More than 20 boys died at Mpumalanga initiation schools in the last week. This follows the death of almost 50 young men in only three weeks at the schools last July. There are examples of the practice improving and becoming more regulated. But with oversight shunted to provinces, local government and traditional authorities, there are schools operating with little accountability under a confused mixture of different authorities. By GREG NICOLSON.
Colonel Leonard Hlathi, police spokesperson in Mpumalanga, couldn’t say exactly how many boys died during the province’s recent initiation season because more reports might emerge. More than 20 boys died in six Mpumalanga regions, including Middelburg, Belfast, KwaMhlanga, Kwaggafontein and Verena. Police are investigating the deaths but no charges have yet been laid. Preliminary reports suggest the initiation schools where the boys died were legal, Hlathi told Daily Maverick.
The African National Congress (ANC) sent its “deepest condolences” to the families of the deceased and said the deaths need to serve as a reminder “to ensure safe, adequate and healthy conditions at all initiation schools”. Minister in the Presidency for Performance Monitoring and Evaluation Collins Chabane also sent his condolences. “The reported loss of several young lives in Mpumalanga and elsewhere in the country is regrettable. This has happened to young people who were still at their prime looking forward to a brighter future where they could still reach their potential,” said the minister.
But the tragic loss of young lives continues seemingly unabated. During the winter of 2012, scores of boys across the country attended initiation schools to learn about life as a man and died or had their penises amputated. Others reported being severely beaten or exposed for hours to inclement weather. A source said he suspected the boys in Mpumalanga died of a loss of blood.
In 2010, public hearings were held by the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Linguistic and Religious Communities in response to a rise in deaths at initiation schools. “The incompetent performance of the circumcision ritual at the initiation schools was singled out as the major cause of amputations and initiates’ deaths,” stated the report. “Circumcision is a surgical procedure. While the risks of circumcision-related complications have been viewed as very low, recent fatalities in South Africa indicate that ‘a poorly carried out circumcision, i.e. with post-operative bleeding and infections can be catastrophic’. Amputations and deaths are the worst-case scenarios in this procedure. Circumcision requires experienced people to perform it.”
It’s not easy, however, to find out just who is responsible for regulating and monitoring health standards in the schools. Sazi Mhlongo, president of the SA Traditional Healers Association, blamed the problem on illegal schools taking kids off the street without their parents’ permission. Yet he didn’t have a wide-ranging solution to the problem. “Parents must pray for [the boys] before they go. Without that traditional prayer there will be a problem.”
Colonel Hlathi encouraged initiation schools to follow health guidelines. But he said the police don’t go around checking if schools are certified. The chiefs need to oversee the schools and ensure they meet the suitable standards, he said. The secrecy surrounding the traditional practice can make it hard to get involved, but according to Hlathi the Department of Health checks whether schools are registered.
Department of Health spokesman Joe Maila said the situation varies from province to province but the national department isn’t responsible for regulating initiation schools and only gets involved when requested. Tommy Ntsewa from the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs says the responsibility lies ostensibly with the provinces, local government and traditional authorities.
“[Initiation schools] are very important because there you learn about manhood and how to survive in life,” says Kgosi PP Maubane, chairman of the National House of Traditional Leaders. He blames the deaths on “illegal doctors who perform this for money and who don’t follow the correct practice” but says the schools have improved in recent years. According to Maubane, provinces set regulations for the schools to follow and, depending on the province, the department of health, police and traditional leaders try to monitor the system.
But the traditional schools sometimes evade these ad hoc monitoring systems. Sometimes they need to seek permission from a local traditional leader, sometimes not. They may have to register with the municipality, but if the community trusts a school and initiates keep quiet about what went on, it’s only after a crisis that it emerges that a school operates unsafely.
“Everyone is very concerned,” says David Mahlobo, head of Mpumalanga’s cooperative governance and traditional affairs department. For three years the province has been working on legislation to regulate initiation schools. The process has taken so long, says Mahlobo, due to unanticipated anger from communities. They were angry that the new laws might be an intrusion. The idea of sending in outsiders, like doctors, to the sacred initiation schools was problematic.
But Amakhosi have been cooperating with the Mpumalanga proposal and the Ingoma Bill is set to provide for the regulation and monitoring of schools in the province. Officials from the department will be able to visit the sites, offer medical support and ensure hygiene standards are met. Mahlobo said he wants the practitioners to be trained and registered and the province will have the power to shut down non-compliant schools.
Until the last week, Mpumalanga had a good record regarding initiation schools compared to provinces like Limpopo and Eastern Cape. The Ingoma Bill will hopefully provide the legislation to ensure that tragedy can be avoided in the future. But it’s too late for the 20 boys who have died. And it won’t help the thousands upon thousands of other boys going to initiation schools across the country operating with little accountability under a confused mixture of different authorities. DM
Photo: Initiates are reflected in the water as they wash off ikota (white lime stone) in the Eastern Cape, South Africa, July 20, 2006. Every year thousands of youths leave their parents to spend weeks in the care of traditional leaders at an initiation school where they are circumcised, a rite of passage commonly referred to as “Ukwaluka” or “going to the mountain”. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko