Parliament has called on the National House of Traditional Leaders to investigate the deaths of 21 initiates in the Eastern Cape and for the body to investigate whether there was a need to continue with the ritual in the changing climate.
Yesterday the portfolio committee on cooperative governance and traditional affairs (Cogta) expressed sadness at the death of the 21 boys at initiation schools in the Eastern Cape. Many died of dehydration.
Committee chairperson Faith Muthambi said: “The committee condemns the deaths of the boys in strongest terms as it took place due to negligent application of restriction of water to the initiates on grounds of culture.
“This could have been avoided if traditional practices, such as water restrictions to initiates before and after the initiation, can be reviewed from time to time to ensure that if they threaten the lives of the initiates in the fast-changing weather conditions, they are discontinued.
“The heart-breaking deaths happened at a time when families are preparing to be together for the festive season. We are extending our heartfelt condolences to the families and friends of these boys,” Muthambi said.
The Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities has imposed a ban on summer initiations in the Eastern Cape.
However, the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa is opposed to the ban, while the provincial Cogta MEC, Xolile Nqatha, was shocked by the commission’s unilateral decision to shut down initiation schools without consulting the relevant stakeholders.
Although against the initiative to prevent more deaths, the traditional leaders’ body had failed to come up with solutions to initiation-related deaths and injuries since its inception in 1987.
Despite calls for the ritual to evolve with the times, traditional leaders in the Eastern Cape have refused to change the custom, arguing that it must remain as it was.
Traditional leaders have been unable to stop illegal initiations, associated surgeons (ingcibi) and male nurses (amakhankatha), who neglect and abuse initiates.
The commission has closed initiation schools for the remainder of the festive season.
It acknowledged that initiation was highly valued as it contributed to the rite of passage of young men to adulthood and served to inculcate the values of Ubuntu – respect, humility, hard work, defence of the community and family.
But it said it was dismayed that there were instances where the practice robbed families and communities of young people, who died or suffered genital amputation.
A commission statement said: “The initiates’ deaths are clearly a violation of the sanctity of human life. The true and authentic traditional practice of initiation must be measured and judged by its ability to care for and preserve the lives of the young initiates.
“The deaths and amputations suffered by these young men can never be tolerated, especially considering the fact that during the same period last year about 17 boys lost their lives.”
Eastern Cape MEC for health Sindiswa Gomba has despatched a team of medical practitioners to initiation schools to treat initiates who are sick due to dehydration.
The Eastern Cape deaths mostly occurred in the Pondoland region, where initiation was not traditionally practised.
In many cases male nurses told the initiates not to drink water as a way to quicken the healing of the circumcision wound. However, many of the boys became dehydrated and developed complications.
The portfolio committee planned to invite the Congress of Traditional Leaders to parliament next year to find solutions.