An underage initiate has died at an illegal initiation school – just as the Eastern Cape provincial government is trying to convince its national counterparts to unban traditional initiation.
Bathandwa Funda (15) from Gxulu village in Libode died last Saturday at an illegal initiation school (ibhoma) in his village, where the Grade 5 pupil had been part of a group of 10 initiates (abakhwetha) who had undergone the traditional ritual.
Eight of the initiates have since fled after the illegal school was shut down by the Nyandeni Initiation Forum, while Funda’s cousin, Sibonelo (16), was rescued by his family.
Legally, only boys who are 18 or older can undergo traditional initiation.
The mood in the family homestead was sombre this week as the family was preparing for Funda’s funeral. They refused to speak about his passing, saying they would only speak to police investigators.
Nkosi Landela Gwadiso, the chairperson of the forum, said they were trying to find the person who had been running the illegal school.
Gwadiso said the family had only found out after the initiate had passed on that he had undergone traditional circumcision at an illegal school, as they had been under the impression he had gone to visit relatives.
“When I was called late last Sunday, I was informed the initiate had already died. He had died at an illegal initiation school under mysterious circumstances,” he said.
Gwadiso said another illegal initiation school was discovered at Sibangweni, where 15 underage boys had already been illegally circumcised. He said one of the initiates had to be taken to hospital to be treated for burn wounds.
“We are still trying to find out the whereabouts of the other 14 initiates in Sibangweni because they fled after their initiation school was discovered by the forum,” Gwadiso said.
He said the reason the young boys fled when efforts were made to rescue them was because they were stigmatised by society as lesser men when rescued by forum members, who include health workers and police.
He said some boys would rather run away and find another illegal initiation school to hide in so they could complete their course and then graduate.
“Stigma plays a big role. Those who are rescued and taken to hospital, for instance, are regarded as weak and are not recognised by their peers, and to an extent by their communities, as real men.
“So, that is the challenge we are facing. As a result, the other 14 have run away and we are in the process of tracking them down, together with the illegal surgeon [ingcibi] who circumcised them,” said Gwadiso.
Meanwhile, another three underage initiates between the ages of 15 and 16 were also rescued and reunited with their families in Port St Johns this week.
Port St Johns Initiation Forum chairperson Nkosi Sivuyile Msungubali said they had already closed the illegal initiation school.
“The initiates were underage and, when we discovered the initiation school, we closed it down and took the three initiates to their parents, who were shocked that their children had been there. Their parents took them to the clinic for a medical examination so they could be treated. We are busy trying to find the illegal traditional surgeon who was running the school,” said Msungubali
Meanwhile, Nkosi Mkhanyiseli Dudumayo, the chairperson of the OR Tambo Initiation Forum and provincial secretary of the Congress of Traditional Leaders of SA in the Eastern Cape, said they were disappointed that, even before government had unbanned the traditional initiation ceremony, an initiate had already lost his life.
Dudumayo said they remained resolute, however, in their stance that government should unban traditional initiation for the December summer season to prevent the mushrooming of illegal initiation schools in the province.
He said they were worried that parents would resort to taking their children to bogus traditional surgeons out of desperation as a result of the ban on traditional initiations imposed because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The fact that there are already illegal traditional initiation schools despite the ban, tells you that families would take their children to these schools regardless of whether there is a second wave of this coronavirus or not.
“But on our side, as traditional leaders, we are ready with resources and plans, and all the relevant stakeholders would be providing the resources they normally do each season to prevent loss of life should the summer season be allowed to get under way,” he said.
Dudumayo said all legal traditional surgeons and traditional nurses (amakhankatha) would be undergoing training to comply with Covid-19 regulations when they conduct traditional initiation ceremonies.
Government suspended the traditional initiation season in May on the eve of the June winter initiation season due to the Covid-19 pandemic and strict lockdown regulations, which prevented people from leaving their homes and discouraged physical contact.
This week, Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs MEC Xolile Nqatha said preparations for the customary male initiation practice summer season were ready for execution.
“As the executive council, we have deliberated on the matter and will make our comprehensive submission detailing our plans to mitigate the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Once we have made our submissions to national government, we hope it will pave the way towards the opening of the summer season under strict adherence toCovid-19 regulations and health protocols. We want to ensure that the customary initiation practice ensues in a manner that preserves human life,” said Nqatha.
Mvusiwekhaya Sicwetsha, the spokesperson for Eastern Cape Premier Oscar Mabuyane, said ulwaluko (traditional initiation) remained prohibited in the province and the rest of the country, and that this would be the case until national government made a decision to allow the practice within strict guidelines to prevent further Covid-19 infections.
“The executive council made a decision to engage with the national government to allow ulwaluko for the December season. In this regard and in responding to the decision of the national government requiring a submission of a plan showing how prevention of Covid-19 infections will be put in place, the provincial government will submit its plan to the national government indicating how we will work with communities, traditional leaders and the families of young boys who will undergo ulwaluko this December to ensure that every umkhwetha and ikhankatha will be protected from infections,” Sicwetsha said.
“The executive council resolved that, in the event that national government allows ulwaluko to continue, each family of a young boy that will undergo ulwaluko will be responsible for the wellbeing of their child and ikhankatha by ensuring the wearing of masks, regular washing of hands with soap and water and limiting numbers of people in each ibhoma to enforce social distancing.”