Every year thousands of young men go to initiation schools. Hundreds of them die.
On Wednesday, an investigation into the mass deaths of initiates was officially launched by the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL Rights Commission) in Johannesburg.
The investigation, which seeks to find out why dozens of boys and young man die at initiation schools, will begin early next month. The probe will start in Gauteng, where a number of illegal schools were shut down late last year, and spread to other provinces – including the Eastern Cape where 199 deaths occurred in the past three years (2014-2016).
Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva, chairperson of the CRL Rights Commission said it was time to know “what exactly is killing these young people”.
“In three years 251 young people died in eight provinces, except for KwaZulu-Natal, while exercising their cultural right. We need to know how and why this happened. Accessing your culture should not kill you,” she said.
“The worst part is that all of us are quiet. We see bodies piling up every year but nothing is being done about it, yet these are the bodies of young people who are fit and healthy,” Mkhwanazi-Xaluva said.
Between 2006 and 2014, at least 557 initiates died while participating in this cultural practice, which is known as the passage to manhood. The majority of the deaths occurred in the Eastern Cape where traditional male circumcision is widely practiced.
Despite the high number of deaths that have occurred in initiation schools over the years, only 264 arrests were made. But, none of the arrests led to successful prosecutions.
Mkhwanazi-Xaluva said that autopsies were often not conducted, making it difficult for families to know what caused the initiates’ deaths.
She said this investigation, which begins on March 10, will answer most of these questions.
“We chase after all parties and organs of the state that are accountable and responsible for ensuring the safety of these young people. We need to know who does what and what the law of our country does about it when things go wrong,” she said.
Mkhwanazi-Xaluva said families, victims, traditional leaders and organs of state – including the police and the National Prosecuting Authority – would appear before the commission. She said summonses had been issued.
She said she was aware of the gender issues that might be raised concerning women involving themselves in a cultural practice that only allows men to intervene.
“We know their issue around women and initiation and there is nothing untoward about it. We are not going to go into initiation schools but will look at what has gone wrong with the process,” Mkhwanazi-Xaluva said.