Dr Nomafrench Mbombo
Western Cape Minister of Cultural Affairs and Sports
Recently the Western Cape Government, has submitted its comments on the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs’ policy on initiation formally known as the Draft National Policy on the Customary Practice of Initiation in South Africa.
Our submission comes at a time when we have seen the death of many of our initiates due to botched initiation rituals across the country.
In the last five years, an estimated 313 initiates have died and around 1 865 have been injured due to initiation rituals gone wrong. This figure is way too high. In the Eastern Cape, the death toll has risen to 26 young men this past month alone. This equates to an average of one initiate dying every single day.
As a mother, I cannot imagine the pain of those parents who have lost loved ones. Especially suffering a tragedy that could have been avoided. We send our sincere condolences to those families and we say to them: lalani ngenxeba.
The ritual of ukoluka, forms an integral part of many cultures in South Africa. It is of paramount importance that as governments we formalise this process and we legislate for it in order to avoid the abuse of this important rite of passage.
This is why we have welcomed COGTA’s move to draft a policy that will promote the constitutional rights of affected young men (and women) while respecting the importance of customary traditions.
This policy outlines the main concerns around initiation in South Africa and these are:
- Schools where initiates die do not always adhere to stringent, quality health standards
- Traditional healers who perform these surgeries are not always equipped with the appropriate certifications and technical expertise
- Schools often don’t have safety measures in place
- The appropriate officials are often not consulted prior to the initiation ceremonies
- Whether there have been any measures taken in the past to ensure the closure of operational illegal initiation schools
- Whether the parents of the initiates are consulted before the ceremony is carried out
In response to this national crisis, the Provincial Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport (DCAS) developed a Western Cape Initiation Framework and Protocol in 2011 which incorporates the provincial Department of Health’s circumcision strategy entitled Cultural Recognition and Health Support.
Our policy framework is not misaligned with the proposed national policy. That is why we saw it fit to use our experiences of implementing it since 2011 to inform our input in the national policy.
Our comments on the national policy are as follows:
We welcome COGTA’s policy development initiative. However, it is our view that the challenges associated with initiation require national legislation or regulations to be enacted to tackle it more effectively through the power of ‘hard law’ rather than ‘soft law’, like policy.
The reason for this is that national law enforces the provisions of policy.
As COGTA’s policy concedes, a number of these fatalities and injuries have been due to the abuse of initiates by people who are not equipped to perform circumcision. Without the recommended law, it is difficult to hold these people and others involved, legally accountable for their actions.
National legislation on initiation would take this policy intent a step further and give the teeth it needs to tackle this problem.
National legislation is also needed to harmonise existing provincial laws. As COGTA’s policy points out, several provinces have promulgated legislation regulating circumcision including the Eastern Cape’s Application of Health Standards in Traditional Circumcision Act, 2001; the Free State’s Initiation School Health Act, 2004; and the Limpopo Circumcision Schools Act, 1996. These provincial laws would have to be revised and aligned to the national legislation we have recommended.
Financial implications and norms and standards:
The effectiveness of this policy will be very dependent on the ability of the national department and provincial governments to enforce the norms and standards set out.
However, as far as we are aware, the regulations governing the registration of traditional surgeons are yet to be published. That is why we have recommended that these regulations be published without delay in order for the national department and the provinces to guard against their contraventions.
COGTA’s policy is also not clear about the financial implications of the establishment of the new structures and systems. The creation of another unfunded mandate will severely limit the degree to which the policy is implemented. That is why we have recommended once more that the policy be as clear as possible about how each of these structures and systems are to be funded.
Role of governments:
Section 5 of COGTA’s policy outlines the different roles of government, traditional leaders, care-givers, families and women. While it is explicit about the rights and responsibilities of these stakeholders in ensuring the health of their children, it is not clear about the role of government.
Government and traditional leaders will be working together on the Provincial Initiation Coordination Committees but the ultimate responsibility of ensuring the health and safety of the initiates lies with the government.
That is why we have recommended that government’s role to monitor the health and safety of initiates in schools be made clear.
Paragraph 5.8 in the national policy is silent on the ratio of care-givers to the number of initiates being cared for. In addition, it does not stipulate the age requirement for a person to qualify as a care-giver. We have recommended that this be rectified.
Establishment of Initiation Forums:
The Western Cape government has also made a recommendation that initiation forums be established in provinces as a standard requirement. The main function of these forums would be to serve as a nexus between communities and Provincial Initiation Coordination Committees. Initiation Forums would ensure that all procedures are properly followed before initiates are accepted to any initiation school. They would liaise with Provincial Initiation Coordinating Committees and its technical support teams. This is a crucial step in the process and needs to be fully implemented.
Unregistered initiation schools:
COGTA’s policy declares that initiates must be regarded as abducted if they are found to be in an unregistered initiation school.
Without our proposed legislation this will prove futile if the young person has been sent by their parents. Enacting this policy would aid that by creating an offence and a penalty for the persons running an unregistered initiation school and offences or penalties against the parents for sending their children to such schools.
Western Cape Government’s measures:
The Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport (DCAS), in consultation with the Department of Health, has worked hard to ensure the safety and wellbeing of young men attending initiation schools in the Western Cape.
These two departments have jointly established a steering committee that deals decisively with the issue of medical circumcision and the initiation or traditional circumcision programme.
It crucial to mention that the Western Cape Government regards initiation as a cultural practice, not a health issue, and that is why DCAS has taken the lead on addressing it in the province.
Through our partnerships with traditional leaders and surgeons, we have managed to provide them with the requisite support in order to make initiation and initiation schools a much safer place. We have been doing so since our policy framework came into being in 2011.
Since then we have:
- Established DCAS’ mandate of protecting, promoting and preserving cultural heritage balanced out with the medical implications the ritual has.
- Jointly established a steering committee that deals with medical male circumcision and the initiation or traditional circumcision programme.
- Formed partnerships with the relevant Initiation Forums, Municipalities and provincial departments such as Health and Cape Nature which work towards protecting the custom of initiation as well as safeguarding the medical wellbeing of all initiates.
- Hosted an Initiation workshop last year, which was attended by traditional leaders, traditional surgeons and representatives from local and provincial government who were all in agreement about the need to promote the wellbeing of initiates while at the same time creating an enabling environment for this very important custom to be practised.
- Concurrently, the Department of Health has undertaken to:
- Provide first aid training and kits for traditional healers and surgeons;
- Provide bibs to nurses who assist during the ceremonies;
- Provide districts with the services of a doctor (on call) for circumcision camps;
- Encourage local authorities to have clean running water points at circumcision camps; and
- Engage traditional healers and surgeons through their local forums about the ritual and its medical implications.
We believe that the Western Cape government’s strategy has prevented the death of hundreds of our young people as they go through this important rite of passage.
Our record speaks for itself in this regard. That is why we have taken the process of making recommendations to Minister Gordhan’s department very seriously.
We believe some of the initiatives we have undertaken to implement in this province have done a lot to ensure that we save the lives of many of our initiates. The death of hundreds of young people cannot go unanswered. That is why we insist that this policy needs to be legislated so that we may begin to enforce strict punitive measures for those who go against what is right.
The same amount of work and thought that has gone into our provincial framework must be emulated nationally. Every family that has lost a child must see this government working to rectify this situation. Crucially, every family that sends their child to an initiation school must rest easy knowing that our government works day and night to ensure their safety.
The death of 26 initiates in the Eastern Cape this month and hundreds more across South Africa, must be seen as nothing less than a national crisis. That is precisely why we need to act swiftly, efficiently and decisively. One death is a death too many.
That is why we call on the National Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs to implement our proposals and recommendations. The Western Cape Government is also happy to engage with the national department and other provincial governments on the strategies we have put in place to protect young initiates in the province.