Every morning when she wakes up, for just one second, she feels normal. Until she remembers her son, her beautiful soccer playing son, and the tears start falling all over again. Margaret Lenong has been crying every day for more than a month since her 16-year-old epileptic son died. She feels empty inside, Margaret tells us after her eldest son, Samkelo Khola, from Boipatong south of Johannesburg, was allegedly kidnapped and taken to an illegal initiation school in Lenasia. There he was allegedly repeatedly tortured – battered with knobkerries and floorboards for “faking seizures”. Margaret (39) doesn’t know how to begin picking up the pieces after hearing of her boy’s death. “It’s even hard to breathe. The feeling I’m going to lose my mind is never far away.” Samkelo, a Grade 9 learner, went missing on 5 July 2017 but his family wasn’t too concerned at first as they thought he was sleeping over at a relative’s house in the area. But when he didn’t arrive home the next day his grandmother, Rebecca Lenong (78), called the family to see if they’d seen him – and when no one had she started to panic. She called Margaret, a pharmacist assistant, and broke the news: Samkelo was missing along with his two friends, Nhlanhla Dladla (14) and Bafana Kolomba (17). The family searched the township for him and followed up every lead, including the possibility Samkelo had been lured away from a soccer match. His disappearance was also reported to the Sharpeville police. “As more time passed, I became more worried as his medication was here at home. I couldn’t stop thinking about the risks he faced,” Margaret says. A few days later, two men came to Samkelo’s home and told the family he was at an initiation school and needed his medication, but wouldn’t say where the school was. The concerned grandmother gave them the pills, hoping it would lead to him coming home safely. But the family’s hopes were dashed when two other young men escaped from the initiation school days later. They ran to the police and told them an initiate had died and his body had been dumped under a tree. “Around 4 am police came to my house saying they might have found Samkelo and I needed to identify the body at a mortuary in Diepkloof,” Margaret says. She couldn’t go herself so community leaders and a few family members went. It was her child. “They came to break the news to me around 7 am,” Margaret says. “I can’t imagine what he must have gone through. I will never forgive the people who killed my son.” Samkelo was first diagnosed with epilepsy when he was 11, Margaret says. By the time he turned 12 his condition was under control thanks to medication. But the boy missed a lot of school because he often had to be hospitalised and had to repeat Grades 7 and 8. Still, he lived a full life and enjoyed spending time with his friends and playing soccer, his mom says. He was the eldest of three and his siblings, Bonolo (12) and Morena (7), are finding it hard to deal with the loss of their brother. Spinare Mofokeng (60), a community elder, traditional healer and a member of the Sedibeng Community Safety Forum that monitors the custom in the region, describes what happened to Samkelo. He pieced the story together by talking to other kidnapped boys. The suspects abducted the boys and walked about 40 km to Lenasia, where an illegal initiation school in an abandoned empty substation had been prepared.Spinare says one of the kidnapped boys said their abductors immediately circumcised them with a razor. “The boys were undressed and slept outside in a bare open space. It was raining the following day and the boys were moved inside the substation except for Samkelo, who started having fits. They started to beat him all over with knobkerries until they all broke. Afterwards they beat him with planks.” The elder says the boys claimed only to have been given pap and boiled cabbage, which they cooked in old tins using water from a nearby dirty pond. On the morning of his death, 9 July, Samkelo was beaten again and the boys found him naked next to the substation. They were told to dig a shallow grave but they refused and asked that Samkelo be buried at his home. Then they were instructed to bathe and clothe his body and dump it under a tree so it could be found. “We went there with the police. It’s not acceptable – there’s criminality involved in these illegal schools,” the traditional leader says. Although police say Samkelo’s family had not been asked for any money yet, local traditional surgeon Sindephi Spogter (64) says illegal initiation schools just want to make a quick buck. “People who run these schools don’t adhere to customs and traditions – they’re just criminals,” he says. “You find a 20-year-old who went to the bush last year and this year he’s operating as a traditional surgeon. That’s what causes these disasters.” Legadima Leso, spokesperson for the department of cooperative governance and the department of traditional affairs, says there have been “a number of challenges” since the start of the 2017 winter initiation season. “The season has thus far been characterised by the abductions of young people who are being forced into initiation schools,” he says. Prince Manene Tabane, chairperson of the Gauteng branch of the Congress of Traditional Leaders and a member of the Community Development Foundation of SA (Codefsa), says the organisation has joined government to try to reduce the initiation death toll and clamp down on illegal schools. “These schools ask exorbitant prices, sometimes as high as R3 000 per initiate.” Codefsa has also started initiatives to teach parents to keep their boys safe during initiation season and plans to establish camps where they can go and be watched over until the season is over. Tragically, all this is too late to save Samkelo. “I would give anything to hug him one more time,” Margaret says sadly. “I just want to comb his hair and stroke his cheeks.” *This article as previously published in DRUM Magazine.