FILE - In this photo taken Saturday, June 30, 2013 A Xhosa boy covered with a blanket and smeared with chalky mud sits in a field as he and others undergo traditional Xhosa male circumcision ceremonies into manhood near the home of former South African president Nelson Mandela in Qunu, South Africa. At least 60 males have died at initiation schools in eastern South Africa since the start of the initiation season in May, health officials confirmed. Thirty of them died in the Eastern Cape in the last six weeks, and 300 others were hospitalized with injuries. (AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam, File)

Eastern Cape -

The Eastern Cape Health Department is turning to the country’s intelligence agencies to halt the annual circumcision deaths and mutilation of young men and boys in the province’s initiation schools.

Botched circumcisions claimed 496 lives and there were 221 penile amputations between June 2006 and December last year in the province.

Last year, 83 initiates died while 31 had their penises amputated. A further 670 were admitted to hospital.

The OR Tambo district - which includes Mthatha, Tsolo, Qumbu, the Mpondoland villages in Libode, Ngqeleni, Port St Johns, Lusikisiki, Flagstaff and Mbizana - reported 16 deaths during the December 2013 season. The figure was down from the 26 initiates who died in June last year. The hardest-hit areas were Emalahleni (including Lady Frere, Dordrecht and Indwe) and King Sabata Dalindyebo (Mqanduli and Mthatha) municipalities where six initiates died in each area.

In Nyandeni (Libode and Ngqeleni), five initiates died, while four lost their lives in East London and Qaukeni (Lusikisiki, Flagstaff and Mbizana). The causes of death include septicaemia, dehydration, accidents, gangrene, kidney problems and assaults.

More than 400 000 initiates underwent the ritual in the same period, with just over 20 000 being illegal initiates who were either underage or had no permission from parents or traditional leaders.

Now the department wants “vigorous police intervention, intelligence and the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) to secure convictions”. While more than 250 arrests have been made since March 2008, convictions have been scarce.

NPA regional spokesman Luxolo Tyali did not respond to requests for conviction figures regarding initiates’ deaths and botched circumcisions, despite promising to do so.

In its presentation to Parliament last week, the department said 40 people were arrested last year, but it is unclear whether there were any convictions.

Other interventions proposed by the department include institutionalising the practice by centralising the ritual and building permanent structures staffed by iingcibi and amakhankatha (traditional surgeons and attendants).

They will also receive “technical training” and establish an iingcibi and amakhankatha database. The department is also considering allocating an adequate budget for its initiation programme. More than R1.1 million was spent in preparation for the December circumcision season. Some of the money was spent on hiring 28 vehicles to transport people monitoring the ritual in the province’s remote areas.

Community Development Foundation for SA (Codefsa) director Nkululeko Nxesi said while the Eastern Cape provincial government and Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi acknowledged the crisis and were allocating resources, a lot more could be done.

“The current model of providing resources during the circumcision season is not working,” Nxesi said.

He described the model as reactive, and proposed ongoing programmes. Nxesi said the problem of initiate deaths and mutilations was “bigger than we think”.

There were unemployed youths thinking initiation was a way of making a quick buck, surgeons “operating like the Mafia” abducting children and corrupt medical doctors who only did routine check-ups instead of medical examinations on would-be initiates.

“They don't even check these boys. Iingcibi bring forms, doctors sign without seeing the initiates. This is a money-making scheme, in some areas even health officials perform circumcisions,” Nxesi said.

He said the iingcibi responsible for 43 initiates’ deaths would be allowed to practise in June this year. “Initiates (and their parents) have no legal recourse,” Nxesi said, adding that circumcision legislation was not enforceable.

Eastern Cape legislation requires initiates to be given a clean bill of health by a doctor and be over the age of 18 before going through with the ritual.

Nxesi also warned that the government’s plan of institutionalising the ritual and introducing medical male circumcision would result in more deaths, as it would force those performing and undergoing traditional circumcision further into inaccessible remote areas.

Meanwhile, Codefsa is returning to the Film and Publications Board on Tuesday to appeal against the board’s decision to allow Dutch doctor Dingeman Rijken to publish graphic images of botched traditional circumcisions on his controversial website.

Rijken caused a stir when he started publishing images of gangrenous penises on his website, forcing Codefsa to file a complaint with the board.

The board ruled that Rijken should include an age restriction warning that its contents were suitable for those over 13 only. Nxesi said Codefsa had appealed because Rijken had no permission to publish the images, had broken doctor-patient confidentiality, published pornographic images and was “undermining our culture”. Codefsa wants the website shut down.

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- Sunday Independent