Parliament concerned about deaths of initiates in Eastern Cape

Thirteen died during the summer initiation season in the province

Chairperson of parliament's co-operative governance and traditional affairs portfolio committee Faith Muthambi. File photo.
Chairperson of parliament's co-operative governance and traditional affairs portfolio committee Faith Muthambi. File photo.
Image: Esa Alexander

Chairperson of parliament's co-operative governance and traditional affairs portfolio committee Faith Muthambi has expressed concern over initiation school fatalities in the Eastern Cape, where 13 initiates died during the summer season in December 2020.

Muthambi said the committee heard that fatalities had occurred due to dehydration and alleged fighting despite the department of co-operative governance and traditional affairs (Cogta) and the National House of Traditional Leaders undertaking to put safety measures in place.

“Furthermore, the Eastern Cape provincial government had a risk-adjusted plan to prevent fatalities.”

She said the committee had asked to be provided with a comprehensive report on the fatalities, including the number of initiates who were discharged with injuries and support given to bereaved families.

Muthambi said the committee was of the view that initiation schools in the province required serious intervention and that the provincial monitoring team should brief the committee about the December incidents.

Measures should be put in place to support parents whose children died at initiation schools and Cogta should work with law enforcement agencies to clamp down on illegal schools, she said.

Muthambi said the department should include the Customary Initiation Bill in its annual performance plan as soon as the bill was assented into law by the president.

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

Muthambi said on March 16 the bill was sent to the presidency to be signed into law. It aims to protect, promote and regulate initiations by providing acceptable norms and standards at provincial and national levels.

The bill also provides for the protection of life and the prevention of abuse; gives clarity on various responsibilities, roles and functions of key players in customary initiation; and makes provision for the effective regulation of initiation schools.

On parental involvement, the bill states that parents together with the child concerned should obtain a certificate from a medical practitioner, indicating whether a prospective initiate is fit to participate in the process.

The bill further states that traditional surgeons may only participate in initiation practices if they are registered and have been provided with the required consent forms.

According to laws regulating traditional circumcision and initiation in the Eastern Cape, only boys 18 years and older can undergo the rite.

During the 2019 summer initiation season, 28 boys died due to botched circumcisions in the province. No-one has been convicted for their deaths.

Eastern Cape House of Traditional Leaders chairperson Inkosi Mwelo Nonkonyana said they were disappointed and ashamed of the deaths.

Nonkonyana said 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 traditional surgeons and nurses comply. It states anyone operating an initiation school without written approval from their local traditional leader and health MEC face a R20,000 fine or one year in jail.

National House of Traditional Leaders member Inkosi Xolile Ndevu welcomed the bill and hoped when it was signed into law it would reduce the number of deaths in initiation schools.

“This bill gives us as traditional leaders more power to deal with illegal circumcision schools,” Ndevu said.

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