Newsmakers: Death toll plunges

2017-07-30 05:55
Fikile Xasa

Fikile Xasa

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Fikile Xasa has two grandsons who will be undergoing traditional initiation in the next few years.

So he hopes that the scourge of initiate deaths – which has seen 700 young men lose their lives on their passage to manhood in the province in the past 11 years – comes to an end, not only for the sake of the children he loves, but for society at large.

Xasa, the province’s MEC for cooperative governance and traditional affairs, is also a Xhosa man and went through the customary practice himself, as did his two adult sons.

This is why he is so desperate to rescue the image of a tradition hijacked by unscrupulous traditional surgeons and nurses who, in their bid for a quick buck, have caused the deaths of hundreds of initiates.

The situation is beginning to improve under the leadership of Xasa and Nkosi Ngangomhlaba Matanzima, the chairperson of the Eastern Cape House of Traditional Leaders, who have been crisscrossing the province preaching safe traditional initiation.

This partnership between the two and their institutions culminated in the signing into law of the new Customary Male Initiation Practice Act in December last year, which was enforced for the first time this winter initiation season.

“My grandsons are still very young. They too would have to undergo this same custom,” said Xasa this week.

“We want to ensure for future generations that no initiates die because this never happened in the past. So for me, this is not just only work, but it is also personal because I believe in the custom.”

The number of initiates who died this winter season dropped to a historic low, from 26 last year to 11.

Of those, six died tragically when their ibhoma (hut) caught fire in Qumbu.

A man who visited the initiation school died trying to save the boys from the fire. Another initiate died in Ngcobo after he was shot dead when he went to visit his girlfriend.

Four initiates died as a result of botched circumcisions, bringing the number of people who died in initiation schools to 12.

“The new act sent a very big message to everybody who is involved, and we intensified our awareness campaigns.

"We communicated with all structures, all municipalities, all traditional leaders and the community in general,” said Xasa.

He said the new law also guided the formation of initiation monitoring forums across the province – at provincial, district and local levels – and the province’s municipalities also played their part and committed resources to help.

"The problem will be history one day"

Xasa also said partnerships with the media – including City Press and Umhlobo Wenene FM – “worked wonders in terms of making people aware”.

“All of us are appreciating this reduction in deaths,” he said.

Matanzima said this winter season, 19 people were arrested across the province for illegal initiation, including traditional surgeons and nurses, and that it was important that they were successfully prosecuted and made examples of.

The chief from Cofimvaba has always been optimistic that initiate deaths would one day come to an end.

“Every year I always say that ... the problem will be history one day.

"I am saying this because I have noticed that in the past there have been no good working relations between parents and traditional leaders on this matter,” he said.

“It is the parents who have the authority to choose the traditional surgeons and traditional nurses for their sons and prepare them for initiation.

“In the past parents seemed to neglect this role which caused a lot of confusion between them and traditional leaders who could not do anything when parents did not take their responsibilities seriously.

"That situation has since improved. Now traditional leaders are working well with parents because this is a matter that requires them to work hand in hand.”

Matanzima said this was the first time there was a law governing traditional initiation with real consequences for those running illegal initiation schools.

“Though this is the first season where the new act is being implemented, we can see it has made a huge difference.

“The law itself also puts most of the responsibility on parents and traditional leaders, which is what has been missing,” he said.

According to the act, those responsible for initiate deaths in initiation schools across Eastern Cape face up to 25 years in jail.

“But overall, looking at the historically reduced number of deaths, we see it as progress.

"But as we appreciate the improvement, we believe this is exactly the right time for us to double our efforts,” he said.

“We must not relax because we might go back to where we were before.

"We need to encourage and assist each other and make sure we work to get to a point where not a single life is lost due to traditional male initiation,” Matanzima said.

Read more on:    initiation

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