Young lives destroyed

14 July 2013 - 03:12 By MATTHEW SAVIDES
subscribe Just R20 for the first month. Support independent journalism by subscribing to our digital news package.
Subscribe now
Dr Dingeman Rijken has treated more than 120 patients in Pondoland since March last year
Dr Dingeman Rijken has treated more than 120 patients in Pondoland since March last year
Image: SUPPLIED

Horrifying stories of death, mutilation and torture have emerged from initiation ceremonies in the Pondoland region of the Eastern Cape.

This week, the Sunday Times visited the area to assess the rite of passage rituals.

In Pondoland, which stretches from Port St Johns to Bizana and includes the towns of Lusikisiki, Flagstaff and Holy Cross, 28 boys died during this initiation season.

Eight initiates have had their penises at least partly amputated, and many others were admitted and treated at local hospitals for infections, dehydration, gangrene and septicaemia. In the Eastern Cape, 30 boys died and 293 were admitted to hospitals.

About 20000 boys went through the ritual during June and July, according to the Eastern Cape health department. "One initiate of a school in the Bizana district was burnt with a panga held in a fire and pressed on his back, right arm and right knee. It left marks there," Dr Dingeman Rijken said this week.

Rijken has monitored 63 initiation schools and has treated more than 120 patients at the Holy Cross Hospital since he started working in Pondoland in March last year.

He said he often came across cases of physical abuse against the initiates.

"The big problem is not the cutting itself, it's the inexperience of the inkhankatha [traditional nurses]. Many of them have no idea what they're doing. They are 20 years old and will have responsibility for a group of 25 boys.

"You have to picture a setting with only youngsters, a lot of dagga, a lot of alcohol and no one who takes responsibility.

"If the bandaging is done wrong, it leads to complications and it is easier to get an infection. While dressing the wound, the nurses often don't wash their hands, so you get infections spreading. Most of the deaths are because of infections caused by poor wound care. Add to that the physical abuse that happens and it's a recipe for disaster," he said.

The Eastern Cape heath department has confirmed that "assault" occurred in at least two of the 30 deaths in the province during this initiation season. Other reasons ranged from renal failure to dehydration. The causes of most deaths, according to information supplied to the Sunday Times, are "not yet established".

Health Minister Aaron Motsaoledi said this week that the custom had "been turned into something criminal ... young lives are being destroyed".

Mbulelo Dyasi, secretary-general of the South African National Aids Council's men's sector, said physical violence did take place at these initiation schools and that he had been a victim.

"Some years ago, I was part of the initiation process. I was brutally tortured by the traditional nurse simply because I was always questioning his teaching and the use of drugs in our space. Even today young people are subjected to the same treatment," he said.

The council has called on the South African Human Rights Commission and the police to investigate the incidents of torture.

A former traditional nurse, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the initiates who had their penis mutilated suffered long into the future.

"They all hope that their penis will get back to normal, but it doesn't happen. Their classmates and other people know what has happened and there is lots of stigma. They are told that they are not real men. They struggle to go back to being normal," he said.

Rijken said that by the time the injured boys reached his hospital, there was little he could do.

"I can stop the infection spreading and I can treat them for dehydration. As for the penis, I can't do a whole lot - the damage has already been done.

"The penis will be deformed, or sometimes amputated. In a society where manhood is so important, it's difficult. If I was in their shoes, I would be devastated," he said.

Eastern Cape police said this week that five arrests had been made relating to illegal initiation.

subscribe Just R20 for the first month. Support independent journalism by subscribing to our digital news package.
Subscribe now