33 men 'die in South African circumcision ceremonies'
by Aislinn Laing
As many as 33 young men are now thought to have died over two weeks in one province of South Africa as they took part in traditional initiation ceremonies that included circumcision and extreme survival tests.
Police have confirmed that they have opened murder investigations into all but one of the deaths in northern Mpumalanga province, which President Jacob Zuma described as a "massive and unnecessary loss of young life".
Tens of thousands of young South Africans take part in traditional initiation ceremonies each year where circumcision is normally performed by traditional healers.
Although fatalities during the winter ceremony season are not uncommon, the high toll has prompted calls for a public inquiry into the policing of the traditional schools and their care of initiates.
Just over half of South African men undergo circumcision, which has been promoted by the government as key in the fight against HIV/Aids.
Around half of those do so aged 10 to 15 as part of traditional initiation ceremonies, which generally last around three weeks and former president Nelson Mandela described in his autobiography as "a kind of spiritual preparation for the trials of manhood."
What exactly goes on during the ceremonies is shrouded in mystery, but initiates are often painted with red clay and spend long periods of living in the bush, often with little or no clothes. Some are given herbal concoctions to drink.
In the past, deaths during initiation have been caused by botched circumcisions, infection and loss of blood, or by dehydration and hypothermia.
The highest previous death toll from initiations in Mpumalanga province was reported to be eight.
Lt Col Leonard Hlathi, a police spokesman, said autopsies were still being conducted on the Mpumalanga fatalities but added that the one initiate for whom an inquest had been opened had complained of stomach pains and vomiting.
Despite suggestions that the initiates might have died at rogue schools set up by unlicensed operators seeking to make money, he said that they all occurred at officially-recognised sites where doctors were normally present.
He confirmed that police had never previously investigated initiates' deaths, but added: "We are talking about lives here that we have lost in a space of two weeks. It's too many."
Dr Wilson Makgalancheche, head of the country's National House of Traditional Leaders, said some schools failed to conduct health checks on initiates when they arrived, and some brought along younger siblings who were not ready to take part.
He said there was no question of initiations being banned. "It's a cultural practice embedded in people's lives and they feel that without these practices, they might cease to exist," he said. "The important thing is for them to be better policed and updated to fit with modern life."
Mr Zuma, a Zulu traditionalist who has spoken openly about his own circumcision for health reasons, called for "swift justice" for those responsible for the deaths.
"It cannot be acceptable that every time young men reach this crucial time in their development, their lives are culled in the most painful of ways, in the care of circumcision schools," he said.