Traditional initiation season suspended amid Covid-19 pandemic

Initiates are smeared with white clay on their faces and are covered in red and white blankets. (Photo: Leon Sadiki / City Press / Gallo Images / Getty Images)

In an unprecedented move, traditional initiations have been officially suspended in South Africa in a bid to halt exposure to Covid-19.

The Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa) confirmed to Daily Maverick on Wednesday, 22 April that the current initiation season has been suspended. The organisation said it was in unison with the rest of South Africa in the fight against Covid-19 and that it made no sense to go ahead with initiations under the current circumstances. 

“We have consulted chiefs, headmen and women, senior traditional leaders, sub-headmen and headwomen, and our communities. We are saying, throughout the length and the breadth of the country, there will be no initiations this season. So, we are suspending this cultural year of the initiation season,” said Contralesa General Secretary Zolani Mkiva.

Contralesa told Daily Maverick that it took the decision to suspend the initiation season in solidarity with the government in the fight against Covid-19 and to protect initiates from exposure to the virus. 

Contralesa had already engaged the Cabinet and was also engaging with the government. Mkiva said that in accordance with traditional observations, the decision was first communicated with their communities to inform them about the dangers of the virus. This required a two-pronged approach, which entailed educating communities about Covid-19 and then relating it to the cultural practice of initiation.

Mkiva added that by virtue of its sole custodianship of the initiation custom, decisions rested with the traditional leadership, not the government. 

“The decision was taken after serious consideration that those going for initiation might be vulnerable, especially with information that the virus thrives in cold conditions … Culturally, initiation takes place in winter, even though some choose to do it at the end of the year,” said Mkiva.

This was the first time that he was aware of traditional initiations being suspended. “We have definitely never seen something like this in the country, all of us. The only situation when such an important custom would be suspended or cancelled is during the passing on of a king in that particular kingdom.”

“Covid-19 is the biggest disruptor that the world has ever seen. We have never seen a virus wreaking destruction of this magnitude. This coronavirus has humbled everyone,” said Mkiva.

Had the initiation season proceeded, initiates would have been at much more risk than normal. The high number of deaths during initiation has often led to calls for the custom to be regulated – a call that traditional leaders have rejected.

There is no fixed date for when the suspension will be lifted. “If we are able to defeat this virus in good time before the end of the year, we will make an announcement regarding initiation,” said Mkiva, adding it would hopefully be in time for the 2021 traditional season.

A statement issued by Contralesa stated that the president, Kgoshi Mokoena, had signed the declaration to suspend the winter initiation season on 21 April 2020.

The suspension needed to be included in the disaster management national regulations for the lockdown implemented by President Cyril Ramaphosa to stop the spread of Covid-19, said Mkiva. 

“We will not tolerate bogus initiation schools, and anyone who is found to be disobeying the order of initiation suspension will face the wrath of traditional authorities and the full might of the law. We want to emphasise that there will be serious consequences for anyone violating the regulations that speak to the suspension of the winter initiation season.”

MP Haniff Hoosen, DA spokesperson for Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, commended traditional leaders for their cooperation. He recommended that the Departments of Health and Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs ramp up monitoring of the intervention to ensure that the suspension is respected in all provinces and communities. “This intervention is critical if we want to use every opportunity to prevent the spread of the virus, especially among young people,” he said.

Inkatha Freedom Party’s Narend Singh welcomed the decision, saying that even under normal circumstances, “the whole process of initiation was becoming problematic, having been operated by people who did not observe hygiene”.

EFF spokesperson Vuyai Pambo and the ANC’s Pule Mabe did not respond to requests for comment. DM 


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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