Specialised courts can help with initiation deaths – traditional leaders

Abakhwetha: Initiates stand in line in their ceremonial blankets and with ingceke on their faces
Abakhwetha: Initiates stand in line in their ceremonial blankets and with ingceke on their faces

While preserving traditional rites, let us never forget to preserve young boys’ right to life

Traditional leaders in the Eastern Cape believe that the introduction of specialised courts could be key to fighting the scourge of initiation deaths in the province.

With the summer initiation season expected to launch on Sunday in Queenstown, traditional leaders, the department of cooperative governance and traditional affairs, the department of health, non-governmental organisations and the community gathered in Mthatha last Wednesday to find ways to prevent more boys from dying at initiation schools.

In December last year at least 22 boys died around the province, while 17 died in the recent winter initiation season in June.

Nkosi Mwelo Nonkonyana, chairperson of the Eastern Cape House of Traditional Leaders, said it was time the department of justice considered using specialised courts so that those who were arrested for practising illegal initiation could be tried and prosecuted speedily.

“We are concerned about the delays in the handling of these cases around initiation, hence the call from Contralesa [Congress of Traditional Leaders of SA] as well as the Eastern Cape House of Traditional Leaders that there is a need for the ministry of justice to establish specialised courts so that, like there are courts for rape and other things, there can be courts that are going to deal decisively with all those who keep flouting the law, to save our children,” said Nonkonyana, who is also an advocate.

Xolile Nqatha, cooperative governance and traditional affairs MEC in the province, said the issue of specialised courts was one they wanted to consider seriously as government.

“We want cases to be dealt with speedily so that there can be consequences for wrongdoing. Those are the things that we will be considering,” he said.

Nqatha said they wanted to implement the same model which was used during the 2010 Soccer World Cup, where there were dedicated special courts.

“Recently, there has been a call for special courts to deal with gender-based violence, which is something that government is implementing. There is no reason that we should not consider that positively, even if we have seasonal special courts that sit for a season to consider cases, make decisions and sentence people to serve time,” Nqatha said.

He also said one of the issues on which they wanted police to consider working with other stakeholders in the justice cluster included alternative charges.

Instead of minor charges of assault on initiates, there should be charges of attempted murder.

Nqatha said the perpetrators should not be given fines, instead there should be mandatory sentences that required them to serve prison time.

Nonkonyana said there was need for intelligence to prevent initiation deaths instead of reactionary responses to the problem.

He said they had considered everything that they had done in the past since the start of the deaths of initiates many years ago.

In December 2016, the Customary Male Initiation Practice Act was enacted into law and many had hoped it would have a positive impact, but little has changed as boys continue to die.

Traditional leaders also want some areas of the act to be amended so that it can be tougher on those who break the law.

“We found that these criminals who do not want to respect our customs are flaunting and capitalising on the gaps in the statute. We have just spoken to the MEC that there is a new motion to amend the act to close all the loopholes,” he said.

Nonkonyana said parents were also part of the problem and needed to be held criminally accountable if they took their children to unregistered traditional surgeons and illegal initiation schools.

Eastern Cape Health MEC Sindiswa Gomba said the issue of the death of initiates was frustrating the department.

“Issues that should have been taken care of before boys go out to the bush are sometimes negated. For instance, when you go to ceremonies of these boys leading up to them going to initiation school, you will find that some of them are drinking brandy.

“When you look at the impact that brandy has on the body, one of them is dehydration. When you look at the fact that one drinks brandy in rejoicing the whole night then the next day goes for initiation, and we are told they are not given water, it means you are taking a person who is not fully hydrated and you are immediately putting that person under strain by not giving them water. That is the first problem,” she said.

Dehydration is one of the major contributing factors that lead to initiates dying in traditional initiation school, especially during the summer, owing to them being deprived water so that they heal faster.

Gomba said mandatory medical prescreening was vital before boys underwent traditional initiation because in the process it could be easily detected if a boy had a pre-existing medical condition.

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