When the period of disaster and lockdown was announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa, more than 20 initiates – abakhwetha – had already undergone illegal circumcision before they were rescued and reunited with their families in the Eastern Cape.
One traditional surgeon – ingcibi – has since been arrested for defying the government’s order to suspend the winter initiation season.
Nkosi Mkhanyiseli Dudumayo, chairperson of the OR Tambo Initiation Forum, said it was difficult to identify who was conducting the initiations or the location of the illegal initiation schools because the boys would not disclose the identity of the surgeons.
Dudumayo said they had already closed and burnt down one illegal initiation site in the region, which had been the hot spot of initiation deaths in the Eastern Cape for a long time.
He said more illegal schools were identified and shut down in the Buffalo City metro, which includes areas around East London, Bhisho and King William’s Town.
“We are faced with a problem of people regarding this lockdown as a holiday or an initiation season,” he said.
Dudumayo said people should understand that it was not only initiations that had been suspended, but all activities.
Only essential services were allowed to go on uninterrupted.
“People should understand that this is not an attack on the initiation custom, ritual or tradition, but a challenge faced by the world.”
He said ukwaluka – traditional initiation – was not an essential service and there was no reason for people to continue the practice when there were lockdown regulations.
“No one is going to die just because they did not go to an initiation school at a particular point.”
He said that, as traditional leaders, they were very worried about communities that were ignorant of the danger of the virus.
“At the moment, all other provinces have agreed to suspend initiation. As a province, we will comply with the regulations. If we are still in lockdown, it means all of us should comply with the regulations and directives to try to protect the nation.
“We can’t risk the lives of children and say they must undergo initiation because it is their culture and that the winter season is an initiation period. We must comply with laws of the republic because the supreme law of the country is the Constitution. Therefore, if the president says all activities must stop except funerals and essential services, we can’t, as responsible citizens, go against that.”
Dudumayo said he did not think it was practically possible for the upcoming winter initiation season to go ahead because the government was now conducting mass screening and testing, which was expected to continue into the winter season.
Eastern Cape Premier Oscar Mabuyane also condemned illegal initiation schools in the province, which were continuing to perform initiations during the lockdown period.
Mabuyane described those who were using this period to operate illegal initiation schools as “ill-disciplined people who did not respect the rule of law”.
“As the cabinet of this province, we took a decision to say – as part of enforcing the national regulations and the decision taken by the president on the lockdown – no initiation schools should be activated.
"We had a discussion about the issue on how to deal with the next initiation seasons, winter [June], as well as summer [December].
“Our view is that as has been done in all other provinces, we should also suspend the upcoming winter initiation season because this [Covid-19] is not going to leave us. The lockdown is not about removing and eradicating the problem. It is going to remain with us for the next couple of months,” said the premier.
The Eastern Cape has been the hotspot of initiation deaths every season, with young boys losing their lives through botched circumcision and ill-treatment at initiation schools.
“We have to put a stop to this because our young people die at these initiation schools because of men who do not care. We are working with traditional leaders. We know the sensitivities involved.
“We are appealing to everyone to protect people’s lives. It’s not about us just being selfish – not at all,” Mabuyane said.
“People are going to come back and do what they want. But for now, let us respect this period and protect these young people so that they do not get infected,” he said.