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SPOTLIGHT

Culture, safety and medical circumcision in the Eastern Cape – its a complex matter

Culture, safety and medical circumcision in the Eastern Cape – its a complex matter
Circumcision rates in South Africa have increased dramatically over the past decade, with 62.5% of males aged 15 to 49 circumcised as of 2022. (Photo: Rodger Bosch / Spotlight)

While most male circumcisions performed in the Eastern Cape are done in the traditional manner, a significant number of medical circumcisions are performed. Siyabonga Kamnqa reports on this year’s winter initiation season in the province and the complex interplay between culture, safety and protection against HIV involved in deciding between the two types of circumcision.

There is compelling scientific evidence that voluntary male medical circumcision (VMMC) is both safe and significantly reduces a man’s risk of becoming infected with HIV. While there can also be some protection from traditional circumcision, the protective effect of medical circumcision is thought to be much greater. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended medical circumcision for HIV prevention since 2007.

Circumcision rates in South Africa have increased dramatically over the past decade. According to estimates from Thembisa, the leading mathematical model of HIV in South Africa, 62.5% of males aged 15 to 49 were circumcised as of 2022. In 2012 it stood at 38.8%. 

Experts ascribe some of the reduction in the country’s rate of new HIV infections to the massive circumcision drive over the past decade.

But the choice between medical, traditional or no circumcision is often about much more than HIV risk. For one thing, traditional circumcision has great cultural meaning for some groups.

‘From boyhood to manhood’

Spotlight visited Lwazi Mfeka at his ibhoma (traditional hut) during his last week at an initiate school in the Eastern Cape this winter. The first-year Walter Sisulu University student asked to remain anonymous for fear of victimisation, as talking openly about initiation is taboo in many rural communities. 

He said that leaving his ibhoma on his last day as an initiate is a moment that will forever be etched in his mind. Not only did this signal the end of a “challenging” three weeks at the school, but it was also a symbolic moment when he says he graduated from boyhood to manhood.

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A young man undergoing initiation in the Eastern Cape. (Photo: Rodger Bosch / Spotlight)

Mfeka said he was supposed to have undergone the ritual in December 2022, but due to a bereavement in his family, he couldn’t. 

“At varsity I was often mocked and isolated because I was still a ‘boy’. This bothered me a lot and I couldn’t wait to come here (to the mountain) and finally become a man,” he said.  

He admits he was gripped by fear in the months leading up to his initiation. 

“For starters, many young boys die while undergoing the custom and I didn’t want to add to the numbers. But, fortunately, my dad chose an ingcibi (traditional surgeon) with a good track record. I first had to get tested by a doctor for chronic illnesses such as HIV and TB, as I had to present a medical certificate to the ingcibi before being circumcised. 

“At the initiation school, everything was done according to the rules. After each cut, the spear gets sanitised to avoid any spread of infections,” Mfeka said.

Botched circumcisions

Mfeka’s fears are not without merit. In recent years, traditional male circumcision has often made headlines for all the wrong reasons, with the lives of young men lost due to botched or unhygienic circumcisions.

According to Mamnkeli Ngam, spokesperson for the Eastern Cape Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, in the 2022 winter initiation season, 11 of 10,794 boys who underwent traditional circumcision in the province died.

In the summer initiation season, 23 out of 51,601 died. 

Ngam says about 20,000 boys went into the mountains to undergo traditional circumcision this winter. 

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While most male circumcisions performed in the Eastern Cape are done in the traditional manner, there is also a significant number of medical male circumcisions being conducted. (Photo: Nasief Manie/Spotlight)

He told Spotlight that some fly-by-night ingcibis, desperate to make a quick buck, are the ones giving the custom a bad name. He says that they, assisted by the local chiefs and the police, have been clamping down on illegal initiation schools and arresting bogus traditional surgeons.

“Between 1 June and 20 July, nine bogus traditional surgeons were arrested in the Eastern Cape,” Ngam said. 

“We have been conducting safety campaigns ahead of the winter circumcision season to educate communities. Circumcising boys without parental consent [and] not having undergone medical examination to perform the procedure is against the law.”

Nkosi Mpumalanga Gwadiso, the Eastern Cape House of Traditional and Khoisan Leaders’ chairperson, told Spotlight that parents need to be involved throughout the process.

“Often, parents leave everything to the amakhankatha (traditional nurses). That’s where things go wrong. As chiefs, we always emphasise the importance of parental involvement from day one until the initiates come back home safely. 

“Some traditional nurses are the reason things go wrong because they neglect the initiates and go drinking. It is therefore the responsibility of the fathers to ensure that they visit the initiation schools regularly and monitor everything,” Gwadiso said.

While numbers vary widely and we haven’t been able to get a full picture, we understand that initiation schools can admit about 100 initiates during each of the winter and summer circumcision seasons. 

Our informal survey of several initiation camps in the former Transkei suggests the cost is typically about R300.

Between 1 June and 20 July, nine bogus traditional surgeons were arrested in the Eastern Cape. (Photo: Brian Parra / Flickr / Spotlight)

The medical alternative

While medical male circumcision is a generally available alternative to traditional circumcision, its provision in the Eastern Cape is influenced by cultural factors. For example, according to Eastern Cape Health Department spokesperson Yonela Dekeda, the department does not conduct open marketing or demand creation in the communities/public “due to cultural dynamics within the province”.

Read more in Daily Maverick: HIV and circumcision: Assessing where we are

“Medical male circumcision (MMC) services are actually confined within the health facility level. Therefore, intake depends on the walk-ins, not on demand creation or promoting of the MMC services,” Dekeda said.

“MMC is the choice of individual families. However, as the department, we are ensuring that all the designated MMC sites are well equipped with necessary MMC equipment, including training of clinicians such as medical doctors, clinical associates and professional nurses to provide quality voluntary medical male circumcision services.”

Despite the lack of promotion, some young men, such as Bandile Macetywa, have opted to go the medical route. He asked that we not use his real name for fear of victimisation from people who disapprove of his decision not to be circumcised in the traditional manner.

The 20-year-old from Cofimvaba in the Eastern Cape said he pleaded with his parents, who are staunch traditionalists, to do the custom the medical way.

“I know I disappointed my parents, especially my father, but at the end of the day it was about my safety. I was happy when they respected my decision,” he said.

However, Macetywa says he is all too aware of the discrimination that awaits him in society.

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In the Eastern Cape in 2022, 14,637 voluntary medical male circumcisions were performed, and 14,300 so far this year. (Photo: Oldgreentree / Flickr / Spotlight)

“There are already naysayers. But I’m just glad the whole process went well. For Pete’s sake, we are in 2023. People are free to choose where they get circumcised. Some people had the guts to tell me to my face that I deserved to be abducted and circumcised again the traditional way,” he said.

Macetywa believes many lives will be saved if rural communities can be educated to accept medical male circumcision.

“It is much safer, with [fewer] risks of getting infected while undergoing it. I am not saying traditional male circumcision is wrong. But why do initiates continue to die or have botched operations if things are done the right way?” 

While the department does not actively promote medical circumcision, and while Macetywa is clearly aware of being in a minority, a significant number of medical circumcisions are being conducted in the Eastern Cape.

According to Dekeda, 14,637 were performed in the province in 2022, and 14,300 so far this year.

Medical male circumcision is an elective procedure that is widely available in the public sector, often provided via NGOs. The process typically involves counselling, an assessment to check for anything that may hamper a client’s ability to be circumcised, post-operative care and follow-up visits. Clients will typically also be offered an HIV test.

VMMC in the Western Cape 

Meanwhile, the Western Cape Department of Health and Wellness, in collaboration with the City of Cape Town and the Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport, has implemented an initiation consent form as a mechanism to uphold ethics. It includes medical screening that helps minimise and mitigate potential risks. 

Western Cape Health Department spokesperson Mark van der Heever told Spotlight: “The initiation consent form is further reviewed to enable alignment to developments as these emerge. Training and capacitation of traditional surgeons is a key element to strengthening partnership following a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach.”

Van der Heever says that since 2020, 274 circumcisions have been performed by a medical officer invited by the traditional healers to do so.  

A total of 131,977 medical male circumcisions, according to Van der Heever, have been performed at Western Cape health facilities since 2013, with 13,105 performed in 2022.

The rest of the stats:

2013 – 12,581

2014 – 15,990

2015 – 14,131

2016 – 11,982

2017 – 15,127

2018 – 14,557

2019 – 18,000

2020 – 5,750 (Covid)

2021 – 10 754 (Covid)

2022 – 13,105

Van der Heever adds that between April and March 2023, medical male circumcision was reported at 130 public health sites, with 12,259 circumcisions being performed across the province. 

“The province also has two Men’s Health Clinics (in Karl Bremer and Elsies River). With the intention of increasing access to services, we are in discussions to upskill clinicians to enable service provision at health facilities. Current service provision is based on roving teams in both the metro and rural districts, which limit access to availability of the team.” DM

This article was published by Spotlight – health journalism in the public interest.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Jonathan Hemson says:

    Male initiation practices in all of our cultures embody an interplay between mistreatment and privilege. Could we rather apply a human rights perspective to these issues?

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