Traditional rites of passage: Are initiates protected?

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In South Africa, rites of passage initiates go to initiation schools each year, with teenagers being the most vulnerable to the initiation. The custom has caused outrage due to the number of fatalities that occur during these initiations. The rise in the number of illegal schools run by inexperienced and negligent surgeons is believed to be the main cause of these deaths. However, one cannot overlook the fact that these problems also take place in registered initiation schools.Traditional initiation is an ancient practice that is commonly practised throughout the country within different tribes. It is regarded as a sacred and compulsory cultural rite, intended to prepare initiates for adulthood. It is at these cultural educational institutes where initiates are taught about manhood and customary values. The practice has, however, received outrage due to a number of factors.In 2001, the Eastern Cape province passed The Application of Health Standards in Traditional Circumcision Act (the Act) which is aimed at regulating the traditional circumcision practice and setting health standards to be followed by the traditional attendants. The regulations require that initiates must have reached the legal age for circumcision (18 years), attend pre-circumcision medical check-ups, and have access to water throughout the rite. Traditional surgeons and nurses who contravene these regulations are subject to arrest. Furthermore, the Policy on Customary Practice of Initiates clearly states that an initiation school must be registered in accordance with the provisions of this policy.

There are, however, a number of issues associated with the Act. The problems are based on non-compliance by traditional surgeons and nurses, leading to complications and fatalities. Over the past few years, the Eastern Cape province has received widespread publicity due to the alarming rate of fatalities of young boys at initiation schools. These fatalities are mainly due to complications born out of the traditional circumcision, including dehydration, septicaemia, gangrene, pneumonia, assault, congestive heart failure, etc.

The Eastern Cape Premier has confirmed that at least 23 people died in the Eastern Cape region during the 2021 summer initiation season that started on 12 November 2021 and ended on 12 January 2022. According to the reports, it is estimated that 858 boys died while attending initiation schools in the past 15 years, with many more having been admitted to hospital, suffering serious injuries.

Some of the important causes of these problems are lack of skills on the part of traditional surgeons, the erosion of communal authority over the selection of traditional surgeons and nurses, and the rise of illegal initiation schools with overseers who appear to be motivated by financial gain rather than persevering a responsible execution of custom. Medical reports suggest that traditional surgeons are largely ignorant of anatomy as evident in the common practice of chopping rather than excising the foreskin. Since the accompanying pain and suffering is regarded as good for initiates, there is no attempt to control the pain, haemorrhaging, or dehydration.  Despite the reality that a number of initiates die during each initiation season due to negligence and unscrupulous acts by operators of an initiation school, arrests remain relatively low, and it is unclear whether prosecution has resulted from these arrests.

While the importance of cultural values and their relevance to a person’s identity is appreciated, it must be noted that all practices that originate from these values must comply with relevant laws. Initiates have a right to the highest attainable standards of health while at the initiation school. They should not be subjected to surgical procedures that jeopardise their health, dignity, and bodily security. The deaths are likely to have occurred at illegal initiation schools being run by inexperienced and negligent traditional surgeons and nurses and permitted by corrupt traditional leaders.

The state is obligated to protect the initiates from any form of physical violence or bodily harm, as well as against the loss of life inflicted by known individuals, groups, or traditional institutions. The state must, therefore, ensure that each death, be it from registered or unregistered schools, is followed by the charge of murder. Practitioners who are negligent and who operate illegal schools must face appropriate sanctions. The South African Police Service, at provincial and municipal level, must develop and strengthen their detectives and build capacity to combat the proliferation of illegal initiation schools. Specialised courts should be introduced to fast-track the charges and prosecution related to these crimes. Parents and teachers must play a pivotal role in informing boys about the consequences of attending illegal initiation schools. And finally, initiates must be encouraged to report abuse and crimes committed against them at any illegal or legal initiation schools.


  • N. Mgedeza, How does the law protect initiates and their rite of passage?, 2016.

This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your legal adviser for specific and detailed advice. Errors and omissions excepted (E&OE)

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