Virginity testing is a sensitive and controversial topic for those who practise it.
It is a Saturday morning as I walk down Sofasonke Street in the township of Orlando West, Soweto. The streets are full of people speaking in different languages in private conversations, moving in opposite directions. There is a cacophony of house, gospel and maskandi music playing simultaneously from houses, shops and taxis.
Just up the road from the buzzing intersection, in a quieter street, is a yellow house protected by a short fence. We are seated in an outside backroom, small and crowded. A long white curtain divides the small room into the bedroom and a dining area. Renting out a single room and dividing it, is a common living arrangement in the community of Soweto.
On a long brown velvet couch, I am seated with five teenage girls stylishly dressed, who engage in virginity testing and cultural dancing activities. The girls are singing, talking loudly, while clapping their hands, awaiting the arrival of 10 other group members for their scheduled dance practice.
VIBRANCY: Members of Ubuhle Bentsha dance group practising their steps.
The backroom is a meeting point for the girls who practise twice a month, outside a nearby church across the road.
Ubuhle Bentsha, which means “beauty of the youth” is the name of the girl’s dance group which was established in 2009. Val’upie, maan which means “close your thighs” is an informal slogan the girls constantly use when cracking jokes among each other.
“We are almost starting, where are you? Ai, hurry up, shesha maan, val’upie maan,” says one of the girls speaking to another girl over the phone.
The girls are engaged in robust conversations around sexual abstinence and how boys are only after the girls’ ‘pie’, ‘cake’, or ‘cookie’, reference being made to a vagina
The concept of virginity testing is deeply entrenched among the Zulu in rural KwaZulu-Natal, where young girls are regularly tested whether they are still pure, or that their virginity is intact. Girls who participate in the practice are referred to as amatshitshi which means “virgins”.
Because I’m familiar with the Zulu language, it’s no difficult task to jump in and join the conversations.
“We can’t have boys play us, he must decide if he wants you or your cookie,” says one of the girls.
Another girl quickly jumps in. “But it’s a common thing that people our age have sex, you must just explain that you still itshitshi and want to keep it that way for a long time.” The girls nod their heads seeming to concur with the expressed sentiment.
For some of these vocal dance enthusiasts, there is a need to stand up and make use of their hands, head or facial expression when uttering their opinion in the conversations.
“That’s the thing, you guys. Once you date you’re expected to have sex, we might as well not date till we older,” says another girl expressing her concern with her hands in the air.
HAPPY SOUNDS: Traditional beads known as amakhehleza, meaning “rattles”, worn during dancing add to the ambiance.
Upon the arrival of four other group members, the girls collectively decide to change into their traditional attire known as imvunulo. Their colourful attire consists of a short beaded skirt, isgege, as well as traditional accessories that are put on the arms and neck, leaving their breasts uncovered.
Normally, when people undress they require privacy, especially in the presence of a stranger. However, this is certainly not the case with me as some of them even ask for assistance from me. “Please help me tie my beads,” and I do.
Shortly after dressing up, the girls leave the room in song: “Angeke sale usiko lwebhiso, angeke sale usiko lobab’mkhulu”, which translates to “We will never refuse our tradition, we will never reject our forefathers’ tradition“.
When these young bare-chested girls dance, one hears people uttering a quavering shrill known as ukukikiza, to ululate, which is meant to compliment either the singing or the dance moves that are frantic and inclusive of high kicking motions, which instantly flattens the grass beneath their bare feet.
For these girls, practising their culture and keeping their bodies pure takes priority, no matter their location.
“It’s my culture, it’s who I am,” says 20-year-old Sikhulile Ndawonde, a second-year Bachelor of Education student at Wits University. “There is absolutely no way you can neglect your identity because of a location and other people’s cultures,” she argues.
Ndawonde joined amatshistshi at the tender age of 10, in a small village of Umsinga in KwaZulu-Natal where she was born. She was inspired by two of her older siblings who also engaged in the practice.
COURTESY: The virgins bow down, an important gesture in Zulu practices that signifies respect.
She says she got jealous when the virgins used to attend events, ceremonies, camps and weddings. “I got tired of being left out and forced to join,” she laughs.
“At first my parents weren’t pleased because at the time, the acceptable age of joining amatshitshi was at least 13.” However, because of her “feisty” spirit she managed to convince the folks otherwise.
The Ubuhle Bentsha group was established in 2009 by Thenjiwe Mhlongo, called ‘Mam’Mathenji’ by the girls, a dance instructor who grew up in KZN, who also used to engage in the virginity testing practice until she got married. She looks reserved on the first encounter but reveals a warm smile as she welcomes me into her backroom where the girls usually meet.
FAMILY: The girls now identify as sisters because of their mutual love of their Zulu culture.
Although the group is fairly small, Mam Mathenji experiences a handful of challenges as far as virginity testing is concerned. “It is not easy managing the group especially because it’s in an urban environment, where there is a lack of knowledge about the culture itself.”
As both dance instructor and virginity inspector, Mam Mathenji says she’s expected to deal with “insults” from some members of the community and accusations that some of the girls are not virgins.
“People who don’t like what we do or who want to tarnish our reputation say we get R200 bribes inside the girls’ panties so we can lie and say they are virgins. This is bizarre because virgins don’t wear panties when they come for a test,” she says.
Some parents get outraged when informed that their children are no longer virgins, “and start to question my [virginity testing] skills”, she says with concern.
“That’s insulting, because I was taught how to test the girls,” she says.
Virginity inspectors are taught how to conduct the test practically by older women and the knowledge is passed down from one generation to the next.
Mam Mathenji says she would encourage parents to allow their children to participate in virginity testing because they are not only taught to preserve their bodies but also about womanhood.
The girls participate in the annual Reed Dance ceremony which takes place at King Zwelithini’s eNyokeni palace situated in the Nongoma town in KZN. The ceremony is attended by thousands of young girls from across the country and neighboring countries like Swaziland.
According to Mam’Mathenji, one of the main advantages of engaging in virginity testing is that, virginity inspectors are able to detect and heal diseases that cannot be easily detected by modern doctors such as umhlume which kills the ovaries’ eggs in the womb.
“There is also a disease called impene which makes young girls crave or throw themselves at boys even though boys didn’t say anything. We are able to see that and take the girl to the river to get rid of that blood that causes the girls to throw themselves at males,” adds Mam’Mathenji.
The Ubuhle Bentsha group also gets invited to perform at traditional weddings, and coming of age ceremonies around Soweto, but mostly in KZN.
The issue of virginity testing and young women preserving their bodies is controversial because it implies that only women need to be involved in such practices, but not all men think that way.
GOD FIRST: Although Ubuhle Bentsha is a cultural group, Mam’Mathenji says God takes the lead in their lives.
Muzi Chonco, a soft-spoken community leader and cultural activist from Pimville, strongly feels that society needs to equally preach the gospel of young men preserving their bodies and respecting women. He says this is important because, often, the blame for the increasing rate of pregnancies is put on females and “that’s uncalled for”.
“A girl cannot make a baby alone, a woman cannot commit adultery alone,” says Chonco, stressing the importance of encouraging men to also behave and preserve their bodies.
“In the olden days, there used to be similar groups and ceremonies which were specifically meant for boys, however, the groups died over the years. Fathers, pastors, and community leaders must revive these groups to create an equal society,” adds Chonco.
Virginity testing in South Africa is an indigenous and religious practice which died over time but was revived in the late 1980s, according to traditional healer, Gogo Makhosi Mbali, who also conducts virginity testing in Orlando and Zola in Soweto.
“It is important for young women to preserve and continue with this tradition. It saves and protects them from a lot of things like HIV/Aids, teenage or unwanted pregnancy,” says Makhosi.
When I ask Makhosi how the test is performed, she frowns and maintains a straight posture. “Is it necessary for me to explain all the details?” she asks. Yes, is my response, and she reluctantly explains.
A day for testing is usually chosen by an inspector and accommodates the girls’ schedules. “In the early hours of the day, the girls form a queue outside the room where the inspection takes place and enter individually. Upon entering the room, a girl lies down with her back on a handmade mat called ucantsi,” says Makhosi. She also explains that the inspector then examines the vagina, specifically checking for the presence of ihlo, the hymen, the membrane that covers the external opening of a vagina.
According to an Africa Check report, it is difficult to measure virginity testing using a hymen. This is because the arrangement and size of hymens differs for each female.
“When the hymen is found, a girl is declared a virgin,” says Makhosi. Thereafter, the virgins get a temporary mark on their foreheads. However, when the girls participate in the annual reed dance in KZN, they are granted a certificate confirming they are still pure, according to Makhosi.
The issue of testing women’s “purity” sparked a lot of controversy in 2016 when the uThukela District Municipality in KZN introduced a bursary scheme for girls provided they remained virgins. The bursary could only be awarded to virgin girls who wanted to further their studies.
Some of the main criticisms which came out of the introduction of the bursary fund, were that the scheme was infringing on constitutional rights with respect to cultural rights
The group of girls say they feel as if their Zulu culture is not respected by some people, as compared to other people’s cultures because it’s unpopular in the townships.
“We get called by all sorts of nasty names,” says 19-year-old Baphe Mkhonza. Soweto is highly modernised and some people feel it’s indecent to have the practice in the township. Some would even say, “This is kasi [township] not mafama [farmsteads],” Mkhonza adds.
Mbali Lubelo (20), “President” as she is referred to by the other girls, shares similar sentiments, saying that, “I get insulted and get told that I think I’m better than everyone else, but it’s not difficult dealing with such because I know who I am.”
Lubelo says virginity testing has kept her away from a lot of things. “When I look at my friends, I am the only one without a baby, and it consoles me that when I reach my dreams I won’t be having a child or burden of fetching ARVs [antiretroviral treatment],” she adds.
Peer pressure from sexually-active friends, being looked at as “sex objects” and some males claiming that they have been sexually involved with the girls, are some of the common challenges that the girls have to deal with in practicing their culture in urban communities.
Singing and dancing is a historic and generational “Zulu people’s” way of expressing joy or gratitude, says Ndawonde, the Wits student.
With the melting pot of cultures that is Soweto, the Ubuhle Bentsha members are adamant that they will not only preserve their bodies but also their culture for generations to come, much like it was passed down to them.
As soon as the dance practice is over, the girls walk back in song to the backroom to change into their everyday clothing. The moment they remove their traditional attire, they transform once again to ordinary teenage girls from Soweto.
It would be normal for young girls to be tired after a four-hour dance practice, but this is not the case with the Ubuhle Bentsha girls. The singing and clapping of hands slowly ends off with the same energy it had started off with.
Looking at the smiles on their faces as they enter the shaded room after spending their time dancing under the hot blazing sun, there is no doubt that the girls find fulfilment in what they do.
“Angeke sale usiko lwebhiso, angeke sale usiko lobab’mkhulu,” they sing. This song which vows that the group “will never refuse our tradition, we will never reject our forefathers tradition”, seems to be their outright favourite.