Initiation ceremonies in South Africa have led to the deaths of 60 young men and the hospitalization of hundreds since May, sparking concern from officials about regulations surrounding a national tradition that determines when a boy becomes a man.
The most recent deaths in the Eastern Cape province were caused by illegal schools set up for financial benefits that have undermined cultural traditions in the country, health minister Aaron Motsoaledi said this week.
"This practice has been there for ages and was performed by traditional leaders in a very responsible manner," Motsoaledi told state TV. "But now it has turned into a commercial enterprise which has attracted a lot of people who I described as hooligans."
Thirty initiates have died within the month and 300 young men have also been hospitalized, a government health spokesman said. Ten of those young men were rescued with badly scarred genitals from botched circumcisions while the others were hospitalized for dehydration and various wounds.
Initiation ceremonies are a common practice in some South African cultures, where youths partake in various activities as a rite of passage into adulthood, usually over the course of three weeks. The young men are put through a series of survival tests which sometimes include exposure to South Africa's near-freezing winter conditions with little clothing, and being given only dried foods and very little water for five days after circumcision.
In May, 30 other initiates died at government-registered initiation schools in the Eastern Cape's Mpumalanga district, police said, and it's unclear who is responsible for those deaths. Health officials who were supposed to be present during circumcision procedures said they were not informed until after the procedures were performed. The chairman of the House of Traditional Leaders Mathibela Mokoena said officials were notified, but did not arrive on time.
Government legislation entrusts traditional leaders to oversee the operation of initiation schools, but their authority has been weakened by the growing number of illegal schools and a lack of cooperation from police to arrest suspects, Mokoena said.
Only five people have been arrested since May for cases ranging from murder to unlawful circumcision, said Eastern Cape police spokeswoman Sibongile Soci, who declined to specify if the accused had actually been charged for any crime. Mpumalanga police spokesman Selvy Mohlala said no arrests have been made in his district as police await a decision by prosecutors to file charges.
Initiation abuse, however, has been an ongoing problem for years. More than 500 boys in the Eastern Cape have died from initiation-related causes since 2000, and hospitals are overwhelmed with young males seeking treatment, said Eastern Cape health spokesman Sizwe Kupelo.
A 2010 report on male initiation schools by the Commission for Rights of Cultural, Religious & Linguistic Communities acknowledged the commercialization of unauthorized schools and increasing deaths. It recommended that traditional leaders be granted full authority over initiations to cut out illegal sites, but not much has changed.
Nearly 40 percent of initiation schools are illegal, said Nkululeko Nxesi, executive director of Community Development Foundation of South Africa, which monitors initiation sites and rescues boys forced into ceremonies. These schools target single mothers who by tradition are unfamiliar with the initiation process.
The age requirement for initiation is 18, but most initiates are between the ages of 16 and 17, with some as young as 13, said Nxesi, citing peer pressure for the younger enrollment.
Kupelo blamed parents, traditional leaders and the police for the issue.
"The justice department, the police must deal decisively with these criminals because these people are living in the community," he said. "But it is up to the traditional leaders to protect the custom."
Kupelo said parents need to research schools before signing consent forms and must report children missing, despite fears of disrespecting culture.
South Africa's ruling African National Congress party has demanded "even sterner and harsher action" against the abuse of the nation's cultural practices, but no government entity has publicly initiated a solution.
The U.N. children's fund called for an end to "any practice that may endanger the well-being of children, in accordance with international human rights instruments."
Nxesi said the government can alleviate the crisis by lowering the age requirement so that younger boys enroll with parental consent, and by dropping the secrecy of the initiation. He has planned a UNAIDS sponsored workshop to educate women on their roles in the initiation process.
"What will make this go away is to scale up community education because parents must be empowered about the correct procedures and the danger of not following the processes," he said.