As many Xhosa parents do, Nelisile Nongqa sent his sons to initiation school in the belief that “every Xhosa boy should go through this ritual” to manhood. But they were severely beaten with knobkerries by the traditional nurses tasked with taking care of them.
One day, checking up on their progress, he discovered they had not only been badly beaten on their bodies but also on their freshly circumcised penises.
The reasons for the beating: they were from a different village to the traditional nurses and the older of the young men had previously been circumcised at a clinic, so “they would never see him as a real man”.
“Their manhoods were seriously injured and they had to be taken to hospital. In hospital, they were urinating using pipes.”
After ensuring his sons had medical care, Nongqa returned to the initiation school to confront the nurses. He made a citizen’s arrest and took one nurse to the nearest police station. Another was subsequently arrested by the police. Both men later appeared in court on charges of common assault.
“They were first arrested in July last year,” says Nongqa. “Then, in August, the police informed me that their case docket was missing. I then called uMhlobo Wenene radio station to ask for assistance and one of their listeners helped me by giving me a detective’s number. The detective helped with opening a new case, and they were arrested again. They did not deny beating up the initiates. In fact, they were arguing that it was customary law to beat up initiates.”
In November last year, the Commission for the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities released its report on the problems that lead to deaths and injuries at initiation schools.
“The recurring numbers of hospital admissions, deaths, injuries, penile amputations and other related challenges in the past couple of years (during initiation seasons) can evidently no longer be ignored,” said the report. “The crisis — as it should be declared — warrants urgent attention by all South Africans concerned.
“Most submissions shared a somewhat similar view on the reported cases of physical abuse and violence at the schools. Sometimes abuse is perpetrated by traditional nurses/guardians … In most cases, as revealed in the hearings, incidents of abuse in the form of assault — resulting in injuries — have become a norm, particularly at initiation schools.”
Speaking at the launch of the report, the commission’s chairperson, Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva, said: “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.”
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 from 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% is responsible for the abductions, injuries and deaths we are seeing,” 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.”
But the school Nongqa sent his sons to was a legal one.
Nkululeko Nxesi, executive director of the Man and Boy Foundation, believes that Nongqa’s determination to bring the perpetrators to book will help to reduce acts of criminality in initiation schools.
Nxesi says Nongqa’s case is important, given that many such cases in the Eastern Cape “are dropped because, when the cases are before the courts, parents don’t present themselves as witnesses”.
“But with this case, it is the parent who not only performed the citizen’s arrest but who is also prepared to say: ‘I am reporting this case and I am prepared to go to court and be a witness.’ He is not afraid, which is important because it will hopefully break the pattern of parents being afraid. Hopefully, this will show other parents that they have to stand up and make sure that their children are given justice.
“We hope that this case will show those traditional nurses — even if they are in deep, deep rural areas — that they can’t just do anything and get away with it.”
Nxesi adds that the charge of common assault is not sufficient because it does not take into consideration the nurses’ violation of the Eastern Cape Customary Initiation Act of 2016. According to the Act, traditional nurses are forbidden from “physically or emotionally abusing initiates”. If misconduct is found, the Act stipulates, the nurse should be removed from the database of registered traditional nurses.
“If the court finds these nurses guilty, we will call for their names to be removed from the list of registered nurses,” says Nxesi, adding that the organisation was also pushing for a national database of offenders to be created and made public.
On Wednesday this week, almost a year after the day Nongqa discovered his beaten, bloodied sons, the two traditional nurses were found guilty and ordered to pay a penalty of R5 000 each, R2 500 of which was suspended.
Calling the judgment “an insult”, Nxesi says: “It shows a total disregard for the human rights of these boys. This judgment does them no justice; no justice at all.”
He added that the foundation would consult its lawyers and Nongqa to “take the matter further”.
For Nongqa, his nearby year-long struggle for justice has ended badly.
“I am very, very disappointed with this and how our legal system works. I was hoping for a harsh sentence. I wanted this case to teach them that initiates are not meant to be beaten up when they are at initiation school.
“I wanted them to always remember that if they ever think of beating up initiates, they must know that there will be legal and severe consequences for their actions. I wanted them to always remember the outcome of this case if they think of doing something wrong to the initiates.”
He says that his younger child “is at school now, because he is better”, but that, in addition to the penile reconstruction surgery they both will need, “the older one will need surgery around his knees because he struggles to walk, struggles to do anything”.
Despite everything Nongqa says: “I still do believe in the ritual.
“But we need to make sure the proper protocols and procedures are practiced and followed.”
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian. Mihlali Ntsabo is a reporter for The Daily Vox