It was a cruel twist of fate when Vuyo Skosana left his home in the Eastern Cape town of Lusikisiki in the hope of entering adulthood, only to return, as he says, “without my manhood”.
Like many young boys, Skosana, who chose not to use his real name, took the decision to attend initiation school to perform the traditional coming-of-age rite of passage. His decision, however, resulted in his penis having to be amputated. He was 16 years old.
Now 23, Skosana can’t remember whether the amputation took place at the school or at the hospital to which he was rushed. “I wasn’t in a stable frame of mind,” he says.
But the “five or six months” he spent in hospital he recalls vividly. “I was in severe pain. So much pain. I couldn’t feel my right leg. I couldn’t walk. Emotionally, I didn’t feel like a human being. I didn’t feel anything … Nothing at all,” he says.
After seven years of relying on the use of a catheter to urinate, he says: “I still feel pain when I pee. I’m still in pain.”
In a bid to reduce the number of boys who have to endure what Skosana is going through, the Commission for the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (the CRL Rights Commission) conducted an investigation into initiation schools. Its report was released this week.
The investigation was undertaken in response to a “crisis threatening a cultural practice that has been conducted in African societies in South Africa and elsewhere from time immemorial”.
“The recent problems — deaths, amputations, injuries, gangsters — occurring in male initiation schools have resulted in negative perceptions of the practice; perceptions which find expression in criticism directed at the initiation schools, especially that they represent an outdated cultural practice,” the commission’s chairperson, Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva, said. “Furthermore, the initiation schools are seen by many as death traps for young people.”
Speaking at a press briefing when the report was released, Mkhwanazi-Xaluva stressed that most initiation schools “run without incident”.
But the report said that recurring numbers of hospital admissions, deaths, injuries and penile amputations during initiation seasons in the past few years could no longer be ignored.
“The crisis — as it should be declared — warrants urgent attention by all South Africans concerned,” said the report.
“I always say, once there is a mortuary van and an ambulance, culture is no longer there. Culture collapses at that point and it is just a crime,” Mkhwanazi-Xaluva said.
Prince Mahlangu is a member of the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa and chairperson of the Gauteng Initiation Task Team. Made up of traditional leaders across the province, the task team partnered with the commission in its investigation into initiation schools.
“When you look at illegal versus legal initiation schools, the illegal ones make up only roughly 2%. But this 2% are responsible for the abductions, injuries and deaths we are seeing,” says Mahlangu.
The situation, says Mahlangu, is compounded by the fact that the province does not have a policy regulating initiation schools. Three fatalities were reported in the province during the last initiation season.
The report recommends that all initiation school activities should be immediately suspended in Gauteng until the end of December 2018.
“The decision has our full support as it gives us time to put together a policy framework for Gauteng,” says Mahlangu.
“I can only say this in my own language, but our contestation is that this practice, ingoma ngeya bo mkhulu. Basically, this practice belongs to our great-great-grandfathers. There are processes to follow as to how it is passed on. These things that are happening are pure criminality. It has nothing to do with the practice.”
Since 2013, Gugulethu Sirayi has been counselling young Eastern Cape victims of botched circumcisions. Sirayi says: “You know, people think the culture is wrong. But the culture is not wrong. But these boys, they are really suffering.”
When the commission’s investigating team spoke to amputees and other survivors of botched circumcisions, Mkhwanazi-Xaluva said: “[They experience] trauma, trauma, trauma … every day of their lives.”
With little in the way of outside funding, once a month Sirayi transports, feeds and counsels the young men in a house in Lusikisiki using the little money he earns as a construction worker.
Because the suicide rate is high among these young men, Sirayi says: “I just try and give them hope. So many of them think they’re nothing because they have lost their manhood. If they had a girlfriend before going to the initiation school, it is especially a big problem for them when they come back. Most move to other areas, even other provinces, where nobody knows what happened to them.”
Sirayi adds that, because of a sense of shame, many do not tell others — even family members.
Skosana’s uncle says: “If we had something to offer him — some money to take him to hospital and get back his manhood — we would. But we struggle a lot for money. A lot.”
His parents being dead, Skosana lives with his brother and sister. All are unemployed.
Nkululeko Nxesi of the Community Development Foundation of South Africa says penile transplants cost in the region of R50 000.
One of the report’s recommendations is for the department of health to pay for penile transplants or reconstructive surgery for victims of botched circumcisions.
“I’ve been trying to get help from hospitals,” Skosana says, “but they are not offering me anything.”
But hope could soon be on the way. Speaking at the media briefing, a department of health representative said it had “kick-started [reconstruction] services in the Eastern Cape”.
“We will go full-scale in 2018. We have established a partnership with a local urologist and a plastic surgeon who are going to be helping us with providing services of transplantation and reconstruction,” he said.
Welcoming the news, Mkhwanazi-Xaluva said the commission would “like to commend the department”.
She added, however: “It doesn’t stop there. We will continue pressurising them to move faster [to link] amputees with the relevant hospitals [in order] for them to live in hope that there’s a system in place that is going to be servicing them.”
Young men like Skosana will doubtless also be keeping a desperate eye on any progress the department makes.
“You know,” Skosana says candidly, “I still get aroused. I don’t have it any more — that thing — but I still feel it. One day — that’s all I want. I just want to get it back. I need my manhood back.”
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian