Mondli Makhanya: Killing for culture – initiation deaths almost 100% avoidable


One of the macabre festive season habits we engage in every year is counting the number of road fatalities.

This practice, now almost a ritual, starts when the schools close at the beginning of December and ends in the middle of January.

But there is an even more macabre practice, one which we do twice a year – in the middle and the end.

Although the numbers are lower, this particular practice is even more depressing than the road deaths, mainly because the fatalities are almost 100% avoidable.

This macabre practice is the annual killing of young black men in the name of culture and tradition.

In just six weeks at the end of last year, 34 boys died in initiation schools around the country, 20 of whom were in the Eastern Cape, where the tradition is most strictly practised.

Consider this excerpt from a City Press report in December: “During last year’s [2017] summer season, 17 died in initiation schools across the province, mostly in the OR Tambo region. Last year’s winter initiation season – between June and July – resulted in one of the lowest death rates in the past decade with 11 recorded deaths, six of which occurred in a fire at a Qumbu-based initiation school. In June this year, at least 19 initiates died in traditional initiation schools around the province.”

If we roll back the years, the death tolls were even more horrific.

These numbers are scary by any reckoning. If these were the deaths of suburban boys – of whatever race – in any of our big cities, there would be a massive uproar.

But these are poor children from mostly rural communities with no voice.

They are the subjects of traditional leaders who believe that they are the voices of their subjects and the custodians of their rights.

So, when the children die, they are buried and then we wait for the next season so we can kill more of them.

Many more are left with rotting penises that need to be amputated. Oh, how one wishes this fate could have befallen a certain individual with a very large homestead in a coastal province.

During the initiation seasons, when the media highlights the killings, politicians feign concern and convene meetings with traditional leaders about action plans.

But, as soon as the season is over, they forget about the dead and deformed.

The problem is that, for many in our country’s leadership, this is not seen as a major crisis. To them, young black lives might matter, but not really that much.

What matters more than the lives of the young men is the preservation of the coming-of-age tradition.

When this lowly newspaperman wrote critically about the blasé attitude to the initiate deaths in the winter of 2010, he received a call from a gruff-voiced leader of the ANC – yes that one – who was angry that someone whose traditions did not include initiation schools had dared voice an opinion about the subject.

To set me straight and educate me, he extended an invitation to a relative’s coming-home ceremony – umcimbi.

“After that, you can then write about something that you know something about and not out of ignorance,” I remember him saying.

When I tried to point out that I had tickets to the World Cup quarterfinals and therefore would not be able to make it, he got even angrier.

“What’s more important? The World Cup or educating yourself so that you don’t write nonsense again?”

Eish. I’m afraid to say that, at that point, the World Cup had the edge and I missed out on educating myself.

What I do know, however, is that, in December of that year, many more boys died. And in the year after that and the year after that.

But, to the gruff-voiced leader, this was just an irritation. What was critical was maintaining the purity of the culture. The boys were just collateral damage.

As it turns out, his son did come home from initiation school and is a successful somebody today.

What the purists need to appreciate is that those who make a noise about the deaths of young initiates are not enemies of the culture. The practice itself is a beautiful thing and should be preserved.

But, as with all aspects of life, culture also has to evolve.

In a report nine years ago, the Commission for the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities made recommendations about how this could practically be done.

Few of these have been taken seriously. The commission undertook the same exercise and made pretty much similar recommendations as the earlier report.

Nearly a year later, it has received cursory attention.

In the 2010 report, the commission had this to say: “It is important to preserve cultural practices that give coherence and order to our communities, and provide functionally socialised individuals in our communities along time-tested and age-old lines. But we should be careful not to maintain atavistic practices in the name of cultural continuity; practices which reduce African cultures to ridicule and infamy.

“In other words, we should be able to modernise aspects of our cultures that need modernisation without harming the core values which lie at the heart of our institutions. To do this efficaciously, we must be able to distinguish between the changeable externals of the institution and its core values and practices.”

We should not have to spend our Julys and Decembers engaging in this macabre ritual of tabulating the numbers of those we have killed in the name of a sacred passage.


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