Initiation rules rejected

A war is brewing after government tabled a bill to regulate initiation schools, through which they will now have to keep up-to-date financial statements, be registered with the government or face closure and possible prison terms.

It is also introducing a minimum age for initiates, and requiring that traditional surgeons be registered to participate in initiation practices, including being in possession of the registration letter at all times during participation in initiation practices.

These are some of the proposals outlined in the Customary Initiation Bill, which was tabled by Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Zweli Mkhize in Parliament this week. The bill aims to regulate initiation and provide for the establishment of initiation oversight and coordinating structures at national and provincial government levels. It is also meant to eliminate deaths and injuries at initiation schools.

According to government figures, botched circumcisions have claimed hundreds of lives and resulted in multiple penile amputations in the past decade, mainly in the Eastern Cape.

However, Nkosi Mwelo Nonkonyana, the Eastern Cape House of Traditional Leaders chairperson, said they were vehemently opposed to the Customary Initiation Bill as tabled by the minister this week.

“We are fundamentally opposed to this bill. We see the trend with some of the people in government, which seeks to regulate custom. Custom belongs to us as traditional communities and we would have hoped that Dr Zweli Mkhize would have consulted us,” said Nonkonyana, who is also the head of the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa in the province.

He said that as traditional leaders, they see a trend where government is hellbent on promoting medical male circumcision at the expense of their custom.

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“Our custom will now be the subject of public debate by women, even by people who are uncircumcised, in Parliament. I think it is really insensitive because the issue of traditional circumcision can only be discussed by people who themselves are circumcised,” he said.

In terms of the proposals, provinces will register traditional surgeons and their “caregivers”, and keep a database of all initiation schools. The database will contain information about every ceremony conducted as well as full registers of all visitors to initiation schools.

But it is the surgeons who will feel the bureaucratic burden if they do not want to be charged with kidnapping and have their schools shut down.

They will have to regularly provide:

- Financial reports containing details of all income and expenditure;

- The full names of all initiates and their ID numbers;

- The names and contact details of the parents, customary or legal guardians of the initiates;

- The full name, ID number and qualifications of the medical practitioner or traditional surgeon who will perform the circumcisions;

- The date on which each circumcision was done; and

- Information about health problems the child may experience during the initiation period.

This information will be handed over and kept by a “provincial initiation coordinating committee” made up of government officials and traditional leaders.

According to the bill, it will be an offence for any initiation school to accept initiates who are under the age of 16 or be involved in any initiation practices without having received required medical certificates or consent from parents.

Offenders will be liable on conviction to a fine or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding 15 years, or both.

Parents or guardians of initiates will have to obtain medical certificates from a medical practitioner, indicating whether a prospective initiate is ?t to participate in the initiation practices or not.

Gone are the days when all you needed was a sharp okapi knife, pieces of cloth, a bag of salt and a small plot in the bush.

A traditional surgeon who is not registered, in terms of the bill or the Traditional Health Practitioners Act, but performs initiation duties will be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to a fine or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding five years, or both.

The provincial committees made up of traditional leaders, government officials and emergency services, among others which are provided for in the new bill, will determine the allowable number of initiation schools in each province. This will take into account criteria such as the proximity of the schools to each other and the number of available qualified and experienced traditional surgeons in the area.

They will also base decisions on the availability of “sufficient and appropriate” land and oversee the provision of proper shelter.

Provincial governments will determine the fees involved in registering schools, and traditional leaders will screen traditional surgeons and caregivers in terms of guidelines to be developed by the National House of Traditional Leaders.

The bill states that if unregistered schools are found performing initiation practices, the police will have to investigate whether those children should not be regarded as abducted or kidnapped.

Nonkonyana said they would have a look at the bill again as traditional leaders, and consult the ministry and the government “urgently” about it.

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