Experts have decried traditional circumcision practices. File picture: Siegfreid Modola

Cape Town - A group of scientists and public health experts have called for unsterile traditional male circumcision practices, often the cause of death in young initiates, to be banned.

In an open letter published in the South African Medical Journal this month - penned by Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) chief executive Professor Olive Shisana with fellow scientists from the council, the SA Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute - they wrote: “The time has come to show leadership in dealing with this major public health issue, which is a cause of great concern and embarrassment to all our citizens.

“We believe that decisive action cannot be postponed any longer. Even one more death or penile amputation of an initiate is one too many.”

The Eastern Cape, particularly Pondoland, remains the epicentre of the circumcision-related deaths with 38 deaths of initiates and 10 amputations recorded there between May and July.

But the chairman of the Eastern Cape House of Traditional Leaders, Nkosi Ngangomhlaba Matanzima, warned scientists not to impose their medical views on traditional matters: “We understand that these are medical professionals and we respect their profession, but we urge them to also respect (our) heritage and certain customs. We all know initiates don’t die because of traditional surgical practices; they die because of poor management and ill-treatment at initiation schools following circumcision.”

In their letter the scientists, including MRC president Glenda Gray, the head of the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute, Francois Venter, and senior researchers from the HSRC, Leickness Simbayi and Goeffrey Setswe, said the tragedies associated with traditional circumcision had become a familiar annual tale, with many initiates in several provinces having permanent disability and sometimes facing the “ultimate penalty of death, for taking part in cultural practices that had outlived their value in today’s South Africa”.

“We the undersigned concerned scientists and parents call for immediate action by our government to stop the unacceptable deaths and penile amputations among young initiates undergoing traditional male circumcision by abolishing unsterile traditional male circumcision surgical practices with immediate effect,” they wrote.

The scientists called on traditional leaders to follow the example of King Goodwill Zwelithini, who, in 2010, said Zulu initiates should be medically circumcised.

Matanzima said that while an impression was created by scientists that traditional surgical practices were wrong, this was not the case as sterilisation had become standard in traditional circumcisions: “As traditional leaders and surgeons we agreed a long time ago that you can’t use the same surgical instrument on initiates. If surgeons use the instrument over and over this gets sterilised using medical solutions which they get from the Department of Health.

“We understand that we live in an era of HIV/Aids so we are very careful when performing the ritual. Traditional surgeons know what to do, but the management of these young men remains a problem.”

[email protected]

Cape Argus