Traditional initiation has become nothing more than a glorified annual butchering of young men and this makes all of us accomplices to murder. The secrecy around this crime must be lifted so that the victims are not denied their human rights or treated as mere statistics. Those responsible should be held accountable.

By Mbali Mthembu and Lezeth Khoza

The National Men’s Forum (NMF) a men’s rights organisation, has called for the removal of what it calls a “veil of steel secrecy” around the deaths of boys at the traditional initiation schools.

The NMF alleges that 20 boys have died in the Eastern Cape alone this winter. NMF Secretary Rev George Ngwenya said the secrecy makes all South Africans accomplices to the serial killing of these young men. He said, the secrecy infringes their human dignity and denies them justice.

“It reduces them to mere statistics and ensures that those responsible are never held accountable. Our hearts are bleeding, just like those of the families who lost 20 precious lives of innocent boys in the Eastern Cape this winter. This is inexcusable. These children die just for being boys. The whole  society has accepted gender based violence against boy children.

What’s worse, these children die unnecessarily from preventable causes. For instance, we are told that, the first three of these boys, two cousins and their best friend, burned to death in their initiation hut in Mdantsane, Buffalo City, on June 20,” Ngwenya said.

The Telegram was unable to verify the NMF claims as government officials and Chapter 9 institutions responsible for this matter simply ignored numerous requests for information. 

Richard Mkholo of the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL Commission) has promised to release a statement on this matter since Sunday but at the time of going to press (Saturday), he had still not shared that statement with us.

The Eastern Cape Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Ecogta) spokesperson Mamnkeli Ngam also promised a response Wednesday but to no avail.

The Cape Dispatch, in July reported that; “the number of young men who have died during the traditional winter initiation season in the Eastern Cape has increased from nine to 17 in the past seven days.”

In January, the Sunday World reported that more than 700 initiates have died in the past 10 years in Eastern Cape, quoting the CRL Commission. The report further said that “nearly 80 boys and young men have died, 30 over a single weekend, and close to 300 have been hospitalised this year in South Africa from injuries sustained during traditional circumcision procedures.”

Experts say the practice includes circumcision which is just one component of the full initiation ritual. The custom is predominantly practiced by the Xhosa and Ndebele communities as a preparation for young men to enter manhood.

Particulars of the ritual vary with region and community, but it is universally a sacred tradition shrouded in secrecy. Details are not readily discussed in public and the tradition is regarded with the utmost respect.

Ngwenya says many young men would miss school because of this traditional initiation and this is met with minimal concern.

“Even in death, they are never humans being but just statistics. These tragic deaths are kept a secret, the families can’t even mourn, they receive no counselling from anyone. This society just doesn’t care for these boys or their families,”

Ngwenya has called for accountability saying government must treat crime as crime no matter the circumstances. He also said it was time that the government and the society did more to protect the boy child.

“Institutions like Human Rights and the Commission for Gender Equality must now step up and protect our children. This continuous inability to enforce the country’s laws or hold perpetrators of botched circumcisions to account, the lack of oversight of the practice, and the inability of the government to intervene, have just gone too far,” he said.

Ngwenya said we cannot continue to let children die in the name of tradition. Fears of interfering merging culture with modern practice of circumcision houses must end.

“We are failing to safeguard initiates and their human rights but we readily accept the annual glorified butchering of young men.

 “All of us as a society must take a stand as a matter of urgency. The deaths of so many children in one session call upon all of us to act. This matter cannot be left to the so-called authorities alone,” Ngwenya said.

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