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Shock stats of a custom in crisis

Dehydration, drought and hardline attitudes have contributed to a shocking increase in the death toll of circumcision initiates in the Eastern Cape this summer.

In all, 46 young men lost their lives while undergoing traditional circumcision – up from the 29 deaths that last summer caused a public outcry.

Most died from dehydration, according to the final report discussed at a two-day summit of traditional leaders and government officials in Queenstown late last week.

It was pointed out that of the 40423 initiates who returned home alive, 20 had to undergo penile amputations.

In a new development, 21 people connected to the rite were arrested for murder, illegal circumcision and assault.

It was initially reported that 42 initiates died this season, but on Friday, the Eastern Cape House of Traditional Leaders (ECHTL) CEO Mzi Nkantsu, ECHTL senior executive member Chief Mnoneleli Ranuga and other senior officials, were shocked when assistant director of the health department’s safe circumcision unit Zamile Yote revealed the final figures.

The latest four deaths came from Chris Hani district (one), Amathole (one) and Joe Gqabi (two).

“It’s a crisis. The Eastern Cape is faced with a disaster,” Nkantsu told the summer season evaluation meeting in Queenstown on Friday.

Yote, standing in for the department’s safe circumcision manager Dr Luvuyo Bayeni, said more than 80% of deaths had been caused by dehydration.

Others were from septicaemia, assault, herbal intoxication, suicide, starvation, and one initiate died in a hit-and-run.

Chris Hani district, which had the most deaths in the 2014 summer season, was again the worst-hit area with 18 deaths, 11 more than in the summer of 2014.

Joe Gqabi had eight deaths, up from one in 2014, OR Tambo six up from five, Amathole six up from four, Alfred Nzo six which was down from seven and Sara Baartman one, the same as last summer.

Ranuga said: “Good news is there was better performance in the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro with zero deaths (compared to two last year) and Buffalo City Metro with one death (down from four).

“Nelson Mandela Bay is our role-model in the province. If they can do it without traditional leaders, other districts can also do it. BCM next season must also have zero deaths. One is too many,” Ranuga said.

The Chris Hani Traditional Initiation Forum painted a picture of a custom in crisis with poor participation of parents, and communities resisting government interventions and denying initiates medical attention.

He said two initiates died due to “herbal intoxication” from concoctions supplied by sangomas.

“The dehydrated initiates had hallucinations but one father – instead of giving him water or allowing medical intervention – made him drink a concoction from a sangoma. Another initiate died after he did not eat for five days. He could have been rescued had his father allowed our intervention,” the provincial health department’s designated medical officer in the Chris Hani Municipality, Ayanda Mxekezo, said.

There were 39 assault cases, causing three deaths. This is the highest number of summer deaths since 2005, when 47 initiates died.

It makes 2015 the third-worst year when the summer and winter season death tolls are added. The highest was 2009 with 55 deaths followed by 2012 with 49.

The meeting resolved that the pre-circumcision mandatory medical screening needed to be bolstered.

The Amathole District said of the 7508 boys they had screened, 25 tested positive for HIV and two for diabetes.

“One was diagnosed with haemophilia, but was apparently circumcised without any complications.

A total of 15 of the 18 deaths in Chris Hani District were caused by dehydration.

The health department distributed more than 10000 litres of bottled water to initiation schools to help address the issue of dehydration after noticing initiates were being denied water by their traditional nurses.

Nkantsu said the provincial government joined with NGOs and municipalities to pump millions into the effort to curb initiation deaths.

The health department spent more than R5-million hiring 45 vehicles for monitoring initiation schools and hiring doctors. The department of cooperative governance and traditional affairs (Cogta), working through the ECHTL, spent more than R1.2-million.

“And yet we have this high death toll,” a concerned Nkantsu said.

He and others hoped that a customary initiation bill under consideration would help deal with initiation criminal activities, deaths and injuries, as well as illegal circumcisions.

The summer 2015 final initiation report was to be handed to ECHTL chairman Nkosi Nganomhlaba Matanzima, Cogta MEC Fikile Xasa and health MEC Dr Phumza Dyantyi this weekend. From there it goes to Eastern Cape premier Phumulo Masualle. — lulamilef@dispatch.co.za


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