Statement on the death of initiates in Mpumalanga

The reported deaths of 27 initiates at government-registered initiation sites in the past two weeks in the Nkangala district towns of Evander, Middelburg, Belfast, Kwaggafontein, Siyabuswa, Verena and KwaMhlanga is the final straw. For far too long, the deaths of young initiates at traditional initiation schools have gone neglected and this approach is unacceptable.

The proud heritage of an age-old African practice is being undermined by the continuous unnecessary loss of lives of young boys, particularly in an era where there are readily available medical technologies that allow for safe circumcisions with minimal side effects, let alone cause of deaths. To condone the preventable death of a healthy child to continue unchallenged in this day and age in the name of culture is frankly unacceptable and borders on being barbaric. Although issues surrounding culture remain sensitive, they cannot be at the expense of the avoidable deaths of young innocent boys. It has become clear that the value of the African child is being undermined in the name of cultural practice. It is time for Government, Traditional Leaders and Parents to take a firm stand to put an end to these shameful murders of innocent young boys in the name of cultural practice.

The Men’s sector of the South African National AIDS Council (SANAC) is deeply concerned by the statements uttered by the MEC for Health in Mpumalanga and those attributed to the spokesperson of Chief Mabhoko. The MEC demonstrated a lack of understanding of the South African Constitution and her duties and responsibilities related to this role. To assert that as an MEC her hands are tied in matters related to culture – even when this includes death and exposure to danger of young men that are under her care, constitutionally, and in terms of the law – is a dereliction of duty on her part.

“The loss of such a large number of lives, of young men in the prime of their lives, is nothing short of a national tragedy. Whilst we think of the grief of the families of these young men we must also think about who was responsible and how they will be held accountable. We welcome the police investigation and ask that justice be served swiftly. We also think that the health authorities in Mpumalanga must act with speed to ensure that effective measures are in place to prevent any more deaths. This must include concluding negotiations with the traditional leaders about ensuring that circumcisions are done with the highest safety standards. This is not merely an agreement between the provincial health authorities and the traditional authorities, but a common understanding of the laws under which we all must live and the necessary steps the provincial legislature must take to address conflicting or contradictory laws”, said CEO of the South African National AIDS Council, Dr Fareed Abdullah.

Abdullah added that, “from the point of view of HIV prevention, medical male circumcision is a proven effective intervention that reduces HIV infection in men by up to 60%, if done properly. We are in danger of discouraging young men to opt for this health option that is very beneficial to their health. Unless we comprehensively address this issue, we will lose a critical opportunity to successfully implement one of the few proven HIV prevention interventions available to us”.

The Men’s Sector joins many of the voices that have condemned these events and welcomes the condemnation from the Presidency. Although the Men’s Sector welcomes the opening of 26 murder cases related to the deaths of the initiates by the South African Police Service (SAPS), the sector’s primary interest is not in the punitive measures of those who have committed a crime, but, rather in the prevention of the senseless loss of the lives of young boys. The Men’s Sector, therefore, calls for the following:

  • That there be an immediate suspension of all the affected initiation schools in Mpumalanga.
  • That there be a comprehensive investigation into the causes of deaths of the initiates.
  • That the investigation comes up with recommendations for all government-registered initiation sites in South Africa to eliminate future deaths.
  • That the leadership in Mpumalanga provides the necessary guidance to ensure that this does not happen again.
  • That appropriate legislation related to the governance and management of Traditional Initiation schools in all provinces of South Africa be fast-tracked.

It is absolutely important to clarify that this position taken by the Men’s Sector is not by any means an attack on culture or tradition. On the contrary, the Men’s Sector fully supports and encourages the traditional practice of initiation ceremonies as they complement programmes implemented by the sector and play an important role in moral regeneration, especially in our society that is often said to be plagued by ‘moral decay’. The attack is precisely on the unnecessary loss of lives of young African boys, and this is a position that should attract consensus and solidarity between Government, Traditional Leaders, Civil Society and Parents. The Men’s Sector is also concerned about the safety of young men from contracting

HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) through unsafe and unhygienic practices at traditional initiation schools.

The Men’s Sector sends its deepest condolences’ to the families and friends of those who have lost a loved one and may their souls rest in peace.

The death of the 27 innocent young boys will not be in vain as we take the vow that a tragedy of this nature will never happen again. The Men’s Sector places the highest value on the youth, as they are the future of our country. We are a forum represented by men from a broad of range of diverse cultures and with one voice we take a firm stand to say: Not in My Name!