MPUMALANGA PROVINCE, SOUTH AFRICA — Initiating boys into manhood is an ancient African tradition still valued and practiced by many tribes in South Africa. In some tribes, a male is never recognized as a real man if he has not participated in the formal rituals.
To undergo initiation, boys as young as 12 are compelled to stay in the mountains away from their families for about five weeks. What happens there is shrouded in secrecy and never discussed once they return.
But what is known is that hundreds of boys have died in recent years while others have lost their manhood during some of these initiation rituals.
In June and July alone, 29 initiates from various initiation schools died during the process in Mpumalanga Province. Thirty died in the country’s Eastern Cape Province while close to 300 were hospitalized as a result of botched circumcisions.
“Most of them died because of excessive bleeding," said Ronnie Masilela, spokesperson for the Department of Health on Mpumalanga Province. "After the investigation that was conducted, the preliminary report pointed out to some omissions on the part of some of the people who were conducting the schools.”
There are also concerns that the boys risk contracting HIV following reports that some surgeons use a single knife in circumcising all the initiates.
Despite the risks, South Africans seem reluctant to abandon or modify the practice.
On this August day here in the remote village of Wales in the impoverished Mpumalanga province, the entire community has gathered to welcome back 131 young men who have just completed their initiation.
Sylvester Mashego is one of them. He says participating in the rituals and respecting the rules is what is expected of him.
“I were afraid because I didn’t know what’s gonna happen to me when I get in there," Mashego said. "I was too afraid, but you see a culture is a culture...Those other things that they have done there, oh, it’s a secret. I’m not allowed to talk about it.”
In this village, there is nothing but pride over the initiation of its young men and all defend the practice, including their mothers.
Freda Mahlabini is thrilled to see her 12 year old son, Itumeleng, returning alive.
“I don’t know what can I say today," she said. "I just wanna sing and do whatever.”
The cultural custodian of the Bakoni tribe, a man named Speaker Mahlake, says the initiation is part of what glues his community together.
“They are going to celebrate," Mahlake said. "This thing is better than Christmas because it unites people, all of them they are united.”
Elliot Mahlake is a traditional surgeon who believes the initiation is key to preparing boys for the challenges of adulthood. He says there is nothing inherently dangerous in the ritual if care is taken.
He says his father taught him that the most important thing he can do is treat the initiates well and feed them. He says he had 8 people who helped him with the initiates and that no harm came to them.
The Mpumalanga Department of Health’s Masilela agrees that the initiations do not need to be risky and that is why the government is stepping up efforts to make them safer through education on the best initiation practices.
“The government of South Africa and the government of Mpumalanga will never allow people to die," he said. "So where things are done that will put people’s lives in danger, there is no way government will step back.”
Masilela adds there will be no consideration given to banning the tradition because that would infringe on the people’s constitutional rights to practice their culture.