Death toll rises as Eastern Cape initiation season claims more lives

A young man applies white clay during a traditional initiation process. Halfway through this summer's circumcision season, eight initiates have died in the Eastern Cape. File photo.
A young man applies white clay during a traditional initiation process. Halfway through this summer's circumcision season, eight initiates have died in the Eastern Cape. File photo.
Image: Mujahid Safodien/AFP

Eastern Cape chairperson of the House of Traditional Leaders, Nkosi Mwelo Nonkonyana, has called for the intensification of monitoring interventions, including more resources for police, following the death of another seven initiates.

A traditional nurse in Nqamakwe also died with his initiate when the hut they were in caught fire. 

The death has brought the number of initiates’ deaths to eight, just halfway through the summer circumcision season.

A further 13 initiates were rescued in Mbizana and are housed in a rescue centre in the Mbizana municipality. This means 34 initiates have been rescued since the beginning of the circumcision season.

Provincial co-operative governance and traditional affairs spokesperson Mamnkeli Ngam said they suspected the majority of deaths were caused by dehydration.

“We are waiting for postmortem results. The deaths happened mostly in legal  amabhuma (initiation schools),” Ngam said.

He said two initiates died in Amathole district municipality, one in the Joe Gqabi district, one in the Sarah Baartman district, and four in the Chris Hani district.

Butterworth police spokesperson Captain Jackson Manatha said Thulani Mafutha, 19, from Mgcwe Village in Nqamakwe died at a Butterworth hospital of severe burn wounds. His traditional nurse (ikhankatha), Vuyo Qwele, also died at an East London hospital from severe burns.

Manatha said Mafutha and Qwele were in their hut when it caught fire.

“They couldn’t get out and burnt. They were taken to different hospitals but died later due to their injuries,” Manatha said.

He said police have opened an inquest case.

Ngam said a provincial joint operations centre (JOC) has been activated to monitor, align resources and co-ordinate efforts of the district and metro monitoring teams during the summer traditional initiation season.

Eastern Cape Cogta MEC Xolile Nqatha said the JOC would focus on non-compliance with the provisions of the Customary Initiation Practice Act of 2005 to mitigate risks that lead to unnecessary deaths and botched circumcision.

“Issues of non-compliance include unlawful circumcision of underage boys, illegal iingcibi and amakhankatha, non-provision of water to initiates, fraudulent identification of an underage boy, and abuse and assault,” Nqatha said.

“Non-compliance with the provisions of the Act lead to the injuries and deaths of our boy children,” Nqatha added.

Nonkonyana encouraged traditional leaders to remain vigilant against an increase of illegal initiation schools in their areas. 

He said that as custodians of culture, tradition and customs, traditional leaders must be at the forefront of implementing and enforcing the Eastern Cape Customary Male Initiation Practice Act.

The Act places the responsibility for policing the custom on the shoulders of traditional leaders, who have to ensure that traditional surgeons and nurses comply. It states that anyone operating an initiation school without written approval from both his local traditional leader and the health MEC faces a R20,000 fine or a year in jail.

If any initiate dies at that school, the penalty is at least 25 years in prison. Anyone who circumcises or allows a child under the age of 18 to be circumcised is liable to be sentenced to six months’ imprisonment or a fine of R10,000.

Eastern Cape SAPS commissioner Lt-Gen Liziwe Ntshinga said police were committed to support the summer season to deal with lawlessness in the practice of the custom.

Ntshinga said a 24 hour SAPS Call Centre is available to receive calls from members of the public as well as parents who might need  help during the season.

Provincial health department statistics reveal the following:

  • During the 2018 winter initiation season, 21 boys died in the province. Sixteen were from Mpondoland;
  • In the 2018 summer season, 23 boys died; and
  • In the 2019 winter season, 17 boys died. Fourteen were from Mpondoland.

According to the provincial Cogta department, 500 boys have died at initiation schools over the past five years. In that time, 191 people have been arrested and fewer than 75 cases have been brought before court, leading to only 14 convictions.

The numbers to call for assistance on any traditional initiation-related matters are 040 608 7404 or 082 302 7760


X