THE MAIL AND GUARDIAN, Johannesburg, South Africa, Monday, 8 December 2003.

Law vs tradition in circumcision debacle

Capetown, South Africa, 8 December 2003

Amid a new wave of circumcision deaths and arrests, Eastern Cape traditional leaders continue to reject the province's clampdown on illegal circumcision schools.

Bisho's department of health says seven youths have died in the past three weeks as a result of botched circumcisions; since the beginning of the year 16 youths have had to have their genitals amputated.

The latest death, according to department spokesperson Sizwe Kupelo, was in Umtata at the weekend, where a youth died of dehydration and ill-treatment -- ironically at a school licensed by the department.

The department has also in the last week "rescued" and hospitalised 97 youths from illegal schools in Pondoland and the Umtata area.

Police working with the department have arrested 30 iincibi, or traditional surgeons, and traditional nurses so far this year for operating without permission.

However, the head of the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa) in the province, Mwelo Nonkonyana, said on Monday that chiefs are "extremely unhappy" over the way the province is dealing with the issue.

Traditional leaders still hold that the Eastern Cape's legislation on circumcision, passed in 2001, is out of line with the Bill of Rights.

"We regard that act as unconstitutional because it infringes on the rights of traditional communities," he said.

"The involvement of men who are not circumcised themselves, as well as females merely because they are officials of the department of health, actually is an affront to our own culture."

The Application of Health Standards in Traditional Circumcision Act says traditional practitioners who perform the operation must have the permission of a medical officer, who must also license each circumcision school.

The Act, which provides for fines of up to R10 000, or 10 years in jail, also allows for schools to be inspected by department officials.

Nkonyana said Contralesa believes this allows women and uncircumcised men to meddle in the ritual.

If an uncircumcised man is found near an initiation school "they will detain that person and circumcise him", he said.

The problem with women is compounded by the belief in witchcraft, a fear fed by the fact that women have been found naked in the area of circumcision schools.

Traditionally such a woman would be killed "but because of the human rights thing she's detained and she's dealt with in [another] way by the people".

Male circumcision is beyond doubt a male issue, he said, just as female initiation rituals are a matter for women.

This week his eldest daughter is turning 21, and she has been undergoing a Pondo initiation.

"Even myself, though I'm a chief, I'll be beaten by the women if I'm found there."

Nonkonyana, who has in the past said he is prepared to go to jail rather than comply with the Act, said that when his eldest son and a group of 13 other youths were circumcised earlier this year, they did so at an unregistered school at the Pondo Great Place.

The actual circumcisions were carried out by a doctor with Western medical qualifications, who had himself been circumcised.

The boys all came back from the school healthy.

"We were trying to prove a point," Nonkonyana said.

He said the department's practice of closing down illegal schools and sending the youths to hospitals meant those boys would be stigmatised for life for not completing the ritual.

"If you are not circumcised through custom in the mountain, you are not regarded as a man; [you are] a social outcast of a type.

"They call them abadlezana, which means a woman who gives birth in a hospital ward. In other words, he is not a man, he is the equivalent of a woman.

"If you start, you must finish. You cannot go out unless you are finished."

He said the provincial government needs to strengthen traditional structures, support the tribal elders who are custodians of the ritual, and respect traditional leaders themselves.

"Now that the government has disapproved [of] us participating, every Tom, Dick and Harry is administering it. That is the whole point why people are dying," he said.

He called for an indaba with Eastern Cape provincial minister of health Bevan Goqwana, aimed at putting the ritual back in the hands of its proper custodians.

"We are saying, let's sit around [to talk]. We are not opposed to the idea of having proper legislation, to regulate this thing properly."

Department spokesperson Kupelo said the department has no intention of interfering with traditional customs, and is merely trying to prevent unnecessary deaths, of which there have been more than 250 since 1995.

"We don't have to fight. We want chiefs to come on board and work with us," he said.

The department has no regrets about closing illegal schools, and will continue doing so until the end of the current initiation season.

"We want them [traditional leaders] to take care of their customs, but we can't sit back and relax while people are dying." -- Sapa

(File created 9 December 2003)