The Eastern Cape OR Tambo district has recorded the first deaths of initiates this season after two youngsters lost their lives in their bid for admission to adulthood in their communities.
Eastern Cape health department spokesperson Sizwe Kupelo said 17-year-old Anele Nyawuse died on Saturday in a legal initiation school in Flagstaff, but the cause of death was still unknown.
A second initiate, 15-year-old Siyabonga Njiva, reportedly committed suicide at an illegal school in Port St Johns.
Despite a substantial number of recorded deaths every initiation season, many Eastern Cape traditional leaders were adamant that medical male circumcision (MMC) - performed at specialised clinics and district hospitals by a qualified doctor or healthcare worker – was not an option.
They were also opposed to Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi’s proposal of MMC as a cost-efficient HIV prevention strategy.
Motsoaledi addressed traditional leaders at a dialogue in Mthatha last weekend and expressed concern over the deaths of initiates.
He said the deaths in the Eastern Cape were reversing the gains made by male circumcision and the significantly reduced risk of HIV transmission that resulted.
He said that due to the province’s widespread adoption of circumcision, the Eastern Cape had a lower rate of HIV infections – particularly among men – than those of other provinces. But since young boys died in large numbers due to botched circumcisions and other complications at initiation schools, any gains made were instead reduced to tragedy.
“We have got a problem and we need to do something. The truth remains that medical male circumcision has proven to be very effective in the battle against HIV and Aids.
“KwaZulu-Natal’s [high HIV/Aids prevalence rate] is caused by the fact that men don’t circumcise, while the Eastern Cape is saved by circumcision. But I want us to work together to make sure this circumcision is done properly and nobody dies. This is a problem,” Motsoaledi said.
According to Motsoaledi the province with the highest HIV/Aids prevalence rate was KZN, followed by Mpumalanga, Free State, Gauteng, North West, Eastern Cape, and Limpopo, respectively. The Northern Cape and the Western Cape had the lowest rates of HIV prevalence.
The chairman of the Eastern Cape House of Traditional Leaders, Nkosi Mwelo Nonkonyana, said medical male circumcision was not an option at all.
“As far as we are concerned we firmly believe that medical male circumcision is a no-no. It is one of the westernised concepts that are actually intruding in our traditional systems,” Nonkonyana said.
“We don’t have a problem with male doctors who are circumcised in our traditional ways to assist us. But doctors, who did not go to initiation school, are not welcome at the initiation lodges [or amabhoma]. Initiation by its nature is a very sacred weapon for African people. We don’t want to expose its nitty-gritty to every Tom, Dick and Harry,” he added.
While he agreed that male circumcision reduced HIV infections, he said traditional leaders established a team to ensure that traditional initiation was conducted properly – including the circumcision of initiates.
The past winter initiation season between June and July saw one of the lowest death rates in the last decade with 11 recorded deaths, six of which were a result of a fire at a Qumbu-based initiation school.