A South African rite of passage: tradition or abuse?

Each year, boys die while attending initiation schools, as the government tries to balance cultural rights and child safety

On June 6, just as the sun was dipping below the horizon, 17-year-old Ponkie Lebitse stole a blanket from his bed and sneaked away from his home in Orange Farm, a township about 25 miles outside Johannesburg.

Dressed in a black track suit and tennis shoes, he made his way to the local post office, where a small group of his friends waited for the large truck that would transport them to a place where boys become men.

"I wanted to go," says Ponkie, referring to the traditional initiation school where young Sotho men are circumcised and learn the ways of their people. "I wanted to become a man."

But of the 21 boys who left with Ponkie that day, only 15 came home. Four of Ponkie's friends froze to death after being forced to sleep outside naked in below-freezing temperatures after being sprayed with cold water. Another two died from exposure and severe beatings in the following weeks, one of whom had been returned to the school by his family after being hospitalized. In addition, 56 other boys from three separate schools, including Ponkie, were hospitalized.

Each year, around this time, young men in several South African ethnic groups participate in this traditional rite of passage. Much of what happens during the usually five-week-long schools is shrouded in secrecy, but officials say it usually involves learning traditional songs and dances, tribal history, and societal laws.

But often boys die. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of others are hospitalized from botched circumcisions or injuries caused by the strict corporal punishment used by teachers. Authorities also fear that the schools are spreading AIDS because the same knife is often used to circumcise multiple boys.

For South Africa's eight-year-old black administration, the initiation schools pose a political dilemma. While the country's progressive human- and child-rights laws clearly make the kind of abuse that took place at Ponkie's camp illegal, the government is under pressure to respect people's right to practice their culture.

In Limpopo province in northern South Africa, parents recently protested against a move by health authorities to close nearby schools, saying the government had no right to interfere in their traditional practices.

Like female circumcision, which is practiced further north on the continent and has been condemned by human rights groups as a form of gender discrimination, the debate over the initiation schools pit culture against human rights, an uncomfortable conflict for African governments who claim to uphold both.

"There are some people to whom this makes no sense, but there are others who hold this tradition dear," says Modise Nyawane, town manager of Heidelberg, where three camps were closed by health officials. "Our country is a democratic country that gives people latitude to practice their beliefs, but we've got to find a way to do that that also protects the health and safety of these boys."

Just 18 and dwarfed by the oversized green work suit he wears over clothes to protect against South Africa's biting Southern Hemisphere winter, Sthembiso Ngobeni has not been a man for long.

But today he is one of five teachers at an initiation school not far from the one Ponkie attended. The camp is little more than a clearing in the hills, with a tent, a fire circle, and a teepee-like structure made from greenery. Students are naked except for a blanket. Behind the tent is a large pile of clothes.

Mr. Ngobeni says the teachers at his school never beat the children, they use different knives for each circumcision, and since the deaths at Ponkie's camp, they allow doctors to examine the boys every day.

He and other teachers blame the deaths on fly-by-night schools run by con men out to make a quick buck, rather than trained traditional healers.

"I think those people don't use the traditions, they just want money, not to make boys men," he says. "We are not allowed to hit the students, and they all sleep in the tent."

Since the rituals of the schools are so secretive, it is difficult to determine the veracity of Ngobeni's claim. However, the healer who ran Ponkie's school had done so for 10 years, and health officials say there are students even in Ngobeni's school who were suffering from infections and exposure, though not so badly that they were forcibly removed by authorities.

Local police say that while the degree of physical abuse that lead to deaths at Ponkie's school is rare, physical punishment is a common feature of the schools. Students are often beaten for mistakes made in lessons, denied food and water, or forced to sleep outside in the severe cold.

Although any kind of physical punishment is illegal under South Africa's strict child-abuse laws, prosecuting school authorities, even in cases that lead to death, is almost impossible. A 1998 case in Heidelberg over the beating death of one student never went to trial because witnesses disappeared or refused to testify.

The death of the four boys in Heidelberg has led to renewed calls for some sort of government intervention in the schools. The South African Department of Health says that they are trying to encourage traditional healers to bring initiates to hospitals and health centers for circumcisions. Some provincial and local authorities are also beginning to register schools in order to hold them more accountable, although no national registration plan has been enacted.

Ponkie, who is still recovering at the Heidelberg Hospital, didn't finish the five weeks of initiation. Speaking in slow, halting sentences, his hands over his face, he says he won't go back to finish the initiation. The night his friends died, he saw a man's share of tragedy.

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