THE DAILY DISPATCH, East London, Eastern Cape Province, South Africa, October 20, 2005.
By MODISE KABELI and LULAMILE FENI
HEALTH Department officials rescued more than 5000 initiates from illegal initiation schools in the province in this year's circumcision season.
A total of 10685 boys in the province entered the traditional rite of passage ritual last season between the beginning of June and the end of July.
During this period 23 initiates died, 15 of them of natural causes.
Under the Application of Health Standards in Traditional Circumcision Act, circumcision schools have to be registered with the Health Department.
Initiates who intend undergoing the ritual must have a medical examination and be registered with a local health official.
These moves were designed by the department to ensure the traditional practice - which has claimed many lives due to infection - is made safer.
But the recent crackdown by the department has revealed how extensively this law is still flouted in some areas.
Provincial Health Department spokesperson Sizwe Kupelo said the state had established that there were 3316 legal and 880 illegal initiation schools across the province in the last season.
About 240 of the illegal schools were in the OR Tambo region including Mthatha, Lusikisiki, and Libode.
Most initiates rescued were schoolboys as young as 12 years old from the Pondoland region in Transkei, where initiation is most problematic.
Kupelo said about 268 initiates in the OR Tambo region alone were admitted to hospital after complications following circumcision.
"If it were not for our intervention about 500 initiates could have died and hundreds of others could have lost their manhood," Kupelo said.
Most of the initiates rescued during the campaign by his department in collaboration with the traditional leaders and police had no complications and were in the care of their parents and local chiefs, he said.
Kupelo said some initiates were found neglected, dehydrated and hungry.
While some concerned parents assisted in rescuing their children, others hid the initiates to stop them from being removed by the department.
The Human Rights Commission said the Health Department's statistics painted a shocking picture.
HRC provincial head Sakhele Poswa said the trend showed that both the health and education rights of the children were violated and that the Act was not effective.
The chairman of the provincial House of Traditional Leaders, Chief Ngangomhlaba Matanzima, was also shocked.
But he said that the campaign by traditional leaders, the department and others, concerned with keeping initiation ceremonies safe had saved many lives.
He said if the local chief, and not the health department, were allowed to allocate the initiation site, there would be fewer illegal surgeons and schools.
Matanzima said he was fining every community member in his area who sent a boy to initiation school without having permission from traditional leaders.
Libode police investigator, Inspector Mziseni Mlahlwa, who works with the Health Department in arresting illegal surgeons and nurses, said he had recently arrested three surgeons in the area and their cases were pending.
He said about seven boys in the Libode area had their genitals amputated recently after attending illegal schools.
Hambisilizwi Mdikane, the Health Department's initiation co-ordinator in the OR Tambo district, described one of the horrifying scenes he encountered at an illegal initiation school.
"(An) initiate with his whole body swollen and painful refused to be taken to hospital because of the stigma (of not completing the ritual).
"When we finally persuaded him he died at the hospital two days later," Mdikane said.
The department is now using 30 4x4 vehicles, 10 sedans and three helicopters to monitor remote initiation schools.
About 400 officers from the department have been assigned to do the work and the department would also start registering would-be initiates at Education Department schools across the province.
Kupelo said Health MEC Monwabisi Goqwana will be requesting a meeting with the Director of Public Prosecutions to design a joint strategy that will help improve the conviction rate of illegal surgeons. Kupelo also appealed to the community to assist his department in its efforts to curb problems plaguing the practice of circumcision.
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