Mondli Makhanya: Who accounts for the annual killing of initiates?

A group of young men come back home after a successful initiation in the Eastern Cape. These are the lucky ones. Many who they know will die or be maimed. Picture: Khaya Ngwenya
A group of young men come back home after a successful initiation in the Eastern Cape. These are the lucky ones. Many who they know will die or be maimed. Picture: Khaya Ngwenya

The news and circumstances surrounding the death of Parktown Boys’ High pupil Enock Mpianzi have focused attention on the issue of schools’ responsibility for the children they have in their care.

It was one of the most heartbreaking stories of the first month of 2020.

The mere thought of what he was going through during in those last minutes sends shivers down the spine.

Even the president of the republic weighed in on the “tragic and deeply upsetting death” of Mpianzi in his weekly online column.

President Cyril Ramaphosa then went on to lament other preventable deaths of children.

“Sadly, Enock is not the only child in recent weeks to lose his life for reasons that were entirely preventable, if only adults had exercised due care and responsibility.”

It seems to me that, as a society, we are failing our children.
President Cyril Ramaphosa

He spoke of 13-year-old Keamogetswe Shaun Seboko who was found dead at the bottom of a swimming pool at a Magaliesburg primary school; two Limpopo primary schoolchildren who died when a truck crashed into a wall that collapsed on them and sixyear-old Nathlia Pienaar, who fell victim to gangland crossfire on the Cape Flats.

Ramaphosa was honest enough to remember the deaths of Michael Komape and Lumka Mkethwa, who were effectively killed by the government when they fell into pit latrines at their badly neglected schools.

“All of those young lives, and the lives of many others, need never have been lost. All these tragedies could have been prevented if measures had been taken to keep these children out of harm’s way. It seems to me that, as a society, we are failing our children,” said Ramaphosa.

And how right he was.

The society is definitely failing its young ones.

We abuse them; we neglect them; we chase them out of home and onto the streets; we starve them; we deprive them of quality education and we withhold the nurture they so require.

But what Ramaphosa – like so many others – failed to do was to mention the killing of so many young people during the initiation season every year.

As City Press reported at the beginning of December last year, since 2006 there have been more than 788 deaths of initiates just in the Eastern Cape, the province where the rite of passage is practiced most religiously.


In this period another 317 boys have their private parts amputated as a result of botched circumcisions.

Just before Christmas, as the initiates’ families were preparing for imigidi (the welcome home and completion of passage celebrations) the number of boys killed during the month of December had reached 25.

If this trend continues by the end of this year’s winter initiation season we will be heading for mid-800s and by the end of the year we will be in the late 800s.

Eastern Cape Premier Oscar Mabuyane put it succinctly when he said “women carry these boys in their wombs for nine months, they raise them. They give them to us men at 18 years old and we kill them in just eight days.”

Read: ‘Women carry these boys for nine months and we kill them in just eight days’

Mamkeli Ngam, Eastern Cape spokesperson for the department of cooperative governance and traditional affairs, said the situation could have been worse in December had it not been for the monitoring activities undertaken by government departments, traditional leaders and nongovernmental organisations.

“Our view is that if these monitoring activities had not been carried out, more initiates would have lost their lives. Some initiates were rescued in time and taken to rescue centres by these monitoring teams, while others were taken to hospital for immediate medical attention,” Ngam said.

That is cold comfort for those who had lost their children. For them there was no could’ve been, should’ve been. Their beautiful loved ones were gone forever.

Public outrage following Mpiazi’s death has already resulted in several individuals, including the principal and several education department officials, being held to account.

Not so in the cases of the children we send to death during initiation season.

Hardly anyone outside their immediate circles knows their names. They are faceless.

They have no hashtags calling for justice for them. No VIPs turn up at their final send-offs to grieve with the families and apologise for failing to protect their young lives.

The deaths of these boys do not prompt the head of state to bemoan their avoidable deaths.

They do not get the Economic Freedom Fighters rushing to their corner with militant rhetoric and offers of legal aid.

Protectors of African traditions and customs do not call this aberration out for what it is, a murderous deviation from what it is supposed to be.

Instead they blithely argue that of those who go up to the mountain the vast majority return, enjoy their imigidi and go on to live their lives as fully-fledged men.

These are just poor, mostly rural boys who have no voice and whose families have no agency.

Often they are the victims of their own parents, who willingly send them off to their deaths or fail to intervene to ensure that they do not die cruel deaths or get sentenced to a life of indignity and humiliation.

South Africa has come to accept that, like the holiday road carnage, the killing of young people in this manner is just part of who we are.

It is now only the end of January and we have forgotten that we, as a society, killed at least 25 boys directly or through our continued inaction.

In June we will be reminded that initiation season is coming up and with it rivers of tears.

Journalists will sharpen their pens, ready to record the deaths as we tally up the points collected by sports teams on the league table.

Politicians will pontificate about plans and strategies and shift the blame to unscrupulous traditional surgeons.

Nobody will take responsibility.

South Africa has come to accept that, like the holiday road carnage, the killing of young people in this manner is just part of who we are.

This has to stop. There has to be accountability.

The more than 800 killings must be investigated, those responsible arrested and tried in courts of law.

How hard can it really be to get to the bottom of at least some of the deaths, starting with the most recent season?

But in order for people to be made to account for these deaths those in power need to see those boys as human beings worthy of enjoying the constitutional right to life.

Right now they are just seen as statistics.

All of us, from the president to the parliamentarians to the police to ordinary citizens, should wake up and recognise the immensity of this annual tragedy that is totally avoidable.

As for us citizens we should no longer allow those in power to get with what could be described as criminal neglect.

Unless we too don’t care.

Mondli Makhanya
Editor in Chief
City Press
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