How safe are initiation ceremonies in South Africa?

Initiation ceremonies are conducted by many cultures in South Africa. Moneybags journalist Jessica Anne Wood speaks to a former initiate and delves into the health and safety aspects of these ceremonies.

Tania Colyn, head of communications for the Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport (DCAS) at the Western Cape Government, notes that there are two seasons for initiation ceremonies in the Western Cape. “Each year the winter initiation takes place from May to July and the summer season is from November to January.”

The help ensure that the health and safety of initiates is addressed, there is an Initiation Framework and Protocol that is imposed by the DCAS. Other provinces around the country have their own policies and frameworks in place to help ensure the safety of initiates.

Going through initiation

Pumlani Booi underwent initiation a decade ago in the Eastern Cape. Since the initiation, Booi notes that there is stronger focus now on health and safety than there was when he did it. When Booi went through initiation, the same traditional weapon for the circumcision was used on all initiates, with no effort taken to clean it between each initiate. Nowadays, traditional leaders and heading the initiation schools appear to be more aware of the risks posed to initiates if the same tools are used.

“Since I went, there have been changes. Before they go to the bush they must go sign their names, and then once they have signed their names they get given medication to clean their blood system so that everything goes smoothly. When it comes to the actual aspect, when I say they are using the weapon, it’s still the same thing but at least these guys have also now become more equipped because they use that germ disinfectant spray. I don’t know how proper it is, but it is still risky in a way,” reveals Booi.

However, when health issues do arise, initiates are hesitant to seek medical assistance at a hospital due to the stigma that may arise. “Let’s say something does go wrong…people don’t want to resort to going to hospital, due to the fact that you are called names and they don’t consider you exactly a man because you didn’t finish the whole process there.”

Becoming a man

“When you go there, the first time you get there you get told that this is where a man starts, this is your first house, this is where you initially get to see the type of person you will be in life, how you treat your house, how you treat yourself when you are there alone. There is no one around, you don’t have neighbours, it’s just the bush and animals, but still, that is where you actually see a person, how they will conduct themselves when there are no parents, like cleaning your hut, just to make sure if people come it is well prepared,” explains Booi.

But it’s not just about preparing you to run a house one day, but to live your life as a man. Initiation for some is their first step to independence, where you “get taught a certain manner in which to conduct yourself,” says Booi.

However, he elaborates saying that it is sad that many people don’t abide by these lessons anymore. “People now go there to remove the foreskin and don’t take the whole lesson behind everything. It’s been ten years since I last went to the bush but there are certain things I still apply to my life. The guys today don’t actually take this into consideration. I’m not saying it’s bad or a good thing that’s happened to them, but kids think now it’s a trend, they are not prepared, they are not ready for it.”

The risk to initiates not only comes from the tools and methods used for circumcision and other aspects of the initiation ceremony, but from the conduct of the initiates as well. Booi highlights that initiates often feel free to do things they wouldn’t normally do, such as take drugs, which is not allowed during the initiation process. Not only is this not part of the process, it can also have other impacts, such as the healing of the wound from the circumcision.

Ensuring initiates’ health and safety

Every year there are reports of incidents, and in the worst instances deaths that are the result of unlicensed initiation schools. Sometimes deaths occur as a result of problems arising from circumcisions.

According to the Initiation Framework and Protocol, there are a number of challenges that have been identified by the DCAS. These include:

  • Increase in drug and alcohol abuse at initiation sites.
  • Some carers and surgeons have not been trained.
  • Poor and unhealthy living conditions in the initiation schools and sites.
  • Initiates going to circumcision school whilst they are not fit for the conditions at the initiation site or school. In some instances initiates have a medical condition that would hinder them at the site or school.
  • Lack of observation and maintenance of proper health standards at circumcision schools and sites.
  • New/emerging diseases, e.g. HIV/AIDS and viral hepatitis.
  • Unhealthy environmental conditions.
  • Lack of natural vegetation necessary for the practice.

To help mitigate these risks, the DCAS “supports registered initiation sites to ensure that training is provided to initiation carers,” reveals Colyn. Furthermore, the DCAS also negotiates for the provision of infrastructure such as drinking water and land by municipalities.

Being prepared

Initiation is not a one day or several days process, but rather one that takes an entire month. Women are not included in the preparation and process of the initiation ceremony. It is the role of the men (particularly the initiate’s father) to help prepare the initiate. However, a challenge arises where there is not father figure.

“I think where it actually lacks is kids who don’t have dads to tell them those things. You find out from the wrong people who tell you the wrong thing. Your parents do play a good role in preparing you in a certain way. It’s a pity that the mothers can’t be there or maybe tell you what to do. In my case I involved my mom in my things because my dad passed away when I was only 16. Since I was the eldest she didn’t know what had to be done, so I had to communicate with someone, telling mom, don’t let these guys take advantage of you, this is what must be done. [I would] write her a letter, give it to a little brother and tell him don’t give it to her in front of everyone. So he would take it to my mom, she would read it and then she would respond,” explains Booi.

He adds: “It is very important that your parents know you are going because before you go there is something, a piece of meat that you have to eat. This piece of meat is a meat which actually introduces you to your ancestors as a family. If your family does not do that for you, you are basically naked and alone because you are not well cleansed, when you are in the bush. That is the one place where anyone can come, if you don’t believe in black magic and everything, that is where you see things. If those things are not done for you at home, there is a possibility that you will never come back, you can die, you can disappear, things like that, so it is very important for your parents to know this, due to the rituals you have to follow, and notifying your ancestors to take care of you while you are there.”

The law and initiations

There are a number of laws and policies in place, both national and provincial that have been drafted to help protect the initiates. The Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA) released a draft policy on the customary practice of initiation in South Africa, in May 2015. The policy aims to offer a legislative framework on which to build a regulated initiation system.

According to the Draft Policy on the Customary Practice of Initiation in South Africa, a prospective initiate must obtain a medical certificate from a medical practitioner prior to participating in any initiation school or practice. The medical certificate must state that the prospective initiate is “fit to participate in the initiation practices and that he or she has no medical, physical or mental condition that may cause unnecessary complications during or after the initiation. The medical certificate must specifically indicate whether the child has any bleeding disorder or congenital abnormalities.”

The various forms of legislation that in some way are relevant to initiation are the following:

  • Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996
  • Children’s Act, 2005
  • National Health Act, 2003
  • Liquor Act, 2003
  • Traditional Health Practitioners Act, 2007

Provincial legislation that deals with the issue of initiation include:

  • Eastern Cape

The Application of Health Standards in Traditional Circumcision Act, 2001, deals explicitly with initiation ceremonies in the Eastern Cape. One point that the Act stresses is the role of the medical officer. It is the duty of the medical officer to keep a record and statistics of circumcisions conducted and report these to the Department of Health in the province.

It is emphasised that no person other than a medical professional can perform a circumcision in the Eastern Cape without the written consent of the medical officer designated to the area where the circumcision will be conducted. The medical officer also has the right to prevent the use of a tool that the traditional surgeon intends to use for the circumcision and replace it with a proper surgical instrument.

  • Limpopo

The Limpopo Initiations Schools Bill, 2014, was drafted to repeal the Limpopo Province Circumcision Schools Act, 1996. The Bill states: “A senior traditional leader must apply to the relevant district office of the department responsible for traditional affairs, in the prescribed format for a permit to hold an initiation school and such application must be accompanied by – (a) documents as prescribed; (b) proof that the application fees are paid; (c) a certificate by an environmental officer; and (d) a certificate by a health practitioner.”

  • Free State

The Free State Initiation School Health Act, 2004, states: “A person may not hold an Initiation School or treat an initiate without submitting an application and obtaining written permission from the District Medical Officer for the district in which the Initiation School is to be held or the initiate is to be treated: Provided that this subsection does not apply to the treatment of an initiate in a hospital or by a qualified medical practitioner.”

With regards to initiates, any prospective initiate below the age of 18 must have a consent form completed and signed by a parent. In addition, it is also the responsibility of the parent to “render the assistance and cooperation as may be prescribed in the interest of the health of the initiate.”

The Act further stresses that a person (traditional surgeon) may not perform a circumcision, unless a qualified medical professional, without written permission of the District Medical Officer for the district in which the circumcision is to be performed.

A list of the initiation schools in the Western Cape with contact numbers can be found here. Alternatively, the provincial coordinators for initiation can be found on the COGTA by clicking here.