Gumboot dancers South Africa
Gumboot dancers recall a once-subversive action - these dancers are performing during a New Year's eve carnival in Johannesburg, South Africa. Reuters

Although it may not happen very often, tribal culture does occasionally make itself felt, even in the affluent, predominantly white northern suburbs of Johannesburg.

For example, when having a drink at a bar in Parkhurst's trendy Fourth Avenue, you will sometimes hear a burst of drums as young Zulu men dressed in animal skins leap into action, performing intricate traditional dances to a captive audience that they hope will pay them a few rand for their trouble.

Another equally intriguing sight is that of the gumboot dancers. This dance was first dreamed up years ago by Johannesburg's gold miners, who wore wellingtons for protection against constant flooding in the pits.

Their stamping dance was not only a way of passing messages to each other without their bosses knowing what they were saying, but also acted as an alternative to the restricted activity of drumming so that they could accompany themselves while singing.

In fact, the dance, which involves lots of hand-slapping against the sides of boots often bedecked with bells, was even more subversive in that many of the steps parodied their guards' movements too.

But it is clear that, whether rebellious or not, singing and dancing still play a vital role in tribal life today. Last weekend, for instance, saw tens of thousands of young Zulu women making their way to Nongoma in northern KwaZulu-Natal for the annual uMkhosi woMhlanga ceremony, commonly known as the Reed Dance.

The Dance, which is part of a traditional ritual intended to promote virginity and help girls prepare for womanhood, was revived by King Goodwill Zwelithini in 1991 in a bid to reduce HIV infection.

In fact, before being allowed to join in, all girls are now required to undergo a virginity test, although in recent years, this particular practice has met with some opposition.

Despite such controversy, this year saw more than 50,000 young women take part in the event at the King's eNyokeni Royal Palace – a record even for a custom that has been growing significantly in popularity year-on-year and which, incidentally, has been fuelling a lucrative industry for traditional garb.

Bare-breasted virgins competing for King Mswati III's eye take part in a traditional Reed Dance at Ludzidzini, the royal palace in Swaziland August 31, 2008.
Bare-breasted virgins competing for King Mswati III's eye take part in a traditional Reed Dance at Ludzidzini, the royal palace in Swaziland. Reuters / Siphiwe Sibeko

Ancient mores

Each participant is bare-breasted but wears an Isigege or red, hand-made skirt embroidered with white beads to signify purity. She also sports traditional beadwork worn on her head and around her neck, arms, hips and ankles, all of which have different colours and designs depending on which district she hails from.

Led by the head Zulu princess, the girls carry the strongest and longest reeds they can find up the hill to the Palace in slow procession. Not only do reeds play a significant role in Zulu culture, but should they snap before being deposited on the ground in front of the monarch, it is considered a shameful sign that the carrier has already been sexually active.

But the Reed Dance is only one example of such ancient mores, which have mostly been lost over time in the developed world. Another is the so-called initiation schools, which are attended mainly during the winter months (June to August) by African children of both genders from tribes across the country on reaching puberty.

It is the male initiation schools that tend to hit the headlines each year though, due to deaths and injuries from botched circumcisions, usually as a result of sepsis, gangrene, and dehydration.

The problem hit a peak in 2010 when a shocking 419 young men passed away, but the number has since dropped to about 40 youths this year, mainly from the Xhosa (Nelson Mandela's) tribe in the Eastern Cape.

Provinces such as Mpumalanga, Limpopo, and the Western Cape also see high enrolment levels in initiation schools, but tend to suffer fewer deaths and injuries, which include losing genitalia.

Attempts to regulate the practice were first introduced in 2005 with the introduction of the Children's Act, which made the circumcision of males under 16 years of age illegal unless undertaken for religious or medical reasons. It also became mandatory to register initiation schools or face fines of up to ZAR10,000 (£570.87) and a 10-year jail term.

Nonetheless, illegal schools are still routinely closed down each year and, sadly, boys continue to die - a situation that main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, has just requested a parliamentary enquiry into as a matter of urgency.

Circumcision initiates pose as they walk on a field in Qunu, in the Eastern Cape
Initiates pose as they walk on a field in Qunu, in the Eastern Cape December 15, 2013. Every year, thousands of youths leave their parents to spend weeks in the care of traditional leaders at an initiation school where they are circumcised, a rite of passage commonly referred to as "Ukwaluka" or "going to the mountain". Reuters / Siegfried Modola

Female genital mutilation

Another issue that might warrant further state investigation is female genital mutilation (FGM).

Although not recognised by either the World Health Organisation or the South African government as taking place in the country at all, according to Ugandan lawyer Barbara Kitui, it is actually practised illegally by the Venda community in Limpopo.

Kitui who undertook field research with the tribe in 2012 while studying for a Masters degree in Human Rights law at the University of Pretoria, claimed that FGM is practised as an initiation rite for girls moving into womanhood.

The girls stay in a "nonyana" hut for 24 hours before the big day apparently, when an old woman takes them down to the riverbank and cuts their clitorises out. They are then branded with a mark on their thighs to prove that the initiation has taken place.

Moreover, eight weeks or so after childbirth, women also undergo a traditional ceremony known as "muthuso". This involves a traditional healer cutting out a chunk of the mother's vagina, mixing it with black powder and oil and applying it to her child's head to prevent "goni".

It is believed that "goni", a swelling on the back of the child's head, can only be cured in this way, but many women bleed excessively following the ritual and can even die due to poor healthcare in the region.

So it appears that while many traditional tribal customs are important and highly valued tools to encourage social cohesion and mark rites of passage, some have their dark side too.

Getting the balance right between these two elements remains an ongoing challenge, as much here in South Africa as elsewhere.