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

Cape Town -

Nine initiates have died in the Western Cape in the past three years – two of them at a registered initiation school in Stellenbosch.

The most recent death was that of a teenager from Mandaly earlier this winter initiation season.

The provincial Department of Cultural Affairs, which introduced measures in 2011 to try to ensure the safety of initiates, is stepping in, with stricter attention being given to precautions.

Cultural Affairs MEC Nomafrench Mbombo said it was “concerning” that deaths continued to occur among initiates.

In Stellenbosch two teenagers, from Nyanga and Gugulethu, died at a registered school near the Idas Valley Dam in November. A third initiate was admitted to hospital.

According to figures from the Forensic Pathology Service, seven of the nine deaths since the beginning of 2011 occurred in the Winelands and Overberg regions and two in the Cape Town metro.

Mbombo said that in deference to cultural customs, the Idas Valley school could not be closed while the initiation season was under way. “Certain rituals must still take place.”

In November, the Department of Cultural Affairs said it had replaced the school’s management committee in consultation with the Cape Winelands District Municipality and the initiation forum.

The department and health officials have declined to give details of the circumstances that led to the deaths.

Referring to the most recent death, they say that out of respect for cultural traditions, they are not at liberty to release such details while initiation is under way.

About 40 boys have died in this initiation season, most of them in the Eastern Cape and five in Mpumalanga.

Nationally, 313 initiates have died in the past five years and 1 865 have been left with injuries. Most deaths have been from complications arising from botched circumcisions.

Among the measures implemented by the province, and now being enforced more vigorously in co-operation with the initiation forum leaders of each registered school, are: training for the men who serve as “nurses” and take of care of the initiates; ensuring compliance with health standards and hygiene practices; and ensuring that the people who perform the circumcisions are highly trained for the task.

Mbombo said initiation was a cultural ritual that was led and practised by the community, but it was the department’s role to protect the manner in which it was done. This specifically referred to monitoring safety and hygiene protocols and ensuring they were followed at the site.

Mbombo said the provincial government and Winelands Municipality had intervened in response to the deaths at the Idas Valley school.

The provincial Department of Cultural Affairs published a document last year setting out the protocols and challenges relating to initiation. It says that the department’s research into initiation picked up several key challenges, among them:

* An increase in drug and alcohol abuse at initiation sites.

* Initiates going to circumcision school while they were not fit for the experience – for example, they had an illness or an abnormality of the genital or other organs.

* The spreading of HIV and viral hepatitis.

Some of the key measures that should be in place include that prospective initiates should undergo a medical check-up two months before initiation to identify any potential health conditions, that a traditional surgeon must use a sterilised instrument and may not use the same instrument on more than one initiate, that a trained carer be appointed after the circumcision to monitor initiates for any sign of illness or injury.

The provincial Department of Health emphasised that initiates seldom died as a direct result of circumcision.

Spokesman Mark van der Heever said: “Cognisance must be taken that there is an important difference between initiates who die due to the actual initiation process (sepsis and dehydration usually) and deaths in initiates – often the slightly older group – where the deceased had been suffering from terminal or debilitating disease (usually Aids, uncontrolled epilepsy) and attended the initiation school in the hope of a possible cure of ailments.”

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Cape Times