Soweto – Initiation is a time honoured African custom where a boy enters initiation school to be taught endurance and the basic societal roles a man is to play, however, it is also a time of worry for many because of the health risks involved with this rite of passage to manhood.
Winter is the start of initiation schools spread across Limpopo, North West, Mpumalanga, Eastern Cape and parts of Gauteng province.
In most instances, boys do come back from initiation schools alive and well, however, due to botched circumcision which has become rife these days, there are instances where boys suffere health complications and even death.
Already the death toll for the current initiation season stands at 22 according to the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA).
Nineteen initiates have lost their lives in the Eastern Cape, two in Limpopo and one in Mpumalanga.
Speaking to the media on Tuesday in Soweto, COGTA Deputy Minister Obed Bapela said most of the deaths occur in illegal initiation schools.
He said government and police are working to ensure that they criminalise running of illegal initiation schools.
A task team and police are on the lookout for any illegal initiation schools in the country, he said.
“We will not tolerate people who are running unauthorised schools or illegal schools. Our search is to get the law that can criminalise all illegal schools so that no deaths occur at any illegal schools,” he said, when he visited one of the closed down illegal initiation school in Meadowlands, in Soweto.
Deputy Minister Bapela was accompanied by representatives from the Gauteng Department of Human Settlements and Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Social Development MEC Faith Mazibuko and the Deputy Chairperson of the National House of Traditional Leaders, Inkosi Mahlangu.
The team led a meeting with community members, station commanders and security cluster senior officials to discuss solutions on the clamping down of illegal initiation schools.
22 boys rescued
Last week, police and community members rescued about 22 boys from an illegal school in the area. One is still missing.
According to police, the boys were kidnapped from Orange Farm and taken to a mine dump in the area.
The youngest was 11 and had been abducted by unscrupulous criminals that also intended to extort money from unsuspecting parents for the safe passage of the young boys.
Community member William Mahapa, who was one of the people who found the boys last week, said at first they did not suspect anything as the traditional surgeons used to ask for water in the nearby houses.
“We really thought they were illegal miners. But on Friday we found pangas and pots and bags of food and potatoes. Some were singing and we are not sure if they were drunk as we also found containers of glue, maybe they were smoking it,” said Mahapa, who indicated that some were badly injured and could not walk when they were found.
The group was moved into a resource centre to complete the initiation process under medical attention.
“Enough is enough. Those who are running them please note that we are going to be tough on you but we will also have to strengthen the law so that we can arrest and sentence them,” said Deputy Minister Bapela.
Asked what the challenge in addressing the illegal schools was, Deputy Minister Bapela said they rely on communities to report these illegal schools in their respective communities.
“We then close the schools. But that’s the least we can do. If we are able to find the people, we arrest them and check if the children have any signs of assault. A charge of assault will arise. If there’s any child dying then the murder or homicide charge will arise. But if there are no signs of assault, then unfortunately you can only ban them and rescue the children,” said Deputy Minister Bapela.
According to officials, Gauteng is leading the pack with the high number of illegal initiation schools followed by the Eastern Cape, Limpopo, North West and then Mpumalanga.
So far seventeen illegal schools have been closed down in Gauteng alone.
“This a national crisis looming in front of our eyes. At the same time it is a complex matter. It’s a national crisis because continuously children die and that should not be. This then tells you that there are people who have entered this for commercial reasons who are themselves below the age of running these schools unlike the elders who used to.”
Legal initiation schools, according to the Deputy Minister, adhere to exceptional norms and standards.
These rules and regulations mention that a boy must be 18 years of age to enter an initiation school, and the full involvement of the parents is expected.
The young men are also required to have a medical check-up by an appointed medical practitioner before they are circumcised.
This is to check that they are fit and healthy, and have no sexually transmitted infections including HIV and Aids.
The check-up also aids boys who have other chronic illnesses to carry on taking their prescribed treatments during initiation, as per doctors’ orders.
The circumcision crisis has turned into a battle between modern and traditional practices, or cultural versus health rights.
Mixed views on traditional circumcision
Many of the community members who spoke to SAnews were spilt while others said traditional circumcision has no place in a modern society.
“We have hospitals which are equipped with anaesthetic, painkillers, or even antibiotics. This traditional route should be stopped because our children are dying,” community member Martha Shongwe said.
Khaya Dlebu does not believe that initiation ceremonies should be stopped, but he is among a growing number of South Africans who think that age-old traditions need to move with the times.
“Why can’t a professional doctor do the procedure?” he questioned.
However, others were of the view that good health and the legal age limit should be a standard for entering initiation schools.
“There is nothing wrong with how our great grandfathers used to do this thing – it worked then and can still work today. We just need to ensure that the traditional healers are also registered to ensure that they are held accountable if anything goes wrong,” said Mbongeni Ngesi.
“For me, hospital is a last, last resort,” said Sibalukhulu Chonco. “According to my beliefs, I have to go to the bush to be circumcised, this is our identity.”
The Deputy Minister cautioned that government will not allow culture to be undermined, ridiculed and becoming a laughing stock.
“We therefore hope that those who are killing the children illegally in the name of culture will stop.”
Deputy Chairperson of the National House of Traditional Leaders, Inkosi Mahlangu, said it was high time that they collaborate efforts to eliminate deaths at initiation schools.
“This practise was not this messy previously,” he said, echoing the sentiment that some are in the practise for commercialisation.
“It is high time we jack up our socks,” said Mahlangu.