UJ Historian, Prof Natasha Erlank examines South Africa’s Christianity and Male initiation

Professorial Inaugural address: Prof Natasha Erlank

While initiation practices have particular meaning for Xhosa men across South Africa many men debated, defended and, at times, incorporated Christianised forms of initiation into their own symbolic repertoires, according to Natasha Erlank, a Professor in the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Johannesburg (UJ).

She argues that African Christians accommodated traditional practices, in this instance male initiation, within their evolving Christianity, in ways that are creative and resourceful, when she delivered her inaugural address in the Council Chambers, Madibeng Building, Auckland Park Kingsway Campus on Monday, 6 March 2017.

Prof Erlank’s address focussed on the complexities of circumcision, which has important social aspects. Today, surgical circumcision is widely touted to reduce the incidence of HIV/Aids, but it is not welcomed by many traditionalists, who maintain that circumcision clinics funded with donor aid are a corruption of tradition and neglect this social aspect

In her professorial lecture, she emphasised that practices like circumcision have always been fluid and subject to challenge. “In South Africa’s current system of traditional governance, circumcision and initiation are sites of considerable dispute, and public debate is inevitably accompanied by comments about who has the right to speak for African custom,” she said. This contest is not new, as historically initiation has also been the site of contest.

Prof Erlank pointed out that while colonial contests over polygamy and female initiation have been the subject of much research, male initiation has seldom been viewed as contentious. “Discussions of female initiation tend towards viewing genital cutting as a site of anti-colonial politics or in relation to women’s rights. Discussions of male initiation have focused on its role during periods of conflict or heightened social change, connecting it also to the production of age-grades and the renewal of intra-African structures of authority. However, male circumcision in South Africa was the subject of intense dispute and from an earlier date than similar contests, whether around male or female initiation, in the rest of British colonial Africa.”

She stressed that between the mid-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, contests over initiation evolved from complete missionary condemnation to substantial accommodation within mainline Christianity. This change was the result of African Christians engaging their missionary counterparts in a series of debates which continually reiterated the importance of initiation. This process was a delicate one, since it also brought African Christians into conflict with their traditional communities.

“The literature on Christianity and colonialism in South Africa has rarely exposed the creative ways in which mainline African Christians both challenged and adapted traditional practices routinely condemned by white missionaries,” said Prof Erlank.

Her aim is to advance gender research at national, regional and continental levels. In order to achieve this aim, Prof Erlank has developed networks with academics inside and outside the boundaries of South Africa.

“Currently I am involved in two international research projects. One is the ‘Gendering Intimacies Project’ a five –year Mellon funded initiative under Prof Shireen Hassim at the University of the Witwatersrand. I am also collaborating with Dr Joel Cabrita at the University of Cambridge on a project entitled ‘New Histories of Southern African Christianity’.”

Prof Erlank has trained as a historian, doing her undergraduate, Honours and Master’s degrees at the University of Cape Town (UCT). Her doctorate was completed at Cambridge University (UK).

Her research interests lie principally in the history of the relationship between gender and mainline African Christianity, within the broader context of colonialism.)

She also work in the field of public history as a publically-engaged historian, Prof Erlank is concerned with the contemporary politics of memory in South Africa, a research interest which aligns with debates about public history. While some of her interest in this regard is expressed in research, she has also been active as a consultant on public history and memory projects in South Africa.

Prof Erlank’s interest in black Christianity led her to work on the politics of African nationalism in South Africa. In 2005, she wrote a paper on ANC positions on gender, reflecting on ten years of gender gains and losses. In 2012, her interest in the politics of nationalism led her to collaborate with a group of scholars interested in reflecting on ANC history. The result is a jointly-edited volume 100 Years of ANC: Debating Liberation Histories Today (Wits Press, 2012). The volume is a serious and considered intervention into debates around ANC historiography in the year of the party’s centenary.

In 2015, she edited a special issue of African Studies with Dr Karie Morgan, which was the culmination of a five year publich history project in Sophiatown, Johannesburg.. The work has resulted in a volume of popular history published in South Africa by Jacana, and most recently in the US by Indiana University Press.

Next year Prof Erlank is planning to publish a monograph on this subject, entitled Gender, Christianity and Tradition in South African in the Early Twentieth Century. She has worked principally on Southern African, but her future research trajectory includes examining similar issues across the African continent.

See Prof Erlank’s Professorial Inaugural address entitled Brought into Manhood’: Christianity and Male Initiation in South Africa in the Early-Twentieth Century

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