First arrests for Eastern Cape initiation deaths

At least four people have been arrested in the Eastern Cape following the deaths of 11 initiates barely three weeks into the initiation season.

Three traditional nurses (amakhankatha) and a traditional surgeon (ingcibi) are charged with conducting unlawful circumcisions and contravening the provincial Initiation Act, which makes it illegal to circumcise boys younger than 18 years old.

This marks the first time perpetrators have been charged under the Eastern Cape Customary Male Initiation Practice Act, which was signed into law by Premier Phumulo Masualle in December last year.

Police spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Mzukisi Fatyela said the suspects were arrested in the areas where the initiates died, namely Ngqeleni, Libode, Port St Johns and Mthatha.

“We are following leads about more people who fled after performing illegal circumcisions,” he said, adding that he could not rule out the possibility that perpetrators could be charged with murder.

Luxolo Tyali, spokesperson for the Eastern Cape National Prosecuting Authority, said: “We believe that it is a good act as it gives us more in terms of sentencing people who are found guilty.”

He said only one person was successfully prosecuted and convicted of running an illegal circumcision school in Ngqeleni, where an initiate died in 2015. The man was sentenced to 19 years in prison.

Provincial health spokesperson Sizwe Kupelo said most of the deaths were caused by dehydration and assault, while a 15-year-old initiate in Port St Johns allegedly committed suicide.

Nkosi Mwelo Nonkonyana, chairperson of the Eastern Cape House of Traditional Leaders, said the tragedy showed that there were still “criminal elements” using initiation to make a quick buck.

He said nobody would be spared from taking responsibility – including traditional leaders, police and professional nurses – if they were found to have acted in cahoots with the criminals suspected of circumcising underage initiates in the province.

Nonkonyana said he had received worrying reports that some nurses were issuing permits for underage boys wanting to be circumcised. Boys are expected to undergo a mandatory medical screening process.

He added that reports also claimed that some police were working with illegal traditional surgeons.

Mamkeli Ngam, spokesperson for the department of cooperative governance and traditional affairs, said the deaths of the initiates in illegal and legal initiation schools was tragic.

He urged chairpersons of initiation forums to monitor initiation schools and attend to cases of assault.

Under the new act, traditional leaders who are found to have neglected their duties in ensuring compliance with safe traditional circumcision standards could also face disciplinary action.

An inquiry, chaired by an independent person, would be conducted and sanctions imposed.

In the December 2016 initiation season, at least 29 initiates died in the province.

In the June initiation season this year, a total of 11 initiates died, of which six perished when their initiation school huts caught fire.