Politicians step in to end ‘reckless’ initiate deaths

IN DANGER Initiates are seen smeared with white clay on their faces, covered in red and white blankets, during a initiation ritual. This year’s death and casualty count is on the rise, forcing government to take a stand. Picture: Leon Sadiki
IN DANGER Initiates are seen smeared with white clay on their faces, covered in red and white blankets, during a initiation ritual. This year’s death and casualty count is on the rise, forcing government to take a stand. Picture: Leon Sadiki

Eastern Cape leaders have called on stakeholders to join hands to avoid making initiation a death sentence

With initiate deaths rising dramatically only halfway through the summer initiation season, two prominent political leaders in the Eastern Cape have entered the fray in denouncing unnecessary deaths in the province as the number of deceased has reached 19.

Mamkeli Ngam, provincial spokesperson for the department of cooperative governance and traditional affairs in the Eastern Cape, has confirmed that 19 initiates have died so far this season, and 12 bogus iingcibi (traditional surgeons) have been arrested.

Last year, at least 17 abakhwetha (initiates) died during the summer initiation season, making this summer season worse than the previous one.

This season, most initiates reportedly died due to dehydration owing to hot temperatures and being deprived of drinking water at amabhoma (initiation schools).

The latest figures take the number of initiates who have died nationally to 23, as two initiates also died in North West and another two in the Western Cape.

ANC provincial chairperson Oscar Mabuyane has called on all stakeholders to join hands in addressing the scourge and avoid making initiation a death sentence.

“Losing lives from the initiation schools is another bad thing that continues to haunt us as a province. We have lost a number of young initiates this season alone, who had gone through circumcision for them to undergo the passage into manhood.

“It cannot be right that when they are there they die. No parent [wants to] give birth to a child and look after a child for 18 years, only to lose that child within a few days. It can’t be right. No child should lose life simply because they are dehydrated,” he said.

Mabuyane said conducive environments should be created for initiates who have undergone traditional initiation to be able to cope.

He said to protect the culture of traditional initiation it was important not to mess with the tradition by being reckless.

“This ritual [of traditional initiation] is important to us. It is important to our people here [in the Eastern Cape] in general. Let’s protect it. Let us not make it a death sentence, so that our young chaps don’t have two minds when they are supposed to go through this.

“We should not experience this kind of ambivalence about this. It must be done, but it must be done responsibly. All those that are involved – communities, parents, traditional leaders and government – must join efforts to stop these deaths,” Mabuyane said.

He said government alone cannot succeed on the issue and needs all the help from the rest of society to make a meaningful impact.

Mabuyane said it was wrong and an offence to deprive initiates water, and it should be punishable.

“Those who have a responsibility to look after initiation, such as amakhankatha (traditional nurses), should be vigilant because boys today are not as strong as those of yesteryear. Nowadays we eat genetically modified foods, which do not have good vitamins in them.

“So we plead with our people, they must accept that times have changed. We must ensure that when our boys undergo traditional initiation they are in good health and equally so when they return home,” said Mabuyane, who is also MEC for finance, economic development, environmental affairs and tourism in the Eastern Cape.

Nqaba Bhanga, DA leader in the Eastern Cape, has called for cultural villages to be established, where traditional initiation can be centralised.

“My view is that government must open these cultural villages where these boys can go and traditional initiation is practised and proper medical support is provided.

“The Xhosa tradition and the tradition of circumcision is not about deaths, it’s about education. And it kills some of us who have gone through this process of circumcision to see young boys dying like this because they are not supposed to die there.

"They are supposed to come out educated about not only their tradition, but also about families and contributing to the nation,” he said.

Bhanga said traditional initiation should be banned in areas where there are constant deaths.

“If needs be, the government must ban circumcision in those areas where you find that there are deaths. We can’t have our people being slaughtered.

"There must be tougher laws to make sure that those who practise this thing illegally, who don’t have proper documentation, get arrested and the sentences are harsher.”

According to Ngam, Eastern Cape MEC of cooperative governance and traditional affairs Fikile Xasa has welcomed the arrests of the 12 bogus traditional surgeons.

Ngam said 18 dockets of unlawful circumcision and 19 inquest dockets have been opened, and that the total number of cases related to illegal circumcision opened by the police since the beginning of the summer traditional initiation season stands at 37.

“Law enforcement is one of our pillars to protect life, prevent injuries and all forms of abuse experienced by initiates before, during and after the customary practice of traditional male initiation.

“No stone should be left unturned to ensure that the traditional initiation practice is not exploited as a commercial enterprise used for personal enrichment at the expense of our children,” said Xasa.

Last year’s summer initiation season was also marred by controversies following the arrest of five initiates who allegedly assaulted and killed an elderly woman for “trespassing” on the initiates’ turf in the Buffalo City Metropolitan Municipality in East London.

Last year’s winter season, between June and July, saw one of the lowest death rates in the past decade, with at least 11 recorded deaths, six of which were as a result of a fire at a Qumbu-based initiation school.

At least 19 initiates died in traditional initiation schools around the province in June this year.

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