With five days to go before the end of the winter initiation season, more initiates in the Eastern Cape have died in initiation schools compared with last year.
Government and traditional leaders are blaming each other for the rise in the death toll, which stood at 15 on Tuesday.
Over last year’s entire winter season, 11 initiate deaths were recorded.
This year, 11 initiates died in the Nyandeni area in the OR Tambo District Municipality, which includes the towns of Libode and Ngqeleni.
The province’s cooperative governance and traditional affairs spokesperson, Mamkeli Ngam, said they were “disappointed” that they had surpassed last year’s death toll before the end of the season.
He blamed parents who took their children to illegal traditional surgeons, as well as traditional leaders who allowed illegal initiation schools to operate in their villages.
“We are disappointed with the lack of support from parents and some traditional leaders. These illegal initiation schools are spearheaded by parents in the presence of traditional leaders in the villages, in particular Libode and Ngqeleni,” Ngam said.
He said a traditional leader was arrested along with his wife this week in Libode’s Mgwenyane village for issuing permits to underage boys to undergo initiation. By law, only boys who are older than 18 may undergo the cultural rite.
In addition, 11 traditional surgeons between the ages of 20 and 85 were arrested around the province for operating illegally.
They came from areas including Dutywa, Ngqeleni, Tsolo, Ntabankulu, Lusikisiki, Port St Johns and Beacon Bay in East London.
“Traditional leaders are supposed to be putting a stop to these illegal activities. Traditional leaders, as custodians of culture and custom, are supposed to ensure that people practise traditional initiation according to the legislation,” he said.
“In some areas, the traditional leaders are not assisting government in taking strong action against traditional surgeons illegally circumcising boys. These illegal surgeons are known to the traditional leaders and have initiation schools in their traditional spaces.
“We did all we could to prepare for the season, as we normally do. We have had awareness campaigns, and strengthened our partnerships with the police, sector departments and traditional leaders, but, unfortunately, the missing link seems to be in the villages where the deaths happen,” Ngam said.
“It is also where traditional leaders seem not to be working with us to ensure that whoever operates an illegal initiation school or circumcises boys illegally gets arrested. Traditional leaders are supposed to be at the forefront of defending this important ritual.”
Ngam said they were now “writing letters” to traditional leaders in areas where initiates died to “try and get a sense of why it happened”.
But Nkosi Mkhanyiseli Dudumayo, chairperson of the OR Tambo District Initiation Forum, said the department was wrong to blame traditional leaders, saying the problem resulted from “a universal challenge all over the country where people are generally ill-disciplined, where children do not respect their parents and parents do not respect their traditional leaders”.
“It cannot be correct to say we know where the illegal initiation schools are. This blame game is not going to assist us in solving the problem,” he said.
Dudumayo said that, while the law says initiates have to be older than 18, younger boys often disobeyed this rule.
“It would be impossible for traditional leaders to know the whereabouts of all initiation schools because chiefs are heads of a number of villages,” he said.
“If initiation schools are in mountains and forests and people from those villages do not alert the traditional leader, it would be difficult for him to know about the illegal schools.”
Dudumayo, the provincial secretary of the Congress of Traditional Leaders of SA, also blamed traditional nurses for initiate deaths and said government needed to conduct more awareness campaigns to stop the death toll from rising.
He ruled out medical male circumcision as a solution because most initiates who undergo the procedure return to their villages and then also undergo traditional initiation ceremonies, and they are often ridiculed as “lesser men” by their peers.
“We are going to continue with efforts to ensure that the custom is done properly. But we will ensure that those who break the law are arrested.
“We are very disappointed about the high number of deaths. We thought we were well prepared. We had hoped for zero deaths according to our plans,” Dudumayo said.
“For me, traditional nurses are the main reason for these deaths because they fail by not providing crucial aftercare. A traditional nurse cannot just be anyone, but must be someone who has undergone initiation and has experience in what he is doing, but parents allow anybody to play that role.”