A police officer leads away initiates who were being kept at an illegal initiation school in Soweto. File picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency (ANA).
Jail criminals who taint the initiation practice. This is the clarion call by traditional leaders and the government as the summer season death toll reached nine in the Eastern Cape alone.

At least 19 initiates died during the winter initiation season.

Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta) spokesperson Mamkeli Ngam last week said causes of death ranged from dehydration to pneumonia at both legal and illegal schools. One initiate allegedly hanged himself. 

Ngam urged parents and traditional leaders to help ensure children’s safety.

“Our message is for parents not to outsource the issue of ukwaluka. If you are working, take leave. In child-headed households, elders must support their family members. A traditional leader must ensure that no iboma (circumcision hut) is erected in his area without his consent,” said Ngam, adding that two suspects had been arrested for unlawfully circumcising under-age boys without their parents’ consent.

House of Traditional Leaders chairperson Nkosi Mwelo Nonkonyana said initiation was an important rite of passage that must be protected amid some calls for the practice to be abolished and replaced with medical circumcision. 

“During this period a boy must be taught about his responsibilities in the home, community and society at large. So we can’t allow these criminal elements to taint our cultural practice,” said Nonkonyana.

Right to Care, which has performed over a million medical circumcisions across the country since 2012, said the issue doesn’t have to be medical versus traditional circumcision.

“It’s a good thing that we (already) have a culture of circumcision in our country. We have to bring both parties together to find common ground,” said Dr Khumbulani Moyo.

He pointed out that Right to Care had signed an agreement with the House of Traditional Leaders in the Eastern Cape, dispelling misconceptions that traditional leaders were not concerned about the deaths of initiates. 

“They have actually done quite a lot in terms of bringing NGOs like us, trying to engage the health department, and involving law enforcement to make sure people follow policy.

“If you look at those deaths, policies (like the Customary Initiation Act) would have been violated. For example, there were two deaths that were caused by dehydration. According to the House of Traditional Leaders, there should be no deprivation of water, but you see that people die of dehydration,” said Moyo, adding that most deaths could have been prevented.

“In most of the cases it doesn’t have any direct relationship with the actual procedure. It’s just the conditions, for example. There are many who believe you should not drink water. A lot of it has to do with dehydration, hypothermia, etc.”

He said the act was easy to follow. “It’s written in such a way that, when followed, there shouldn’t be any death. The problem is that there is a lot of violation on the ground and you end up with such a situation.”

Sunday Independent