NOTE: This article is the last of a nine-part sequential narrative series on initiation practices in SA. Answer the question at the end of the article to continue with the narrative or view the full series at The Perilous Path To Manhood.
When Kholiwe Nqonqothane wakes up in the morning, she feels normal, but only for a second.
The mother from Lusikisiki soon remembers that her first-born son, Kungawe - the family's breadwinner who promised to build her a proper home - died, and the tears start falling all over again.
The pain of losing her son to illegal circumcision is too much for Nqonqothane, who has started a support group called the Gugulethu Foundation for bereaved parents. It now has 15 other members. The group has started visiting traditional councils and high schools to encourage boys to go for the mandatory medical check-ups before they go for circumcision.
"We also tell these women to ensure their sons are over 18, and have permission from their traditional leaders to undergo circumcision," she says.
While thousands will be celebrating the homecoming (umgidi) of their sons from initiation schools in six weeks' time, Nqonqothane will be mourning Kungawe, who was severely assaulted at initiation school and died at the Mthatha General Hospital.
My son was killed. No one was ever arrested. I don’t know what happened to his caseKholiwe Nqonqothane
A few days after Kungawe left for initiation school in 2005, two men came to Nqonqothane's home and told the family he was in a hospital in Mthatha and needed serious medical attention.
“He was allegedly repeatedly tortured and battered with knobkerries for 'faking seizures'. I got a call from an unknown man that my son was hospitalised and was sick. When I got to the hospital I found that he had actually been assaulted,” she said.
“My son was killed. No one was ever arrested. I don’t know what happened to his case. The other boys who were with him in the bush also don’t know what happened," she said.
One of Nqonqothane's group members is Thozelwa Mahlangabeze, 39, of Msikaba village outside Lusikisiki. Her husband, Thembelani, 44, died at an initiation school in 2016 after being severely assaulted.
“He kept getting sick and his family advised he must go to initiation school. I didn’t expect that he will never come back to us,” she said.
Mahlangabeze now survives on the almost R1,500 a month in child grants she receives for her two girls aged 16 and 12, and two boys aged 14 and four.
She insists she will allow her sons to be initiated.
“My husband didn’t die due to botched circumcision, but was assaulted and killed. Some men told me he was denied food and water for days,” she said.
Nobody has ever been arrested in connection with his death.
As a member of the Gugulethu Foundation, Mahlangabeze helps other women who have lost sons due to botched circumcisions.
“We do visits at schools and traditional councils to talk about dangers at circumcision. Sometimes we get chased away by men but we persevere,” she said.
Nqonqothane wonders daily how many other initiates have died in a similar way to her son.
We do visits at schools and traditional councils to talk about dangers at circumcision. Sometimes we get chased away by some men but we persevereThozelwa Mahlangabeze
“Things have turned for the worse since Kungawe died. I have lost almost half my livestock. He used to make sure all my cattle and goats were accounted for before he went to sleep. I’m still living in my old mud house,” she said.
Nqonqothane, who has two other sons, didn’t want them to go to initiation school, fearing they would also be assaulted and die.
“It took a lot of convincing by family members for me to allow Kungawe’s brother to go for circumcision. My question was: 'What if they also do not come back home?' Luckily they did,” she said.
Nqonqothane called for parents, especially mothers, to be more involved when their children are at initiation schools.
“Get an uncle or someone to be your ears and eyes. Don’t just give all powers to iingcibi (traditional surgeons) and amakhankatha (traditional nurses),” she warned.
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