By Sonya Bell
A distorted teaching in some initiation schools is leading to increased incidents of rape and the spread of HIV, say activist groups working with traditional leaders to stop what they fear is encouraging ritual sexual violence.
"This is not part of our tradition; this is crime," said Mbulelo Dyasi of Masimanyane, a women's support centre in East London.
The widespread myth holds that when the young men emerge from the initiation schools, they should first have sex with women who are not their partners.
This is done to clean the penis and test if it is working, according to Dyasi.
Men are being taught that this practice is part of traditional culture. But Dyasi said an investigation found that the myth only began circulating in the 1980s. There are reports of the teaching in the Eastern Cape, Western Cape and Mpumalanga.
"We do not know where it's coming from, but it's becoming a common trend as finalising the initiation," said Nono Eland of the Treatment Action Campaign.
The young initiates would have sex with new partners seen to be of "lesser value" in the community, said Eland. This included women who had previously had many sexual partners, increasing the young initiate's risk of exposure to HIV. The use of condoms was not encouraged.
The myth came to the attention of Masimanyane when it emerged that some young initiates were raping women, said Dyasi.
They joined gangs, whose members encouraged them to rape as a form of good luck after the circumcision. Dyasi cited one incident during which a pregnant mother was raped by nine men.
"This is crime, and not part of our tradition," he said.
The distorted teaching has been brought to the attention of the Eastern Cape House of Traditional Leaders, which is now revising the guidelines for initiation schools.
The new curriculum guidelines will be released by December.
Dyasi said the schools needed to teach leadership skills and life skills, as well as about human rights and HIV.
"These young men are our future leaders," he said.
Simphiwe Sesanti, a journalism lecturer at Stellenbosch University, said that initiation was about teaching responsibility. This was no longer being done.
Sesanti said he and his fellow initiates were encouraged to sleep with a new partner at their initiation school near Uitenhage in the 1990s. He condemned the teaching as "a distortion of African culture" and "disrespectful to the young man and the young woman".
In his Youth Day address, ANC Youth League President Julius Malema called on the youth of South Africa to practise monogamy. But a league spokeswoman refused to confirm that this applied to rituals at initiation schools.
"What happens in initiation schools remains the business of the initiation school. It is a cultural practice," said Magdalene Moonsamy. She said she had not heard of the myth and dismissed information about it as "hogwash".