South Africa


Overcoming mountains: The challenges of initiation in a time of Covid-19

Overcoming mountains: The challenges of initiation in a time of Covid-19
Traffic comes to a standstill on the busy R71 road as scores of people take to the streets of Ga-Mamabolo to welcome back initiates who had spent a month in seclusion in the bush undergoing their passage into manhood. (Photo: Lucas Ledwaba / Mukurukuru Media)

Parents express desire to let their children undergo rite of passage despite looming threat of Covid-19 that has killed over 52,000 people in SA.

Carol Mabunda, mother to a 15-year-old teenager is worried that time is running out for her son to undergo his traditional rite of passage into manhood.

“My friends and I are more than ready to send our children to the mountain. My child is now 15 and he should have gone there last year, so if they postponed again this year it means by the time he goes there he will be a full-grown man. I wish our president (Cyril Ramaphosa) could allow us to do this,” Mabunda from Belfast in Mpumalanga told Mukurukuru Media recently.

Last week the Portfolio Committee on Cooperative Governance and (CoGTA) Traditional Affairs expressed concern over the deaths of 13 initiates in the Eastern Cape last year.

The committee was meeting with the Department of Traditional Affairs and the National House of Traditional Leaders (NHTL) to discuss the controversy around the prohibition of initiation schools during the covid-19 lockdown. 

Committee chairperson Faith Muthambi and the traditional leaders were discussing ways on how to implement safety measures in place during the initiation season. 

She asked to be provided with a comprehensive report that includes, among other things, the number of initiates that were discharged with injuries and support given to the bereaved families. 

Muthambi also demanded to be provided with a report on consequence management to make sure that there was accountability on the matter. She said the initiation schools in the Eastern Cape need serious intervention and called on stakeholders to give necessary support to parents whose children die in the initiation schools. 

CoGTA was asked to work with law enforcement agencies to clamp down on illegal schools and it was also asked to make a provision to include the implementation plan of the Customary Initiation Bill into its annual performance plan as soon as the bill is assented into law by the president. 

The Customary Initiation Bill is currently being deliberated by the National Council of Provinces. It is expected to regulate the practice of customary initiation when passed into law. 

“Our role as Parliament does not stop with the conclusion of the legislative process, but continues in respect of monitoring and oversight. We will be continuously engaging all the relevant stakeholders as to be kept abreast of developments in the implementation of this important statute,” said Muthambi.

As the debate rages on whether initiation schools should be allowed to operate in a time of Covid-19, parents like Mabunda are anxious.

She believes that since health practitioners are allowed to go to the initiation schools they will help in making sure that the Covid-19 regulations are followed. 

Initiates return home after undergoing their rite of passage in Limpopo in 2018. The sacred rite was suspended during lockdown last year due to fears it could expose initiates to Covid-19. (Photo: Lucas Ledwaba / Mukurukuru Media)

Another parent, Hendrik Khoza from Etwatwa in Ekurhuleni also wants the initiation schools to be allowed to operate. 

“We can’t continue to postpone such an important rite,” said Khoza.

Last year the government announced that initiation schools, together with other public gatherings were prohibited under lockdown regulations put in place to curb the spread of Covid-19.

On Monday 5 April, Minister of Health Dr Zweli Mkhize announced that 52,954 people in SA have died from the virus since last year.

Despite the ban on initiations, in December the Eastern Cape allowed the practice to continue. A total of 13 initiates have been reported dead since, allegedly due to dehydration and injuries sustained during fighting.

In December the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa) announced that initiation schools would be allowed to operate. 

However, traditional leaders in different provinces except the Eastern Cape decided not to sanction the ritual. 

An initiation school practitioner who spoke on condition of anonymity said:  “Honestly we are not against what our president and our traditional leaders said. But our appeal is that they allow us to have initiation schools this year under the condition that we have at least a minimum of 50 people.” 

Ikosi Sipho Mahlangu, chairperson of the National House of Traditional Leaders (NHTL) warned against allowing initiation schools to operate during a time of Covid-19. 

“I don’t think we will have ingoma ( initiation schools) this year because of the situation we are facing as a country. There will be a problem when it comes to practising social distancing and other Covid-19 regulations, so we decided that we are not going to allow our children to go to the mountain this year,” said Mahlangu.

President Cyril Ramaphosa told the official opening of the National House of Traditional Leaders (NHTL) last month that traditional leaders need to strengthen their role as custodians of culture and warned against the abuse of cultural practices which result in the violation of human rights. 

“All the leaders from different provinces agreed that we must not put the lives of our children in danger. During the First World War, the initiation session was delayed and re-introduced again when the situation was conducive. And again in 1986, it was postponed again since our country was unstable [due to political violence],” Mahlangu said.

He also noted that medical staff who provide services at initiation schools are presently overwhelmed in dealing with the coronavirus. Mahlangu said since this ritual is very sacred and close to the ancestors, traditional leaders will have to conduct rituals to appease the ancestors.  

He was adamant that the provinces will not conduct the ritual this year, but he was not sure about the Eastern Cape.        

Cultural expert Isaac Mthethwa, a member of the Oral History Association of South Africa who specialises in traditional leadership and indigenous knowledge, also believes that the ritual must not be allowed this year.  

“I don’t think the postponement of the initiation schools undermines our culture and heritage, because when it comes to the initiation issue we have already lost the way,” said Mthethwa. 

“When we were growing up, we used to see grown-up people going to the mountain and returning home as men, because they went there while they were above 18 years of age. Initially, at the initiation school they were teaching initiates to become men, but today you see a nine-year-old going to the mountain believing that he will come home as a man, so how on earth will that happen?” Mthethwa asked. 

Mthethwa expressed concern that if initiation schools are given a green light and the country returns to level three of the national lockdown, it would mean the initiates will have to return home before finishing their session which is not acceptable traditionally. 

In his address to the NHTL last month Ramaphosa commended traditional leaders for their “management of the customary initiation process during the pandemic”.

“As hard a decision as it was to make, you agreed that we suspend initiation in all provinces when the pandemic was at its height. As a result, we were able to ensure that fewer people were exposed to the virus,” said Ramaphosa.

He said when the regulations were eased and some schools reopened, traditional leaders worked with government to create awareness around health and safety at those schools that were practising.

“Traditional leaders, through their structures and working with government, conducted rigorous awareness campaigns and monitoring, helping to ensure that illegal initiation schools were closed down. We know that the death of a single initiate is one death too many, and we must build on the improvements that have been made.” DM/MC 


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