Initiation School Deaths: Who is Losing the Battle?

NGO Pulse readers would recall that last month (June 2015) I wrote an article in which I emphasised the need for South Africans to encourage their children to study the same way they would encourage them to take part in cultural practices such as initiation schools. After all initiation is part of many communities’ culture and should be treated as such. I also stated that while the initiation schools remain in the custodianship of traditional leaders, today there is a need to involve various stakeholders including the Department of Health and the House of Traditional Leaders, in order to avoid exposing our boys to illegal initiation schools and the loss of life.

We should commend government for putting systems in place for people to run initiation schools legally. It is for this reason that government invites applications from people who want to conduct initiation prior to the commencement of the schools. Successful applicants are issued with permits in line with government’s zero tolerance approach to people who take chances by running initiation schools without permits. While the prevention of illegal schools is a key step towards ending the continued deaths, government alone cannot win this fight without the involvement of the communities themselves.

I think the only thing that government should do is to - after issuing the permits - inform communities about the initiation schools that will be operating legally and their responsible leaders. This is because up until now parents are not in a position to know which schools are legal and those that are not. Government through institutions such as the National House of Traditional Leaders, Department of Health, non-governmental organisations and other relevant stakeholders, among others, should collectively take the responsibility of working together to inform communities about legal initiation schools. This approach could empower communities to make informed decisions when taking their boys to initiation and this is one of the ways in which communities could isolate illegal initiation schools. Government should introduce a system that allows parents to register boys who will be taking part in initiation schools. In registering, the parents or those who are involved in this process should be given a list of legal initiation schools and their locations. This will help to ensure that unscrupulous people who intend running initiation schools are isolated.

The above view is somehow supported by the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa’s (CONTRALESA), Prince Tabane, who suggests that local municipalities should have by-laws that prevent the launching of illegal initiation schools.

Newspaper headlines such as; ‘Govt losing battle against illegal initiation schools’, ‘Initiate deaths a reality we'll have to live with’, ‘ANC must act now to stop the killing of young initiates’, among others, suggest that something has gone wrong with the way initiation schools are run in the country.

I like the honesty in the comments by Obed Bapela, the Deputy Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, that government and society are losing the battle against young boys dying at illegal initiation schools. The fact that every year young boys are severely mutilated or die from botched circumcisions is worrying. It is time for government to join forces with other sectors of the society to eliminate the increasing initiation schools across the country and to also bring those responsible for them to justice.

Get the picture

  • The department has managed to shut down 400 unlicensed initiation schools in the Eastern Cape alone;
  • 158 child initiates were rescued from an illegal initiation school in Tzaneen, Limpopo;
  • 22 boys were rescued from an illegal initiation school in Meadowlands, Soweto;
  • Six people have been arrested following the death of an initiate in Ikageng, Bokone Bophirima;
  • Police arrest three people and rescue 11 boys who were kidnapped in Daveyton, Gauteng, and taken to an initiation school near KwaMhlanga, Mpumalanga; and
  • By 5 July 2015, 14 initiates have already died while 141 were admitted to various hospitals in the Eastern Cape, etc.

Phalane Motale in an article - ‘Initiation deaths go unpunished’ - writes that despite the high death rates and the genital amputations of hundreds of young initiates, only 10 cases are currently before our courts. Motale argues that of great concern is that while government continually condemns the deaths of initiates as a result of botched practices and show unity in its calls for better monitoring and interventions to improve the outcomes of traditional circumcision, the National Prosecution Authority (NPA) does not even keep any records relating to initiation convictions.”

While government stresses its zero tolerance to people who run initiation schools without permits, the confession by NPA spokesperson, Luvuyo Mfaku, that the nature of data collection at both the NPA and police service means that there is no way to tell whether any of the cases prosecuted – be they for murder, assault or negligence – are related to botched circumcisions, does not help the situation. Mfaku also points to the fact that the NPA does not keep case-specific crime conviction statistics, adding that, “Most cases are being withdrawn for various reasons.”

The abduction of young boys who are forced into initiation schools is also another challenge in South Africa. Young boys are abducted and parents will be left with no choice but to pay the ransom, provide money for food and also pay those who are taking care of the initiates. In reality, abducted initiates are often starved and not taken care of, being one of the reason why majority of the abducted initiates succumb to death.  

Illegal circumcision should be a thing of the past in South Africa. During and at the end of every initiation period, hospitals deal with a number of initiates with serious wounds resulting from botched initiation. Also, compliance with the law is key to tackling problems that are associated with illegal initiation schools in South Africa. In Limpopo for instance, in terms of the Northern Province Circumcision Schools Act of 1996, no person shall hold an initiation school without a valid permit, while in terms of the Initiation Schools Regulations of 2003, no traditional surgeon or any other authorised person is allowed to perform rituals in an initiation school without a certificate of fitness.

We should frown at illegal initiation schools.

Government, through legislation, should empower the law enforcement agencies and other relevant institutions to tackle illegal initiation schools. Government should work in partnership with the traditional leaders to create central place where boys could be registered prior the commencement of the initiation schools. Ending illegal initiation schools will save the Department of Health millions of rands as no initiate will be admitted to any public health facility with injuries during or after the initiation period.

I believe in anything that contributes to promoting our cultures but not anything that gives our cultures a bad name and render them meaningless. 

- Butjwana Seokoma is heading SANGONeT’s Civil Society Information Programme. He writes in his personal capacity. 

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