By Vuyo Mabandla

Staff Reporter

As the death toll in some of South Africa's circumcision schools continues to rise, traditional leaders remain adamant that the tradition will not be abandoned.

The Eastern Cape Department of Health has reported 49 initiate deaths during the winter season so far. On Wednesday another initiate died in the Tsolo region.

Eastern Cape health spokesperson Sizwe Kupelo said the deaths occurred mostly in the Ntabankulu and Engcobo rural towns, as well on farms in the Chris Hani district.

More than 100 initiates were also being treated in hospitals in the Eastern Cape, 20 of whom needed special care.

The deaths have provoked fury from religious leaders, some of whom have slammed the custom as "barbaric".

But the National House of Traditional Leaders has hit back, saying it will not abolish the practice.

Chief Gcinikhaya Gwadiso, head of the house's national campaign for safe initiation schools, said the sacred custom had been upheld "for ages".

"We are aware that there are dangers involved and we are working with the government and the community to rectify all that."

The custom is seen as the passage from boyhood to manhood.

Cape Town's social development manager, Lungelo Nokwaza, said there had been no reported deaths or hospital admissions in Cape Town.