Customary Initiation Bill [B7-2018]: stakeholder engagement, with Deputy Minister

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Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs

04 September 2018
Chairperson: Mr M Mdakane (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Committee heard submissions from traditional leaders; the Department of Basic Education; and the Department of Arts and Culture as part of public hearings on the Customary Initiation Bill.

 Amongst other provisions, the Bill provided for the effective regulation of customary initiation school practices, the establishment of a National Initiation Oversight Committee, and Provincial Initiation Coordinating Committees.

The Bill had been tabled against a backdrop of persistent injury and death of scores of young male initiates at traditional initiation schools. Other challenges included the mushrooming of illegal initiation schools due to the rampant commercialisation of the practice, and increasing gangster related violent crime such as the kidnapping of initiates.

In Gauteng, the situation had become so alarming that the Cultural and Linguistic Rights Commission had decided to suspend the practice.

The Bill was also an attempt to establish norms and standards to be followed by role players including provincial governments, metropolitan councils, municipalities, traditional leaders, traditional surgeons, medical practitioners, parents and initiates, before, during and after traditional initiation.

Several issues came up during the discussion, including:

(a) The lack of spaces in urban areas for the ritual slaughter of animals and other activities associated with the initiation season.
(b) The ongoing challenge to guard against the disruption of the school calendar by the initiation season, especially during the Matric year.
(c) Attempts to supplement the curriculum of traditional teaching at initiation schools with a value-based learning intervention aimed at uniting South Africans in spite of the country’s rich cultural diversity.
(d) The perennial debate about the right relationship between medical doctors and traditional surgeons in traditional circumcisions.
(e) The ongoing argument over the position, participation and/or exclusion of women and non-graduates of traditional initiation schools in the administration of the practice.

Meeting report

Opening remarks

The Chairperson welcomed everyone, especially the Deputy Minister of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Mr Obed Bapela, and thanked him for taking the time to avail himself. Everyone was looking forward to a fruitful exchange of views.  

Submission by the National House of Traditional Leaders (NHTL)

Inkosi Sipho Mahlangu, Chairperson, NHTL said his organisation welcomed the Bill and hoped that after being passed into law, it would ensure that different role players act together towards initiation practices that were free of injury, death, violent crime, corruption and other evils. Although the NHTL agreed with most of the Bill’s features, there were some areas in the legislation which traditional leaders wished to take up with Parliament.

Inkosi Mahlangu highlighted the following clauses as needing further deliberation and refinement in the Bill:

 Clause 1

  • definitions of “abduction” and “kidnapping” were not in line with traditional leaders’ understanding of the terms
  • definition of “circumcision”: traditional leaders understood the term to refer to males, not females as defined in the Bill
  • definition of “curriculum”: traditional leaders were of the view that the term should not be defined in the Bill

Clause 2

  • the minimum age of 40 years set for traditional surgeons and medical practitioners should remain, but allow for exceptional cases where younger, well proven and competent practitioners could be recommended by persons of authority in traditional initiation practice

Clause 6

  • it should be a basic requirement that members of the National Initiation Oversight Committee must have themselves undergone traditional initiation

Clause 11

  • since the Western Cape had no House of Traditional Leadership, members of the Khoi-San Council should form part of the traditional leadership component of the Provincial Initiation Coordinating Council (PICC) in the province

Clause 18 (3) (a) and (b)

  • the determination of initiation school fees should not be done using a “one size fits all” approach
  • since government funds male medical circumcision, traditional initiation must also be funded by government, with some of the money used to cover initiation school fees

Clause 22 (1) (b)

  • the option of “not being circumcised at all” should be deleted from the Bill

Clause 24 (2) (b)

  • the supervision of experienced traditional surgeons by medical doctors was impractical; the Department of Health should instead undertake the training of traditional surgeons, especially in the ability to analyse medical reports

Clause 28 (2)

  • the Bill must recommend a lower minimum age of initiation of at least 12 years, or in accordance with the culture in question
  • the Children’s Act should be amended to reflect the lowered minimum age of initiation

Clause 29 (3) (a)

  • no one should prescribe what was taught at initiation schools as the teachings were sacred and secret, and all clauses referring to the inclusion of a curriculum of teaching should be scrapped from the Bill


Mr E Mthethwa (ANC) asked Inkosi Mahlangu to comment whether it was possible to have schools dedicated to circumcision only and others to initiation only.

 Mr K Mileham (DA) noted that the Bill did not prescribe the content of the curriculum at initiation schools but rather suggested that it be supplemented by the teaching of social values common to all South Africans. He reminded the meeting that the Bill prohibited the teaching of values promoting discrimination, prejudice or bias – values which were contrary to those enshrined in the Constitution.

On medical doctors, Mr Mileham accepted that the “sacred and secret” nature of the traditional initiation custom excluded the presence of medical doctors, but argued strongly that medical doctors should be allowed to attend and participate in the surgical part of the process. In support, he cited numerous reports of approved traditional surgeons using unsterilised surgical instruments on successive initiates, which had resulted in the “butchering” and/or death of scores of young men.

Mr X Ngwezi (ANC) asked for clarity on bogus traditional leaders issuing out initiation school permits. Which areas of South Africa were experiencing this phenomenon?

Mr J Dube (ANC) also asked for clarity on the Committee’s position regarding the insistence by some communities that women and non-graduates of initiation should be excluded from participating in community forums around initiation. In some cases, communities made it a condition that police officers investigating initiation school related crime should have undergone traditional initiation themselves.

In his response to Inkosi Mahlangu, the Chairperson warned against seeing culture as a static concept and the tendency of conflating the country’s various traditional kingdoms with South Africa as a constitutional republic. Customary law and practice could not supersede the Constitution. He reminded stakeholders that the basic purpose of the Bill was to protect the lives of young persons during initiation, which was something traditional authorities had failed to do. This was the basic duty of the state in all countries of the world. The Chairperson strongly emphasised that the Bill was a general law of application and should not be “tribalised”.

The Deputy Minister echoed the Chairperson’s remarks on the primary purpose of the Bill being the protection of the right to life as enshrined in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights.
On the issue of the curriculum, he agreed with Mr Mileham that the Bill was not prescriptive. Any number of subjects could be added to the traditional teachings at initiation schools, including nation building; social cohesion; respect for the rights of women and children; the philosophy of Ubuntu, and others.

The Deputy Minister observed that highly respected custodians of culture like the Eastern Cape’s Chief Ngangomhlaba Matanzima had expressed concern about the serious decline of teaching at initiation schools, arguing that this decline could explain growing reports of initiates engaging in socially deviant behaviour after returning from initiation school.
On medical doctors, he did not wish to prescribe except to say that culture was not static. Therefore, in line with the aim to save lives, it was only logical to expect that the best methods available towards realising that goal would be adopted.

Response by Traditional Leaders

In response, Inkosi Malesela Dikgale, Chairperson, Limpopo House of Traditional Leaders said challenges which plagued traditional initiation actually originated from a failure of planning at community level. In Limpopo, traditional leaders were heavily involved in the organisation of initiation schools, far in advance of the initiation season. Communities in the province regarded traditional leaders as the sole custodians of initiation and a traditional leader was held personally responsible for the safety of all initiates under his jurisdiction. No one was allowed to open an initiation school without the permission of the local traditional leadership structure.

Inkosi Dikgale urged the Committee to follow the example of his province and lower the legal minimum age of initiation to 12 years. 12-year-old boys were far easier to discipline and control than eighteen-year olds. Inkosi Dikgale was convinced this was the main reason why Limpopo’s initiation schools were virtually free of death and injury (over 45 000 boys were initiated in 2018).

In Limpopo medical doctors and the police were an integral part of the whole initiation process, but the preference was for those who had themselves undergone the same ordeal, and therefore had a deeper understanding of the practice. Inkosi Dikgale also suggested that the Committee consider the possibility of increasing the initiation period from three weeks to six weeks to ensure that the cognitive impact of the experience on the boys was maximised. 

Inkosi Mahlangu agreed that culture was not static, but also pointed out that traditional leaders were not the owners of culture but only custodians of it. Cultural change should be driven by the community. Even if a traditional leader believed that certain traditions should change in response to new conditions, imposing that change on the community could provoke resistance.

In response to the Chairperson’s comments on “tribalisation”, Inkosi Mahlangu said traditional leaders were fully aware of the principle of unity in diversity but he insisted that differences should be respected. There were still those who valued tribal identity above the identity of being a South African citizen.

To Mr Mileham, he replied that just as one needed to fulfil certain basic requirements in order to become a Member of Parliament, the same applied at initiation schools. That could hardly be called discrimination.

Inkosi Mahlangu urged that traditional leaders in the Eastern Cape should stand up and champion the admission of medical doctors as on-site participants or observers during surgical operations at initiation schools. He claimed that in the Eastern Cape, the highest number of injury and death occurred amongst those who had undergone medical circumcision before going on to traditional initiation schools.

Inkosi Mahlangu said he believed that these initiates were being “killed” deliberately through sustained abuse, precisely because of having made the choice of medical circumcision. It was time that traditional leaders in the province began acting against these practices and like in Limpopo, accept responsibility for deaths.

He confirmed that bogus traditional leaders were indeed rife in Gauteng, Mpumalanga, and to a certain extent Limpopo. He cited at least two cases where bogus kings were giving initiation school permits (and pieces of land) for cash, and apparently with the connivance of provincial and local authorities.

On incompetent traditional surgeons, the examples cited by Mr Mileham were a thing of the past. He also denied that the teachings during initiation were biased or discriminatory.

To Mr Mthethwa’s “difficult” question regarding the possibility of having separate circumcision-only and initiation-only schools, Inkosi Mahlangu said in provinces where this was already happening, the arrangement seemed to be working well, while in others it was a non-starter.

Submission by the Department of Basic Education (DBE)

Mr Paseka Njobe, Director: School Safety, DBE, said his Department welcomed the Bill, and among its most appealing features he cited the following:

  • establishment of Provincial Initiation Coordinating Committees (PICCs)
  • inclusion of provincial Education Departments in the Technical Support Team
  • instruction that initiation seasons be held during relevant provincial school holidays and not interfere or overlap with official school terms
  • awareness campaigns contemplated by the Bill

However, the DBE said the Bill had areas in need of strengthening, and the following were suggested:

  • local communities in which initiation took place should be considered and acknowledged as important stakeholders
  • the bill should regulate the period for the wearing of attire associated with initiation graduates, which was different from school uniforms
  • the Bill should explicitly state that corporal punishment at initiation schools was illegal
  • the Bill should reflect opinion that some initiate deaths may have been caused by injuries sustained during severe beatings
  • the Bill should outlaw the deviant behaviour of initiation graduates such as the holding of “men’s imbizos/gatherings” during school hours
  • initiation should not disrupt the Matric Year and prospective initiates in Matric should opt for a post matric-exam initiation period rather than one during the school year


As a Zulu himself, Mr Ngwezi said he could definitely relate with how culture sometimes trumped education in communities where culture was a strong marker of identity. He confessed that he was not clear in his mind on how to strike a balance between the two, except to suggest that the best way forward could be for all local community stakeholders to negotiate among themselves the best solution for that particular area. 

The Deputy Minister said the submission had raised important issues such as the lack of spaces in urban areas for the ritual slaughter of animals during initiation season. He suggested that the South African Local Government Association (SALGA) should be part of the solution on this issue.

The Deputy Minister also posed the question of who should be responsible for issuing initiation school permits in urban areas. Should it be the Mayor or some other structure outside of local government? 

Regarding the disruption of the school calendar by the initiation season, the Deputy Minister cited the case of a group of girls in Mpumalanga who had spent two to three months away from school undergoing initiation. Despite pleas from the girls’ parents, the Department of Traditional Affairs was unable to intervene because the girls claimed that the head of the school had told initiates that failure to complete initiation would invite bad luck and death. 

Despite the disruption caused by initiation school, the girls managed to pass at the end of the year, due to a programme designed to help learners catch up with the school calendar. The Deputy Minister said the case was apparently the norm in Mpumalanga. He wanted to know if that was the same in other provinces, and if not, how could it be accommodated in a law of general application such as the Bill under discussion?

Mr Mthethwa wanted clarity on reports that in some cases graduates of initiation school had refused being taught by female teachers or male teachers who had not undergone traditional initiation. How serious was this problem?

Response by DBE

Mr Njobe said of all the challenges facing the entire basic education sector, ill-discipline by initiation graduates was not among the most critical, simply because only a minority of the learner population was of initiation age. Even among the graduates of initiation school, the problem of ill-discipline was not as bad as it once was a decade ago.  

On disruptions experienced by the schooling system as a consequence of the annual initiation season, Mr Njobe agreed that local solutions could be useful in balancing culture and schooling, but he was not certain how those local agreements could be standardised in a law of general application.

In reply to the Deputy Minister’s question on girl initiation in Mpumalanga, Mr Njobe did not think it was feasible for learners to miss two to three months of school.  

On the minimum age of initiation, Mr Njobe’s view was that instead of using a specific number of years, a general principle could be the most effective way of getting consensus on this matter. The idea of an “initiation phase” could be a step in that direction. 

Submission by Department of Arts and Culture (DAC)

Mr Phakamani Mthembu, Director: Living Heritage, DAC said his Department was in full support of the Bill as it promoted an important customary practice, while simultaneously ensuring that the practice was observed within the confines of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. The Bill also paid particular attention to the protection of children against abuse and ensured that the health of the young was safeguarded at all times.

However, Mr Mthembu said a number of important urbanisation related issues had been left out of the Bill. These included the following:

  • indigenous knowledge in land use management in urban and peri-urban areas
  • spaces for slaughtering and initiation practices should be part of the future planning of human settlements. Families were forced to slaughter in small yards which could pose serious community health hazards
  • no ablution facilities and water infrastructure to conduct initiation practices in urban areas

Mr Mthembu also commented on some of the Bill’s clauses which the DAC felt could benefit from further deliberation. Firstly, Clause 2(4) required a medical practitioner involved in the initiation process to be over 40 years and also to be a graduate of traditional initiation school.

Considering the word “involved” in its ordinary meaning, and given the fact that a number of initiates chose to undergo medical circumcision in hospitals and doctor’s surgeries before joining traditional initiation schools, the doctor performing the operation could therefore be said to be “involved” in the initiation process.

In addition, some medical practitioners were younger than 40 years; were trained surgeons, but not graduates of traditional initiation schools. Perhaps, the DAC submission argued, the above requirements could be considered onerous.

Secondly, the initiates normally brought along some money (around R80) for the traditional surgeon, as a token of appreciation. Families also delivered food for the initiates from time to time. Mr Mthembu argued that it was too much of the Bill to expect traditional initiation schools to keep records of income and expenditure, given the short duration of the initiation process.

Lastly, on the curriculum, the DAC’s position was that as long as the “sacred and secret” nature of the traditional initiation custom was not violated, the idea of supplementing the teaching with socially relevant and progressive material was welcome. 


Referring to Clause 2(4), Mr Mthethwa asked whether the DAC could be comfortable with a relaxation of the minimum age of 40 years for younger, qualified medical practitioners, in exchange for the retention of the condition that that the practitioner be a graduate of initiation school. 

Mr Mileham said he understood the call for municipalities to create spaces for ritual slaughter and traditional initiation activities in urban areas, but he argued that those concerns lay outside the ambit of the Bill.

Response from DAC                                                                                                         
Mr Mthembu responded that his submission was solely about medical practitioners and did not address traditional surgeons.
He agreed with Mr Mileham that the Bill could not address problems caused by urban planners, but the Bill obliged municipalities to provide certain services at places which did not actually exist, hence he had raised the issue as a potential weakness in the Bill.

Mr Mileham said he was not aware of any place in the Bill where municipalities were placed under obligation to provide services.

Mr A Masondo (ANC) responded by asking Committee Members not to go into detail, but rather to note the various points made in Mr Mthembu’s submission.

The Deputy Minister said he agreed with Mr Masondo that detailed analysis at this point was unnecessary. He could recall a clause such as the one referred to by Mr Mthembu. He was convinced that it was indeed part of the Bill.

Mr Mthembu responded that the relevant clause was Clause 15 (1).

The Chairperson called a halt to the discussion. The Bill was still under construction and needed a lot of panel beating. In the coming weeks the Committee would continue to engage with more stakeholders, to get as much input as possible.
He thanked everyone for participating.

The meeting was adjourned.

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