- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 18, 2002


JOHANNESBURG South Africa's initiation season ended last weekend with a gruesome toll of 24 deaths reported to police and more than 100 teenagers hospitalized with gangrene and septicemia after botched circumcisions and severe beatings.

One boy will have to have his legs amputated, authorities said.

Teenagers have been attending initiation schools in the bush since the beginning of June for the rituals, seen in many African cultures as an essential rite of passage to manhood.

Problems arise when surgeons use blunt and unsterilized knives, and when punishments for such lapses as forgetting the words of a chant become too severe some boys are literally beaten to death.

The National House for Traditional Leaders said that if the government approved legislative powers for traditional leaders, they might be more able to control customs like initiation ceremonies.

"If government doesn't want to give recognition to the institution then you can't do anything really," said spokesman Sibusiso Nkosi.

"We need to talk about how this tradition can be controlled. There is no uniformity anymore. It's out of control. People are more interested in making money than respecting the tradition," Mr. Nkosi added. "It's not culture to beat a person."

The traditional leaders are seeking funds to hold a round-table conference with doctors, anthropologists and other experts about the initiation rites.

Some who take part in the initiation process are as young as 12, although the law states that no one younger than 18 may undergo traditional circumcision. The annual deaths are prompting calls for the boys to be circumcised in hospitals while continuing the other ceremonies in the initiation schools, and this already is happening to a limited extent.

Several murder charges have been made this season. Prosecutions are being carried out under the Traditional Circumcision Act, and some schools have been closed.

In the Eastern Cape, provincial Health Minister Bevan Goqwana accused parents of laxness and said the parents of boys killed or maimed during circumcisions would be arrested along with the surgeons and nurses who performed the operations.

"These boys and their parents do not know the law or are ignorant, and these boys themselves are afraid to report to their parents on the bad treatment they receive," he said.

The youth league of the ruling African National Congress called for nurses, social workers and psychologists to be given free access to the camps.

"To say nurses must not be allowed in these schools because they are predominantly women and that they have never undergone the initiation process is utter hogwash, which we reject with the contempt it deserves," spokesman Khulekani Ntshangase told the South African Press Agency.

Zola Dabula, acting chief medical superintendent at Umtata General Hospital in Eastern Cape province, slammed modern initiation schools as corrupt, cruel and unrepresentative of African tradition.

"The problem with today's schools is that they are 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," he said.

[Elsewhere, Reuters news agency reported yesterday that one youth was fatally shot and several people were injured when police and residents in the tiny West African nation of Guinea-Bissau clashed in a dispute about tribal-initiation rites.

[Police and witnesses said the clashes began Monday in Quinhamel, about 20 miles west of the capital, Bissau, after a policeman entered a house reserved for young people who have undergone circumcision initiation ceremonies.

[Circumcision of boys and girls is common among some tribes in the former Portuguese colony, the report said.

["It all started when a police lieutenant went into the house of the circumcised, which is normally off-limits for the non-initiated," villager Adilson Co told state radio. "The policeman was beaten and held hostage for 13 hours before his colleagues rescued him by force," he said, adding that several police officers were among the wounded.]

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