Follow-up meeting with Eastern Cape Provincial COGTA on 2020 initiation fatalities; with Deputy Minister

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Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs

05 August 2021
Chairperson: Ms F Muthambi (ANC)
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Meeting Summary


30 Mar 2021

Meeting with Department of Traditional Affairs & NHTL on initiation matters

The Portfolio Committee convened for a follow-up meeting with the Eastern Cape Provincial Department of Cooperative Governance, Human Settlements and Traditional Affairs on the December 2020 male initiation season. Matters that arose were highlighted from a previous meeting where a decision had been taken that an invitation would be extended to various sectors, deemed as critical stakeholders in the male cultural initiation rituals. The reported numbers showed that majority of the initiates has undergone the process in legal initiation schools while others opted for illegal initiation schools. From the reported numbers 39 initiates had been admitted to hospital with four penile amputations and 13 fatalities. Cases of this nature were, however, not being brought to justice as there was either a lack of information, family members dismissing cases and the lack of a dedicated court which would specifically deal with matters of this nature. It was highlighted that remarkable progress had been made in terms of limiting injuries and the surge of illegal initiation schools, however, these schools remain hidden and the actual number of those in operation is unknown. Traditional leaders remained a 100% involved in the decision-making processes but the availability of resources remained a stumbling block in fully exercising control over the initiation process.

Meeting report

Mr Vuyo Stofile, a representative from the Eastern Cape House of Traditional Leaders, reported that a total of 10 747 initiates had undergone traditional circumcision in the Eastern Cape. More than 7 000 had undergone lawful initiation, with the remainder having attended illegal initiation schools. From the above recorded, 39 boys had been admitted to hospital with four penile amputations and 13 fatalities.

The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) reported that cases had emanated from certain areas of the Eastern Cape. One case had been withdrawn after it had been discovered that the deceased had succumbed from COVID-19 complications.

Most cases had been withdrawn by family members and that this seriously hampered the course of justice for guilty parties.

The South African Police Service (SAPS) informed the Committee that most cases did not reach the courts due to a lack of information. He mentioned the irresponsible behaviour of parents and legal guardians who either withdraw cases or do not provide information on who had conducted the illegal initiations. He also lamented what he had called “the mediocrity” of some actions and wilful ignorance.

He informed the Committee that a dedicated detective had been assigned to monitor all cases that had resulted from botched illegal initiations. However, the Eastern Cape had no dedicated laboratory and all forensic evidence had either been sent to Durban or Cape Town for analysis.


Mr Obed Bapela, Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Deputy Minister, noted that when he assumed office, one of the tasks he had been given had been to bring down the number of fatalities. In 2010, fatalities stood at 62 with 600 casualties. This number peaked at 76 and 577 for the year 2012 and 67 500 for the 2013. Since the year 2014, there had been a marked decrease with continuous awareness campaigns aimed at decreasing fatalities and casualties.

The Chairperson said that the meeting had been a follow-up on matters that arose from the meeting that took place between the Committee and the Provincial Department on the 30th of March 2021 which focused on the December 2020 initiation fatalities. In that meeting, a decision had been taken that an invitation must be extended to the Eastern Cape Provincial Initiation Task Team, the National Prosecuting Authority, the South African Police Service, and the Provincial Department of Health to participate in a follow-up engagement as they were among the critical stakeholders in the male cultural initiation rituals. The meeting detailed that any interventions into the initiation crisis should be multi-sectoral in nature.

According to the current Disaster Management Regulations, male customary initiation had been prohibited as this was part of government’s precautionary measures to limit the spread of COVID-19. When this prohibition had been in full force, there had been zero initiation-related fatalities in the country including hotspot provinces such as the Eastern Cape.

The Committee noted that there was an observed changed when some traditional structures, mostly from the Eastern Cape, persuaded government to lift the ban as some traditional communities had been intent on resuming the practice even at the risk of contravening the regulations. During previous engagements on the matter, the Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs had indicated that the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) had been open to accommodating the Eastern Cape, provided that those calling for the lifting of the ban should also be prepared to take responsibility and be held accountable should initiates suffer harm.

The Committee had been saddened that when the Eastern Cape had been allowed to proceed with the December 2020 initiation season, 13 initiates lost their lives, four suffered amputations and 39 had been hospitalised.

Mr K Ceza (EFF) pronounced that the EFF’s position has been for swift action to be taken against those found to be foul of the law. He noted South African's were preoccupied with timeframes of success and lamented that society in general continued to be bullied by these societal pressures.

He touched on the cultural jokes between Swedes and Norwegians and said children should not be bullied. He lamented over the general cultural intolerance and added that he did not have a solution on how to deal with such issues. He further added that 14 year olds had no legal capacity to consent to ritual initiation and that consent remained the purview of parents and or legal guardians. These stipulations had been encoded into law, with other stipulations that included a provision that traditional surgeons and nurses should have at least five years of experience.

He mentioned that it was common knowledge that unlawful initiation schools had been awash with incidences of dehydration and respiratory diseases. He recalled that Inkosi Mhaule had recounted the Pedi traditional circumcision that had not experienced such horrors and added that lessons should be learned from those who had not experienced or permitted any atrocities. He said that these experiences should be used as benchmarks.

He mentioned that the actions by parents must be scrutinised more carefully. He also wanted to ascertain why parents could not take their children to a traditional healer.

Mr Ceza further touched on the environmental health protection afforded to initiates, with particular emphasis on safe sustenance, sterile environment, and environmentally responsible treatment of medical and general waste.

Ms D Direko (ANC) said that when one looked at the Eastern Cape, it continued to be the province that recorded the highest number of illegal initiation schools (300+). She wanted to ascertain how the province intended to deal with the proliferation of illegal schools that contributed to most fatalities.

She also wanted to know which strategies had been implemented to curb deaths and to hold culprits to account. She wondered aloud on how difficult it could possibly be to trace illegal initiation schools and whether awareness campaigns had been successful.

She sought for clarity on why one of the deaths at Heaven Hill had been classified as unknown, no post-mortem had been available for the case and what was being done to prevent parents from withdrawing cases. She also touched on gangsterism, and other nefarious activities being conducted on the premises of initiation schools whether legal or illegal. She highlighted that at one initiation school an initiate had even been shot.

She asked whether initiation schools received assistance in environmental health from the local municipalities.  

Mr B Hadebe (ANC) asked for a legal definition of illegal initiation schools.

Mr G Mpumza (ANC) said that it had been unfortunate that the Committee had not received a detailed report on the consequence management arrived at, that pertained to the previous (2020) circumcision season in the Eastern Cape.

He added that the report had highlighted the cases currently under inquest and those cases that had been undetected. He recalled that the brigadier had also alluded to the mediocrity he had experienced.

Mr Mpumza indicated that he remained focused on the proliferation of illegal initiation schools through what he had deemed “the creeping commercialisation of the sacred ritual of manhood”. The proliferation of bogus traditional surgeons, as well as nurses and the high number of illegal schools had made significant inroads, especially during the extent of the lockdown as many boys would then turn to these illegal schools. He called for more awareness around the demystification of some of the sacred rituals that pertained to traditional circumcision.

He also wanted to know from the Department, the National House of Traditional lead Leadership (NHTL) and other role-players on how they had accounted for the proliferation of illegal initiation schools. He recalled one incident where a initiate had wounds near his hands and how the injuries were not consistent with the initiation process. He also wondered why the report that had been submitted to the Portfolio Committee had not included consequence management processes for the 2020 initiation season.

The Chairperson said that most of her questions had already been posed by Members and that she had been glad that the presentations had touched on the statistics from previous years. She had, however, expected the same to be done for December 2019 when 28 deaths have been recorded in the Eastern Cape. She said that it had been very worrying that no apprehension of suspects had occurred, especially since the suspects could not be determined and the victims’ family withdrew the cases.

She mentioned that there had been attempts by the provincial government to prevent these cases from being withdrawn and wondered what had happened to the process. She recalled the name of one illegal surgeon with the name of “Dumsie” who nobody apparently knew where he stayed, yet people allowed themselves to be cut by this person. She wanted to know why these things had happened.

Inkosi Xolile Ndevu, National House of Traditional Leaders (NHTL) Member, said he appreciated that the Eastern Cape had submitted a risk-adjusted strategy on initiation schools. He understood that deaths had still occurred, however, remarkable progress had been made. He confirmed that traditional leaders remained a 100% involved in the decision-making processes and the fact remained that traditional leaders did not have the available resources to fully exercise control over the initiation process. This has allowed for the proliferation of illegal initiation schools with caution thrown to the wind. Resources from the Department of health have been forthcoming as well as from civil society organisations, however, the Department had been found wanting where resources had been concerned.

He proposed that at national level, a chief directorate and at provincial level, a directorate, should be implemented that would solely focus on initiations. He indicated that there had been an overemphasis on theory and very little action and indicated that the realities on the ground differed starkly with the theory. He recalled that during the 2012/2013 financial year, the Department of Health had deployed R 20 million to the programme and that this had assisted greatly in ensuring that initiates received proper care. During that season, only seven deaths had been recorded and this indicated the need for continuous resource allocation.

Inkosi L Mavuso said he had noted that what the deputy minister had raised about the challenges in Pondoland. He mentioned that eight of the initiates that had died came from the Chris Hani region and deaths had declined overall. This was mainly as a result of the interventions by the National House of Traditional Leaders as well as the NGOs that had assisted in this regard.

He highlighted that the traditional leaders had been given a lot of responsibilities to perform and that this had not always been backed up by the necessary resources. The Committee had also been informed that the Inkosi had 35 villages to monitor, and this created a challenge.

Responding to why 300 illegal initiation schools that had not been identified and closed down, he informed the Committee that the issue of initiation had been a sensitive one as it involved other cultures like the Hlubis and the Sothos. It was, therefore, important to manage the tensions around the traditions of the cultures and their rituals. He added that the terrain where initiations had been conducted made it difficult to enforce the law and expressed his concerns that traditional leaders had not been sufficiently empowered, per the necessary legislation.

He further added that the programmes meant to assist had been reactionary as it only saw implementation during winter and summer months, however, there were none during the course of the year. He also touched on the partnership with the United Nations Development Agency who had implemented programmes aimed at positive masculinity. Various task teams from provincial and districts coordinate themselves in forums meant to assist local governments, however, these teams had made limited impact as a result of a lack of resources.

He also lamented the commercialisation of initiation especially in and around Buffalo City. He noted that the problem remained a societal one, as traditional leaders did not take boys to initiation schools, but families did.

The Secretary of the NHTL in the province of the Eastern Cape noted the lack of impact when it came to consequence management, as it related to the challenges outlined by the NPA and the SAPS with regards to the delay in the prosecution of guilty parties. He said that the intention of legislation had been to ensure that there were deterrents but season after season the minimum rate of prosecutions remained low. He recalled that the provincial legislation had been implicit about the consequences that had to kick in, however, in light of new legislation the hope had been ignited that these gaps would eventually be closed.

He said that they had been proof that the rate of fatalities had gone down and that at last count 13 initiates had died, and the overall rate had gone down. He attributed the decline to the certain changes that had been made to bring down the death rate. He noted that the province had been able to detect the hotspot areas and that benchmarking exercises had led to good lessons being learned. Of the four main districts in the Eastern Cape, the Chris Hani and OR Tambo regions continued to present challenges. The former, he said, recorded more deaths during summer, and the latter recorded more deaths during cold temperatures. Given these statistical analysis’, the task team could implement mechanisms that spoke to the realities on the ground.

He said that it had come as no surprise that illegal schools proliferated in these areas but stressed that the province always had a plan for each initiation season. He informed the Committee that from February until March the province normally undertook an analysis that informed the strategy for the forthcoming season. He added that pre COVID-19 the province would normally embark on a three-month awareness campaign, but this had been impacted by the pandemic. However, through partnerships with NGOs and the SABC the province had been able to strengthen its awareness capabilities, and these had all been proactive measures, he emphasised. He highlighted that the province insured that from time to time, traditional surgeons and nurses received up-skill training that focused on hygiene etc and occurred throughout the districts.

He noted that the province continued to emphasise the need for medical officers to do a screening of the boys and that no boys would be allowed to go to initiation school without a health screening and that the boys had also been screened for COVID-19. He said that the province had distributed information and through screenings, those who had health concerns could be established or detected. These boys would then be referred to an alternative route for circumcision, but this alternative route was not seen as traditional, and the boys would then make use of illegal initiation schools.

He added that in some of the cases illegal schools had not been closed down as most had also been hidden. In this instance, the provincial initiation task team would be assisted by informers who would point the task team in the direction of unregistered schools. He indicated that the 300 schools that had been identified as illegal had only been the tipping point of a much larger network of illegal schools.

He informed the Committee that the task team would look at the condition of the boys and when they had shown malnourishment and dehydration, they would then be taken to the nearest hospital for medical attention. The challenge had been that in some instances the doctors at hospitals would indicate a lack of available beds for the initiates which had prompted the task team to set up rescue centres that alleviated some of the pressures on the public health system.

Mr Nkitaku also stressed that the issue of support of environmental health should also be highlighted and noted that the Provincial Initiation Task Team (PITT) worked hand-in-glove with environmental officers into the initiation school system. He added that the environmental officers ensured a clean and hygienic environment and a J88 SAPS form was also critical in this regard.

He further said that the high level of illegal initiation schools remained a challenge as these schools had become very good at remaining hidden. He mentioned that the reported 300 illegal schools were not a reflection of the actual number, but those which are known and have been reported by the NHTL.

To prevent illegal activities, the provincial initiation schools task team had created awareness around the issue. He indicated that they had been aggressive in their partnership with the local community radio hubs, pre and postseason which would include several interviews as well as the running of promos.

He stressed that people involved in the illegal route purely based this on choice.

He said that the PITT had vigorously promoted the need that boys should be given water. This was exacerbated in areas like the Sarah Baartman and John Qwabi regions which had been affected by drought conditions. He indicated that they had been looking forward to the implementation of the new legislation that would better regulate the sector.

He recounted an incident where a boy who had received dialysis two times a week had been taken for initiation without the necessary medical precautions taken. Upon investigation of the case, it was then discovered that the parents had refused evaluation of the boy from the initiation school. In this instance a decision had to be taken otherwise the boy he would surely have died, and he was subsequently medically evacuated.

Mr Stofile said that the matter of customary initiation remained a personal family matter and that government only provided support could not be omnipresent. The PITT had been of the view that customer appreciation should be multi-pronged and that this body should only be tasked with the illegality around the custom. On what constituted an illegal initiation school, he added that before a boy could be taken to initiation school, parental consent had to be given followed by a medical screening with a certificate issued that the boy had been deemed to be medically fit for traditional initiation. The traditional nurse as well as the surgeon should both be certified and once these conditions had been met then initiation should be considered as a legal initiation.

On the question about the content of the awareness campaigns, he informed the Committee that school visits had been conducted, followed by visits to traditional areas, as well as communal visits. These visits emphasised the importance of medical screenings, as well as certification. He remained adamant that people had been well informed of the requirements and could just not plead ignorance. He said that it had been a known fact that many boys underwent circumcision without parental consent and allowed themselves to be circumcised by anonymous and faceless people. He indicated that new legislation had been passed by the provincial government and although not yet enforced, this legislation had been discussed with communities in the run-up to enforcement thereof.

The NPA representative stressed that traditional healers had not been empowered according to the legislation to perform medical screenings of initiates or of prospective initiates as law specifically spoke about designated medical officers. The traditional surgeon remained with the overall responsibility of dealing with the health of the initiates and Section 21 of the Traditional Circumcision Act is clear of the duty of the traditional nurse that has to ensure that all medical related anomalies are reported to the traditional leader at the earliest convenience. Section 20 of that same Act also prescribed to the surgeon to train the nurse and to ensure that the traditional surgeons report any injuries to the traditional leader.

In response to Mr Ceza’s question about the initiate that died, he said that the initiate had been sick for almost seven days before his condition had been reported and unfortunately that had resulted in the boy passing away. In the case of Heavenly Heights, the post-mortem had not yet been received as the case had only been lodged in July.

The NPA representative, in response to Mr Hadebe’s question about what constituted an illegal school, stated that the Act had not been specific, nor did it define what constituted an illegal initiation school.

He added that he would provide an update on the December 2020 summer season as his brief had been to reflect on the winter 2021 season.

He alluded to the comments made by the secretary of the Eastern Cape and the Limpopo House of Traditional Leaders (HTL) about parents withdrawing cases which had an impact on the high rate of non-prosecutions.

In hotspots like OR Tambo there had existed no dedicated courts to hear cases and therefore, the illegal initiation cases were then filtered into the overloaded criminal justice system.

The Chairperson noted that the Committee had initially asked for a briefing on the winter 2021 initiation season and therefore the multi-sectoral role players will be given time to come back and brief the Committee on the outstanding season. She mentioned that the Committee had received several media enquiries as well.

She said that the NPA provided the update as the general view had been that cases had been declined for prosecution.

She then asked brigadier for his concluding remarks.

The SAPS representative said that most of the important points had already been raised except to say that the Bill of Rights was often quoted but people themselves did not practice what had been encapsulated in it.

He slammed the irresponsible behaviour of parents and legal guardians when it came to the withdrawal of cases and called for more awareness in communities. Communities had to be at the forefront of efforts to curb illegal initiation and the protection of their own children.

He had also recalled incidences where the PITT had intervened with water for dehydrated initiates, only for the water to be taken away once members had vacated the premises

He stressed the importance of a researcher that could conduct the necessary research on the challenges in the system. He noted that the Eastern Cape had been quite clear on what constituted a legal circumcision school and if actions fell outside of those deemed lawful, it should be considered as an illegal initiation school.

He recounted that between 2010 and 2014 numbers have been high but had significantly decreased since 2014 and reiterated that customer circumcision was a societal issue.

The Chairperson agreed that it was a societal issue that required an all hands-on deck approach. She recalled that the President of the Republic had requested the Committee to host an Initiation Indaba and added that the Eastern Cape would form the perfect case study.

The meeting was adjourned.


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