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Newsletter: From Evidence to Action

Age restriction for traditional initiates

No child under the age of 16 will be allowed to undergo cultural initiation. That is if Cabinet has its way. Deputy Minister of Traditional Affairs Obed Bapela revealed yesterday that an age restriction had been introduced for cultural initiation.

“We said 16 because it is in line with the Child Protection Act,” he said. Bapela said the policy, which Cabinet is pushing to be finalised, would make it illegal for children who are under the age restriction to undergo initiation.“We found that small children as young as six years old in Mpumalanga go (for initiation) and we only came to know about it after a death was reported,” he said.

Bapela said he expected resistance to the policy from traditional leaders. “My own tribe, the Bapela, would not take easy to this, I know,” he said. Other controversial characters of the proposed policy would force medical circumcisions on all initiates.

“They will have to go through a medical procedure,” Bapela said.

In the Eastern Cape alone, the death toll from botched circumcisions has risen to as many as 25. In Mpumalanga, at least 29 initiates have died during this initiation season alone. “Whoever is doing the circumcisions must be a doctor, who was maybe an initiate himself or maybe a cultural leader who had no failures and underwent training,” he said.

Bapela said that the government would not restrict male circumcision, provided that it was done medically. National House of Traditional Leaders initiation task team head Ikosi Sipho Mahlangu said various cultures differed when it came to the age limit of an initiate.

“We differ according to cultures, where the Pedi and Venda-speaking people prefer to send their boys at ages between 12 and 18, but mainly younger than 16,” he said.

Mahlangu said he agreed with the Department of Traditional affairs on its policy. “According to my culture, being Ndebele, initiation means a boy transcending to adulthood,” Mahlangu said.

“I can therefore not understand how a child under the age of 16 could transcend to being an adult.”

The drafted policy would also see strict regulation over illegal initiation schools. At present, only if a death is uncovered can the police dismantle illegal schools and arrest the offenders.

“With the policy, we want to be able to clamp down on illegal schools even if there are no deaths reported,” Bapela said.

The department of Traditional Affairs uncovered 19 illegal schools in the south of Johannesburg this initiation season alone. Bapela gave a mixed response to whether stricter legislation would reduce the death toll.

“Yes and no. Yes because we will get rid of all the illegal schools,” he said.

The new policy, if passed into law, would give police more authority to arrest anyone participating in a non-medically facilitated circumcision.

Age restriction for traditional initiates