Hlengiwe Mnguni

And the deaths just keep rising

2010-06-25 14:11

Just when KwaZulu Natal was beginning to put a positive spin on a cultural practice that has been continually marred by death and mutilation in the eyes of the South African public, a years-long battle against traditional circumcision deaths seems a long way from over in the Eastern Cape.

Over 30 young men and boys have died since the beginning of 2010 after complications arising from circumcision. In 2009, 91 initiates died searching for their manhood. There’s more than enough blame to around. And the Eastern Cape’s health department has taken its fair share of it.

The department has not committed enough resources to informing affected and vulnerable communities of the dangers of illegal circumcision schools, some commentators have said. It is said interventions by the province to rescue young men from these illegal schools are too little too late: the province should devise mechanisms to prevent these boys, whose hospitalisation can cost the department up to R2 500 per day per patient, from ending up dead or without their penises.

But this is a problem beyond information drives. Circumcision deaths are not unheard of, and they do happen in other communities around the country. But when they happen at the rate and consistency that they do in the Eastern Cape I find it difficult to imagine that there are people who are still unaware that there might be a problem. The health department cannot do much apart from bear the brunt of the fall out.

Perhaps it is time to look earnestly at why people year after year and death after death still go against the very custom which they claim to want to keep alive and place their children’s lives, or their own, at the mercy of inexperienced or unreliable people.

A popular reason given for the mushrooming of illegal initiation schools is the money or gifts paid over by the initiates and their families. According to estimates by the province this could be a few hundred rand or gifts of live chickens and other small live stock.

It sounded terrible, primarily because it could be true, when an official who was part of a delegation that went on illegal circumcision school raid which included the province’s health MEC, said sometimes villagers, community leaders, "fake" surgeons and parents do not concern themselves with details. The deaths of initiates are dealt with as they come while the impoverished communities look forward to lavish parties where beasts are slaughtered for the ones who do come back as men.

Although a part of me sincerely hopes there is more to it than money - although it certainly won’t make it better - I can’t help but agree that this is another example of poverty echoing tragically through communities in its grip.

- Follow Hlengiwe on Twitter.

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