As many as 23 boys undergoing traditional rites of passage to manhood – that include having their foreskin sliced off – have died during the summer initiation schools in the Eastern Cape.
The deaths were brought to light earlier this week by the “concerned” Eastern Cape provincial government.
Spokesperson Mamkeli Ngam said: “The deaths are happening in both legal and unlawful schools. Some of them complained about issues around dehydration.”
Now the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious, and Linguistic Communities (CRL Commission) wants to know the cause of the deaths.
On Wednesday the CRL Commission said it has called for an urgent meeting with MEC’s for cooperative governance and traditional affairs, social development, and health, the provincial commissioner of police as well as the House of Traditional Leaders.
At the meeting planned for next week, the CRL Commission said it wants to find out “the circumstances leading to the deaths of the initiates and, to also respond to the question of whether or not the deaths could have been prevented.”
The most common complications associated with circumcision are bleeding and infection.
Given the history of the deaths of initiates in the province, the CRL Commission said sharing strategies developed to mitigate and prevent deaths of initiates was important.
“The information to be gathered and the resolutions to be made at this meeting will enable the commission to make the necessary recommendations on this intractable matter of the deaths of initiates and what has to be done in order to preserve the culture and protect the sanctity of the lives of the initiates in the Eastern Cape,” said the CRL Commission.
Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma said she was “deeply saddened by the regrettable deaths of 23 initiates in the Eastern Cape province”.
The minister called on all role-players, especially the custodians of cultural practices working with health practitioners, to put in place the necessary preventative measures to avoid further casualties.
“Initiation is a noble African custom that represents a rite of passage into adulthood which should be characterised by celebrations, not sorrow,” said Dlamini Zuma.
“Initiation schools play an important role in cultural heritage as such they must at all material times be institutions of cultural preservation and pride.”
The minister said the practice of initiation is an age-old practice that has been conducted safely for many years.
“Collaboratively as society and government we must ensure that the lives of initiates are safeguarded as they participate in this noble customary practice,” said Dlamini Zuma.
“This calamity comes at a time when the country is confronted with surging numbers of Covid-19 infections attributed to the omicron variant which requires everyone to remain cautious and observe all the health protocols.”
The minister said she had noted that the CRL Commission will be convening a meeting with stakeholders in an effort to save lives and to avert further casualties in initiation schools.
As a principle, the CRL Commission says the “authentic traditional practice of initiation must be measured and judged by its ability to care and preserve the lives of the young initiates”.