In the past 12 years, more than 800 men and teenage boys have had their penises amputated after botched traditional circumcision procedures.
The news comes after the death of three initiates in Libode, west of Mthatha, after attending illegal initiation schools. All three of the initiates were 15 years old.
Since the province’s winter initiation season began a week ago, three unregistered and illegal traditional surgeons have been arrested in the province, in East London, Tsholo and Port St Johns.
In an interview with City Press, Deputy Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Obed Bapela said since 2006, at least 800 teens and men have had to undergo penile amputations after suffering complications related to traditional initiation. He also said penis transplants were expensive and unaffordable for government.
“We cannot run away from the issue of amputations. It is a very serious matter. Minister of Health Aaron Motsoaledi met with us as a department and raised this concern three years ago,” he said.
“Suicides among those who are amputated is also a concern because when they have lost their manhood and they are in university, because of many challenges and pressures, they commit suicide.
“I know that doctors from Stellenbosch University have performed transplants, but it is very expensive. We cannot afford it, especially with the high number of penile amputees. The best solution for all of us is to stop the amputations from happening in the first place.”
Kgosi SE Mahlangu, chairman of the National House of Traditional Leaders, said amputations were a major concern in the Eastern Cape, which has the largest government support on traditional initiation-related interventions compared with other provinces.
“What is surprising is that the Eastern Cape is the only province where there are amakhankatha [traditional nurses]. That is why we are calling for the proper training of amakhankatha to ensure they have the required skills. The same should goes for iingcibi [traditional surgeons],” he said.
Nkosi Mwelo Nonkonyana, chairman of the Eastern Cape House of Traditional Leaders, said they were working on a plan to deal with amputees, but could not reveal the details as they were in negotiations with medical scientists “on how they can assist us with this problem”.
Statistics from the provincial department of cooperative governance and traditional affairs show that between 2006 and last year, 278 initiates underwent penile amputations. But these official figures were gathered from mostly legal initiation schools around the province and do not include many others who underwent traditional initiation in other hidden, illegal initiation schools. In the same period, 714 boys died from botched circumcisions in the Eastern Cape alone.
The highest official amputation rate is in the OR Tambo district, in which eight initiates lost their manhood in 2016. During last year’s winter season, six initiates suffered amputations in OR Tambo district and four elsewhere in the province. But OR Tambo district has been showing signs of improvement, with no amputations recorded in last year’s summer initiation season. Of the five initiates who underwent penile amputations last December, four were in Buffalo City and one in the Chris Hani district.
To solve the problem, Bapela said, he hoped Parliament would prioritise the Customary Initiation Bill tabled in April by Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Zweli Mkhize. Bapela said Parliament was expected to start the public hearings process around the country soon and once those were completed, the bill would be tabled before the National Assembly.
“I hope in the next year or two the legislation will be in place,” he said.
Bapela said the bill was not too different from the Eastern Cape Customary Male Initiation Practice Act passed in 2016. However, one difference is the registration requirements and punitive measures for illegal initiation schools.
“We are saying [in the bill that] all initiation schools, if they do not have the permission of a traditional leader, MEC or a municipality, they will be illegal. Whoever is found erecting or running an illegal school, even if there are no deaths, the law must take its course.”