THE GUARDIAN, London, 4 July 2002.

Six die in South African initiations

Toll from single 'school' shows up dangers of tradition

Mungo Soggot in Johannesburg
Thursday July 4, 2002
The Guardian

The death toll at an "initiation school" outside Johannesburg has now risen to six, after a young man who returned there died, apparently after being assaulted.

The school is one of several traditional camps near Heidelberg, outside Johannesburg, where boys are supposed to be taken through their traditional rites of passage.

But over the past week the camps have highlighted the potential horrors of ritual circumcision in South Africa, where young initiates frequently suffer at the hands of drunken or incompetent traditional surgeons.

In addition to five other deaths which happened last week, 50 young men from initiation schools in the Heidelberg area were taken to hospital suffering from penis wounds or pneumonia.

A post-mortem examination found that the latest victim, Papa Mbovane, 19, died of kidney failure after being beaten with a blunt object. The other five boys died from circumcision wounds, pneumonia and assault.

Mr Mbovane's family has been quoted as saying he had left the school, but had returned after a traditional healer warned that boys risked going mad if their initiations were not completed.

The Heidelberg tragedy has attracted particular attention because the victims were allegedly assaulted and kept in freezing conditions, and because the deaths took place not in the rural hinterland, but in the industrial heartland.

Meanwhile, health officials in the Eastern Cape province yesterday said that 13 mutilated initiates had been admitted to the Umtata general hospital since the weekend.

Elsewhere, more than 100 boys have recently been admitted to hospitals in Limpopo province with septic circumcision wounds, while eight initiation schools in the province have reportedly been closed down in the past week.

In the Eastern Cape, the Umtata general hospital's acting chief medical superintendent, Dr Zola Dabula, said that of the 13 young men who had been admitted, three were severely dehydrated, and a fourth had lost his penis after it became gangrenous.

Previously, the Eastern Cape was notorious for botched circumcisions. Now it is more advanced than many other parts of the country.

One of the people at the forefront of the change in attitudes in the Eastern Cape has been the health department's Dr Mamisa Chabula, who successfully entered the male-dominated world and encouraged traditional surgeons to change their ways.

The African National Congress government in the province has recently sought to regulate ritual circumcision - no easy move for a government that has to constantly strike a balance between western and traditional practices.

The province also brought in an education programme encouraging people to have their circumcisions performed surgically at hospitals, after which they can complete the rituals necessary to satisfy tradition.

The Eastern Cape's programme appears to be paying off. At the Umtata general hospital, Dr Dabula told the South African Press Association yesterday that whereas there had previously been "very serious problems" with circumcisions in the area, "right now we haven't lost anyone".

Dr Dabula said that initiation schools were corrupt and cruel places, which were "more than anything a place of vengeance. People who got beaten to a pulp in their day are there to inflict upon others the treatment they got."

After the Heidelberg scandal erupted last week, the ministry of health in the province of Gauteng - which includes both Johannesburg and Heidelberg - announced that it was closing three initiation schools on the farm where the deaths had occurred.

According to local press reports, the schools remained open this week.

(File prepared 08 July 2002)