resolution of this conceit has proven widely unpopular among otherwise favourable reviewers, described as shocking or abrupt — to which I would add, clumsy. In the last instance, Inxeba’s filmmaker’s shy away from grappling with the responsibility of survival in harsh circumstances that much of the film’s audience (both in South Africa, and internationally) must confront. Instead, Inxeba offers out queers a bleak cautionary tale to never turn your back on a closet case.
The best that can be said for this downbeat conclusion is that it shows the pinioned position Xolani has found himself in, and the crisis caused by even so fledgling a queer critic as Kwanda: Xolani can neither embrace the return to boyhood or escape to the city Kwanda unsteadily represents, nor kill forever the prospect of escaping the mountain, without also destroying his own spirit.
As a piece of South African cinema, Inxeba was met with both unprecedented accolades and censure before public release.
Before its release in early 2018, the film toured the circuit of independent, LGBT and international film festivals, accumulating an array of awards by the end of 2017. That year, the film opened the Tel Aviv International LGBT Film Festival.
At the same time, local controversy was intensifying. Efforts were made by the Xhosa king, Mpendulo Zwelonke Sigcawu, and the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (CONTRALESA), as well as the Men and Boy Foundation, to prevent the film’s release. Christian and Zulu leaders joined these efforts on grounds clearly spurious upon watching the film: in one scene a defiant Kwanda suggests that Jesus Christ and Shaka Zulu were both homosexually entwined with their respective male entourage. But this is clearly presented as a speculation from a young queer struggling desperately to grasp his identity, not as a historical contention by the filmmakers.
The upshot of this establishment led controversy was the near derailment of Inxeba’s release in South Africa: protests (including threats of violence on social media) ensured half the cinemas cancelled their screenings. Most protesters had, of course, not yet seen the full film.
Then in February of this year Inxeba was reclassified by South Africa’s Film & Publication Board as X18 — a classification intended for hardcore pornography of no scientific, educational, or cultural worth. X18 films are only legally screened at licensed porn venues. Given how unlikely any adult cinemas would be to screen so somber and politically charged fare as Inxeba, the rating amounted to a de facto state censorship of the film from public screening, and the ruling was celebrated by traditionalist groups as a ban.
This pornographic rating was especially jarring in light of Inxeba’s consistent directorial preference for the oblique over the explicit, the tasteful over the gratuitous, and the suggestive over the overt, in both the film’s circumcision and sex scenes. It’s impossible not to side with the cast’s attribution of the ruling to homophobia: in such a context, the very presence of gay men can easily appear as an obscenity. (It’s hard to imagine a way of shooting scenes such as Xolani’s redressing of Kwanda’s bandages, in the film’s first act, in a fashion that would have not upset traditionalists). The premise of gay participants in such an exclusively male rite can only be contentious, and a depiction which centers them could probably only have been read as a provocation in-and-of-itself.
Thankfully, this injustice was overturned in late March, after Inxeba’s producers had begun legal proceedings.
Worse than the fate of the film itself, Inxeba’s cast faced a barrage of death threats and harassment, as it neared release. The film’s star Nakhane (previously Nakhane Touré) has been targeted by an especially large number of death threats, including viral distribution of his photograph across Whatsapp, accompanied with a threatening message. This began with the release of the film’s trailer, and intensified after he was awarded best actor at the Durban International Film Festival. Nakhane reports receiving over 1000 violent responses to his social media photo announcing this alone, causing him to abandon plans to film a second film in Eastern Cape. (He has since left South Africa for Dalston, London.)
For his part, Nakhane had held back on responding directly to the intimidation he faced, in a bid to avoid encouraging more (only discussing them in interviews). Then on February 14th, he broke this silence to release a remarkable response to the newly announced X18 rating (originally published on Instagram). Nakhane staged a vivid reliving of his developmental experience with homophobia, which the ruling evoked:
We are vile and we are perverse. A virus that they will do anything to get rid of. I sat in my apartment reading the verdict, close to tears, shaking. I saw myself as a child, mocked for being effeminate. Afraid for my life as a teenager when I walked past straight men because I had no idea what they were capable of. I always had something to hid. They hated me. They hated us, unless we made them laugh...
Unlike his censored film, Nakhane’s statement ended on a note of defiance, and a stubborn assertion of willful survival:
...I fucking refuse to live in shame for your patriarchy to keep on living. I’m an umXhosa and I don’t know what to do with what I love, but doesn’t love me. So you’ll take us off your cinemas, you’ll rip our paintings/photographs off walls. But we will not go anywhere. We will still be here even if you think you’ve won.
Another remarkable defence of the film’s merit, and assertion of the personal trauma it had drawn from, came from Nakhane’s co-star Niza Jay: (also a gay umXhosa man, making his cinematic debut):
As a 22-year-old Xhosa man who has made the conscious decision not to go to the mountain, as is my human right, patriarchal and phallocentric logic dictates that I have no place in any conversation about Xhosa initiation or manhood. Fortunately, meeting rigid and narrow requirements for manhood, masculinity or anything else has never interested me….As a “feminine” presenting man who engages physically and emotionally with other men on a romantic level, my body actively defies what my culture dictates it should do and signify. But I am not the only body that defies narrow definitions of culture...Although Xhosa culture rightfully creates a space for abiding male bodies to flourish, endowing them with the tools to occupy their designated place as men in the culture, defiant bodies such as mine are expected to forego self-definition to satisfy cultural expectations of manhood.xh
Both these responses are striking for the refusal to deny the developmental damage caused by a childhood and adolescence facing down gender regulative violence. Much like Inxeba itself, these accounts instead unflinchingly emphasise the oppression the actors have faced as gay men (and effeminate boys). These forthright responses also seem to affirm the cast’s claims that the film was a truly collaborative process, with the actors fully involved in the film’s conception (particularly the few scenes revealing the ritual itself), rather than any pretence of an “auteur’s” unifying vision, imposed top-down.
In assessing the unprecedented controversy which engulfed Inxeba (even before its release), the context into which the film intervened should be understood.
Circumcision has become more prevalent than ever before across South Africa as a whole; the result of a misguided effort by international NGOs and UNAIDS to promote “Voluntary Male Medical Circumcision” (VMMC) as one means of curbing the nation’s world leading HIV rates. This global health campaign targeted especially South Africa’s amaZulu population, who had previously not practiced any form of circumcision.
The specific risks of the ulwaluko rite are considerably greater than circumcision as a medicalised procedure, however. Inxeba is only the latest of a string of narratives and exposes produced over the past ten years drawing attention to the experiences and risks faced by young amaXhosa men.
Published in 2009, Thando Mgqolozana’s acclaimed novel A Man Who Is Not a Man unfolds from the perspective of a initiate who faces severe complications during the rite. A Man Who Is Not a Man’s frank account directly inspired the premise of Inxeba. (Mgqolozana was later one of Inxeba’s co-writers, and an adaption of one chapter of his novel as a short was prepared and released during the feature length film’s pre-production.)
In 2010 controversial zef rap group Die Antwoord released a single featuring umXhosa performer Wanga irreverently rejecting ulwaluko and instead declaring himself “evil boy for life.” (Wanga’s criticism of the rite is striking for its homophobia, in clear contrast to Inxeba). Since being uploaded, the video has received over 28 million views on YouTube alone.
The health crisis caused by the ulwaluko rite has continued through the 2010s, with one report suggesting 500 young men died from related complications between 2006 and 2014. In addition to the inherently unsanitary aspect of the rite, bandages are often tied too tightly by untrained instructors, and the widespread (and entirely mistaken) belief that dehydration causes a safe healing process has unnecessarily exposed many initiates to a range of additional complications.
By all reports, botched rituals have proven most widespread in Pondoland (where the practice was largely abandoned between the 1820s and 1970s.) A play named after the region gave a voice to those most harmed by the procedure in 2014.
The same year, one Dutch doctor frustrated with continued refusals from elders to assure safer conditions during initiations, responded by opening a website simply entitled “Ulwaluko.” The highly controversial page documented both the prevalence of botched surgeries, and commonplace complications caused by ill-informed treatments of wounds. Despite efforts by traditionalists to censor this content and criticism the site remains live, featuring clinical photos (from consenting patients) of both circumcision complications, and severe physical abuse of initiates by instructors.
In 2016 South African academic psychologists Anathi Ntozini and Hlonelwa Ngqangweni published a research paper entitled “Gay Xhosa men’s experiences of ulwaluko (traditional male initiation),” exploring the subject treated fictionally by Inxeba from a social science perspective. Although finding a few cases of tolerance (in one instance even an initiate visited openly by his boyfriend), for the most part amaXhosa men interviewed reported a less favourable experience.
Also in 2016, umXhosa performer Majola released an album, Boet/Sissy, named after a derisory Xhosa term for effeminate males. One track ("Mountain View") narrates falling in love with another initiate during the ulwaluko retreat.
Depicted in distinctively twenty-first century media, and more established forms, whatever shroud of secrecy survived following the prominent appearance of ulwaluko in Nelson Mandela’s memoirs — which itself followed innumerable anthropological investigations by foreign whites that had revealed yet more — has now struggled to weather the information age. This new era of disclosure is perhaps best demonstrated by one harsh review of Inxeba, which at once argued the amaXhosa should "keep some aspects of our lives forever secret," while also proving especially forthcoming about the details of the ulwaluko rite in its effort to correct the film’s presentation.
Despite following this trend, the intensity of the response which met Inxeba far outstripped that which accompanied these preceding works, corresponding to the international spectacle the film created out of a local custom. As well as winning 26 awards (both within South Africa and internationally), and being shortlisted for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Inxeba was the first from South Africa (and currently only) to feature on popular streaming service Netflix.
The fierce controversy this film sparked before it even screened should not be collapsed with the substantive criticism it has received since its release.
Although well received by many South African reviewers, including some young amaXhosa writers, criticism of Inxeba has not been limited to traditionalists: that the film’s director John Trengove was a white South African was seen as inappropriate by several academic critics, given the ethnically specific nature of the film’s content. This point of contention was addressed at some length by the film’s cast, in a frank radio interview with Eusebius Mckaiser.
One umXhosa woman who attended a premiere affirmed the truth of the ceremony’s impact on her gay relatives, but complained that the film offered too limited a view of the social practice, as “It didn’t show us what goes on after they come back from the mountain.” (And indeed, Inxeba closes with the initiates returning from the ceremony, with the final shot a close-up on a young boy’s face, suggesting the harm that will surely roll onto the next generation.)
Similarly, the film has been criticised as male-centric, with its cast’s defences of the film inspired by a “patriarchal confidence.” The exclusive focus on male experience found in Inxeba is undeniable, but seems justified towards the end of immersing the audience in a ceremony defined by its segregation. There is a clear place for a specifically gay film, in response to the particular struggle faced by those participating in a ritual clearly central to the development of amaXhosa men (including for those, like Kwanda’s actor Niza Jay, who opt for the rupture of rejecting the mountain altogether.)
Indeed if there is a failing of Inxeba’s restricted focus on the initiate/instructor relationship, and romance between men, it is not a misogynistic one. Rather, the film’s exclusion of women inevitably leads to an inability to convey the direct complicity many women have in coercing boys into manhood. As one journalist reported: “‘While it is seemingly only the hierarchy of respect afforded among Xhosa males, it is actually also their value in the eyes of Xhosa women that makes them desire to go through traditional initiation. Xhosa women overtly state that they neither desire nor get into relationships with Xhosa males who have not gone through ulwaluko.” This factor was dealt with well in the novel which inspired Inxeba, A Man Who Is Not A Man. A memorable scene in this novel sees the protagonist hospitalised while recovering from a severe complication. There he is mocked as unmanly for abandoning his ritual tent for clean hospital sheets, by an umXhosa nurse supposedly tasked with caring for him.. Other medical staff do not intervene. By contrast, Inxeba presents a relatively simplified account of patriarchal relations, with exclusively male perpetrators and victims. It provides only a partial view of how gender norms are upheld across generations.
Not only women, but South Africans of all ethnicities besides amaXhosa (the country’s second largest ethnicity, following amaZulu) are strikingly absent from the film. One brief exception is an encounter between the ritual participants and a white farmer, who they are obliged to ask permission to reach a waterfall. (South Africa’s beleaguered ANC government has recently provoked another international controversy by initiating long overdue land reform: at present almost three quarters of farmland is owned by whites.) Elsewhere in the film Kwanda’s relative wealth has him mocked by his peers: “He thinks he’s a white man!” This fleeting appearance only emphasises the strict focus of the film’s screentime, which also entirely excludes other South African black identities.
It’s exactly through this restricted focus of Inxeba that we are provided a thoroughgoing (if never crude) criticism of local conditions, one which seems of universal worth. Through the intensive examination of one particular rite of passage — from the perspective of those passing through and overseeing it — the film explores the conflict, compromise, and complicity which undergirds closeted queer life. The truth presented in Inxeba’s procession of suggestive glimpses is that the closet often demands not only secrecy and self-denial, but active participation by queers in structures of normative violence that define heterosexual life. Gender norms require the enactment of regulatory processes across generations to survive, and often enough its greatest victims find themselves press-ganged into this continuation.
The narrow focus of Inxeba reveals the narrative limits of normative manhood, and allows it to to grasp the developmental power male spaces hold over those coerced into passing through them.
In Inxeba, the closet appears as its own kind of commitment: while Xolani and Vija may have fashioned themselves a workable seasonal relationship, it ultimately proves tenuous. The appearance of Kwanda challenges the older men, and shows up the precarious nature of their condition: from the erotically charged interest Vija takes in the young initiate, to Xolani’s inability to voice a defence of the mountain before Kwanda’s first tentative, then forceful, criticisms.
Inxeba is a rare coming of age film which refuses to side with manhood over effeminacy. It calls into question how much normalised gender formative violence is truly necessary, and how many it can ever meaningfully include. Inxeba presents as central accounts and experiences that defenders of passages of manhood of this kind are usually keen to exclude. The cast are to be commended both for the risk taken, and for their readiness to draw from an often deeply personal trauma, to produce an immersive fictional account of an ongoing crisis. And further for their determined defence of the film — and in some cases themselves as black queers — they then staged in the face of ferocious controversy. We could do with a dozen more films as tastefully unsparing, concerning as many more formative male spaces.
With thanks to Kate Doyle Griffiths for editing and helpful suggestions
Jules Joanne Gleeson is a Londoner and queer academic worker based in Vienna.