Judging by the number of deaths – approaching 50 this year – and hospitalisations, it is clear that the cultural practice of initiation in the Eastern Cape is under severe threat from its commodification, which has resulted in the proliferation of illegal schools. At risk are not just lives, or cultural practices, but potentially important public health gains.
Initiation is about preparing boys to face the harsh world and raise their own families.
And now it has been shown that the circumcision practiced at these schools could be a huge help in fighting the HIV scourge facing South Africa.
Recent international studies have shown circumcision can reduce the risk of a man being infected by a female partner by up to 70%. Therefore, if practised properly, the benefits for individuals and the country are immense.
Methods of regulation
Traditionally, the wielding of the blade is an inherited family trade, but the old methods of regulation and the fine system, as imposed by traditional leaders on unregistered schools, are clearly failing to deter charlatans out to make a quick buck from commercialised initiation schools.
It makes little sense to call for the abandonment of the tradition or the complete replacement of traditional surgeons by medical practitioners. The culture is still being practised successfully in many parts of the Eastern Cape.
But the health department and institutions of traditional leadership need to work together to ensure that initiates are not endangered, and that circumcision is performed in a way that confers its health benefits on initiates.
And both sides need to be held responsible for stopping the needless deaths and mutilation of so many young men.
The Zuma administration purports to understand the value of traditional practices in a modern world. This would be a good place to show it.