Initiate deaths cause alarm despite decrease
Initiation season ended this week after at least 16 young men died in Eastern Cape initiation schools.
The year-on-year death toll for the summer initiation season has decreased dramatically from 46 deaths in 2015 and 29 deaths in 2016.
However, this summer’s death toll is an increase from this year’s winter initiation season, in which 11 initiates died in July.
Provincial cooperative governance and traditional affairs MEC Fikile Xasa told City Press the traditional nurses and surgeons responsible for the deaths would be prosecuted. He said parents around the province opened at least 59 criminal cases against traditional surgeons (ingcibi) and nurses (amakankatha).
The cases opened included assault, murder, attempted murder and contravening the province’s new initiation laws.
At least 19 people have been arrested so far.
“We are deeply concerned about the deaths. We lost  boys in OR Tambo district; two in Alfred Nzo; one in Joe Gqabi; two in Amathole; and one in Chris Hani.
“We are implementing the law which aims to prevent deaths and make sure boys are not abused at initiation schools,” Xasa said.
He said some initiates died after being prevented from taking medication at initiation schools. Taking antiretroviral drugs or asthma medication, for instance, is regarded as taboo, Xasa said, adding that if an initiate takes Western medicine at an initiation school he is stigmatised and castigated by his peers.
“We need to strengthen our campaigns and deal with these issues, as well as misconceptions such as not giving initiates water during the first days after the [circumcision] procedure, because one of the biggest killers here is dehydration. “[We need to] force people to give them water and allow them to take their medication,” he said.
An estimated 19 000 initiates underwent traditional initiation this past month, but some ingcibi continued to break the law and initiate boys younger than 18.
Xasa said he would hold up good ingcibi as an example to those who broke the law or neglected their duties.
Qaqambile Siyongwana (46) runs the Siyongwana Initiation School in Silverton village, outside Mthatha. In his 10 years of practice, he has circumcised thousands of boys – 65 this summer alone – and has never lost an initiate. His secret? Discipline.
He decided to continue the work of his late father, who was a traditional surgeon, after two boys in the rugby team Siyongwana coached died after botched circumcisions in 2006.
“I was so upset that they could be killed by a traditional practice that was meant to build them and mould them as young men. My father had already taught me everything, so I decided to be a traditional surgeon to save boys from dying,” he said.
Siyongwana said he religiously follows up to see how his initiates are healing, unlike many other ingcibi. If he cannot visit personally, he checks with his five amakankatha every 30 minutes by phone. Experienced men, the amakankatha are required to stay with the initiates at all times.
“In my initiation school you will not even find a cigarette butt. You won’t find a single beer bottle or see people smoking dagga and drugs. This is an initiation school where nonsense is not tolerated,” Siyongwana said.
“We don’t allow people to come from the village drunk and use the initiation school as a hang-out spot and assault initiates. We are very strict on that. Also, no one is allowed to touch these initiates except myself and these traditional nurses.
“In most cases you find a man, just because he was circumcised, demanding to treat initiates. That we don’t allow.”
Xasa said his department planned to use Siyongwana’s initiation school as a model during workshops and campaigns next year.
Chief Mwelo Nonkonyana, chairman of the Eastern Cape House of Traditional Leaders, said they were “devastated” about this summer’s deaths.
“We have realised there are loopholes that we need to address with our government. One of them is restoring full powers of traditional leaders.
“We want a Constitution that will bestow powers on traditional leaders, enabling them to govern. Traditional courts must be empowered to deal with the people who circumcise boys illegally,” Nonkonyana said.