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Botched Circumcisions Kill 30 South African Boys

Xhosa boys covered with a blankets and smeared with chalky mud sit in a field as others undergo a traditional male circumcision ceremony into manhood near the home of former South African president Nelson Mandela in Qunu, South Africa, June 30, 2013.
South Africa’s ruling party has said enough is enough after 30 boys died over the weekend because of botched ritual circumcisions. The latest wave of deaths has doubled this year’s toll, making 2013 one of the deadliest years on record.

South Africa's ruling ANC party says it is “distressed” by reports of the deaths of some 30 boys and the hospitalization of 300 more from ritual circumcisions in rural Eastern Cape province.

To that end, the ANC is calling for modernization of this ancient, secret ritual. Each year, tens of thousands of boys leave their homes for the ritual that is said to include physical challenges, deprivation and isolation.

Most boys go through the ritual as teenagers; officials have said 30,000 boys have signed up this year.

ANC spokesman Keith Khoza says the men who perform the circumcisions need to have medical training and be licensed, at the very least.

“We think that the recent deaths are quite alarming, they are unacceptable. And we believe they can be mitigated with proper medical support in these initiatives. But also the competency of the people that are conducting this, the need to undergo some medical training," said Khoza.

Officials have said many of the circumcision-related deaths are caused by blood loss and infection after circumcision. Those surgeries are normally performed by traditional leaders, not doctors.

Other initiates have been found to have died of exhaustion and hypothermia after their young bodies were pushed to the limit.

But Khoza says the ANC doesn’t want to ban the ritual outright - nor, he says, can they.

“It’s going to be quite difficult, owing to the fact that the majority of our people in traditional areas, they practice this as a ritual which has a deep meaning for them as for them as to the standing of individuals in society. It’s difficult, you’ll meet with resistance if you were to try and do that," he said.

Concern is growing as the death toll mounts. In May, another 30 boys died in the rural provinces of Limpopo and Mpumalanga during their manhood initiation ceremonies. That prompted the nation’s parliament to hold a debate on the issue. But that debate resulted in no real decisions.

Critics say they were disappointed that the legislators did not order the shutdown of initiation schools.

Spokesman Sizwe Pamla of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union is one of those critics. He says the government has failed those boys, and called for officials to prosecute traditional leaders for the deaths of the children.

“We really don’t think that the government has done enough. We actually think that it’s about time that we take strong actions against these cultures, especially the custodians, which happens to be the traditional leadership. We think the traditional leadership needs to be accountable. If they cannot take care, or be responsible, for the lives of the young ones who undergo this initiation, then we have to look at the possibility of discontinuing this culture," said Pamla.

But there may be an upcoming sea change. Health Minister Aaron Mostoaledi, who supports circumcision as an AIDS-prevention measure, says some of the circumcisions are being performed illegally and need to be reined in.

He told a local newspaper on Monday: “It has turned into something criminal and no longer has anything to do with culture. Young lives are being destroyed.”