Traditional leaders and government are calling for a disaster to be declared and investigations into initiate deaths after 17 youngsters lost their lives during the Eastern Cape’s summer initiation season.
On Thursday Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Zweli Mkhize announced that 21 initiates had died around the country, including two in North West and two in the Western Cape.
Nkosi Mwelo Nonkonyana, chairperson of the Eastern Cape House of Traditional Leaders, said they were “disappointed” about the death toll so far, which equals the total of last year’s summer initiation season.
As this season is still under way, traditional leaders fear more initiates could die.
During last year’s summer season 17 died in initiation schools across the province, mostly in the OR Tambo region.
Last year’s winter initiation season – between June and July – resulted in one of the lowest death rates in the past decade with 11 recorded deaths, six of which occurred in a fire at a Qumbu-based initiation school.
In June this year at least 19 initiates died in traditional initiation schools around the province.
Most of the deaths have been due to dehydration.
Nonkonyana blamed parents, saying many did not appreciate the seriousness of the rite and broke the law. “Sometimes boys are circumcised illegally and are helped to do so by their parents.
“Also, initiation schools are not adequate and some are built using plastic bags which is problematic during the summer season and results in these incidents of dehydration,” he said.
“Things are really bad this summer and we are calling on the government to declare the deaths a disaster, so that we can get more support to deal with the problem.”
Nonkonyana said traditional leaders want a dedicated specially trained police unit, with officers in every police station in the province.
The unit, he said, would work with command centres in every traditional council in the province’s villages.
“What we have realised is that the recently adopted [Customary Male Initiation Practice Act] needs to be tougher. The act has some loopholes which are being exploited by people,” he said.
“We have agreed with the National Prosecuting Authority, the police and the House of Traditional Leaders that we must meet to re-evaluate the act to make it more stringent.”
Nonkonyana said until parents, traditional surgeons and traditional nurses who break the law are arrested and prosecuted, there would be no end to the deaths.
He said they were discussing discontinuing traditional initiation in the summer season, especially in coastal areas where the heat can be unbearable.
Mamkeli Ngam, provincial cooperative governance and traditional affairs spokesperson, said they were “very disappointed” that only three people had been arrested this season.
“At least the number of arrested people should match those of initiates who have died. This means a lot still needs to be done. That is why the MEC Fikile Xasa has called for investigations into the deaths of these initiates,” he said.
“Most of these initiation deaths are suspicious, avoidable and unnecessary.”
Ngam said there was a session planned in the new year to strengthen the act, examine and close the loopholes.
“We want to ensure there is successful prosecution and that the law is enforced.
“It should be a criminal offence for a person who refuses an initiate drinking water. A criminal charge in that regard should be formulated,” he said.
Ngam said parents were also to blame for some of the deaths because they outsourced the responsibility of taking care of their children when they were at initiation schools.
“Parents should take leave to be with their children to prevent them from dying. If they are able to take leave to bury loved ones, what prevents them from taking leave to prevent the death of their loved ones?”