Dying to be men: Driving factors behind mushrooming illegal initiation schools

By Naledi Selebano, Thubelihle Zitha and Princess Malebye

Initiation is one of the world’s oldest traditional practices that has been observed across many cultures. In South Africa, the practice is observed among Nguni groups, which include the amaXhosa, amaZulu, amaSwati and amaNdebele people. The practice is also observed by other ethnic groups, including BaPedi, the Southern Sotho people, Masemola, Lemba, the Matlala of the North West, the Mamabolo of the Woodbush, the Shangaan-Tsonga, VhaVenda, Balobedu, BaHananwa, Letswalo, Khaha and Tswana people.

Undergoing traditional initiation is a means of attaining identity and honour for those who practise it. The practice is also considered an important, exciting part of the upbringing of young men, without which they can neither participate in the social activities and affairs of their communities nor take up the advances of women to prepare for marriage. Initiation is further considered as the rite of passage to manhood, which is a source of pride for young men across different tribes within the South African society.

South Africa has, however, in the past few years witnessed heightened media reports of botched circumcisions, poor health outcomes and fatalities of boys and young men admitted at initiation schools. These atrocities are often associated with the emergence of unregulated practitioners who operate initiation schools without the approval of government. 

In the December 2021 initiation period, The Cultural, Religious and Linguistic (CRL) Rights Commission reported that 10 deaths had been witnessed at legal initiation schools, while the illegal schools accounted for 18 deaths in the Eastern Cape. The National Assembly’s Portfolio Committee on cooperative governance and traditional affairs (Cogta) in July 2022 conducted oversight visits in the same province and reported that there were 66 legal initiation schools, while 68 others were operating illegally in the OR Tambo District Municipality alone. 

It is clear from these figures that not only did the bogus initiation schools account for the highest number of fatalities, but they were also higher, which potentially shows the extent of the situation more broadly in the country.

The Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) thus conducted the study to establish the root causes that have led to the decay of this well-intended traditional practice.

This article is based on a study that was conducted by the CGE in the 2020/21 financial year to examine factors that lead to the emergence, persistence and prevalence of illegal initiation schools in South Africa. The study was undertaken in four provinces, including the Eastern Cape, Free State, Limpopo and Gauteng as they were identified as the provinces with the highest prevalence of illegal initiation schools in the country.

Brief note on methodology

The study adopted a qualitative research approach in exploring the experiences, perceptions, views and knowledge of key role players regarding the emergence and persistence of illegal initiation schools in the provinces that were studied. The study focused on four provinces that had been identified as epicentres of the high prevalence of illegal initiation schools. 

Purposive and snowball sampling techniques were utilised to select participants, based on their comprehensive knowledge of the operations of initiation schools and the sector in general. Individual in-depth interviews were conducted with the participants, while two focus group discussions were conducted in the Free State, with the intention of triangulating the methods of data collection to ensure the robustness of the data. Data emanating from the study were analysed using thematic analysis and were presented in the research report under the various themes identified for the study. Lastly, the research ethical principles of confidentiality and anonymity were observed in the study.

Findings of the study

Based on the findings of the study, there was a noticeable prevalence of illegal initiation schools across all four provinces that were selected. However, this information was based on the knowledge and views of the participants who were interviewed and were directly or indirectly involved with initiation schools across all provinces. An array of issues emerged from the findings of the report. However, this article only focuses on two, which are the prevalence of illegal initiation schools and factors contributing to the emergence and persistence of illegal initiation schools.

With regard to the prevalence and location of illegal initiation practices, the study found that illegal operations were often conducted secretly. The rationale behind this conduct was to avoid detection given the legal consequences for those involved. This made it hard and almost impossible for law enforcement agencies to gather sufficient and reliable information on the occurrence, patterns, and scale of the prevalence of illegal initiation schools in the four provinces selected for the study. It should be noted though that in some cases, the participants of the study stated that illegal initiation schools were known to the public and law enforcement agencies.

In Gauteng and the Free State, there were clearly identifiable locations and residential areas in specific municipalities where such illegal initiation schools were likely to operate, but with no intervention from law enforcement agencies. 

In the Eastern Cape and Limpopo, the specific patterns of geographic locations and prevalence were not clear.

The CGE learnt that illegal initiation schools were often characterised by kidnapping and assaults and these were often reported to be dominant by the Basotho initiation schools. There were Lesotho nationals who reportedly crossed the border to South Africa to abduct young men and boys who would then be taken to initiation schools in Lesotho without their parents’ knowledge. These culprits were alleged to be operating freely, while several boys’ and young men’s rights were being grossly violated. Furthermore, in Gauteng and the Free State, some schools were fraudulently registered. Allegations were made that fraudulent registration papers were being issued by local municipality personnel at a cost, without following the procedures of vetting as per the provisions of the rules and regulations of initiation schools, thus making it difficult to differentiate authentically registered initiation schools and those issued with illegal registration papers.

Regarding factors that contribute to the emergence and persistence of illegal initiation schools, ‘push and pull’ factors were identified as playing a key role. ‘Push factors’ are explained as those conditions and circumstances that compel the initiates (often against their will) to subject themselves to the practices of illegal initiation schools. ‘Pull factors’ are those factors that are attractive and positively associated with the act of initiation, circumcision, and the cultural and eventual social positioning associated with the transition to manhood status. These factors, as a result, encourage the initiates (and their legal guardians) to view this process as favourable.

Findings from the interviews conducted with key role players revealed several common ‘push’ factors regarding the establishment of the illegal initiation schools. Peer-group pressure was identified as one of the key push factors. Considerable force was exerted by social groups and networks, which often pushed young men and boys towards illegal initiation schools as these schools did not adhere to the stringent standards set to govern the initiation schools. In other words, illegal initiation schools provided boys and young men with the quickest route to fit in with their peers given that the process was deemed lax.

The lack of financial resources was identified as another push factor. This was more common among boys and young men who came from impoverished families and were desperate to undergo the initiation process. The commercialisation of the tradition of initiation was perceived by those interviewed for the study as being responsible for the escalation of illegal initiation schools. The findings across the four provinces indicated that, to a very large extent, the lack of financial resources emerged as a push factor for boys and young men to opt for illegal initiation schools, implying that such schools were more affordable. There was, however, insufficient data to determine the comparative average costs, not only among illegal initiation schools but also between legal and illegal initiation schools within the various provinces. Moreover, another push factor was the fear of parental disapproval, as one of the prerequisites for being an eligible initiate as per the rules and regulations is parental approval. Boys and young men desperate to undergo initiation, therefore, opted for enrolling in illegal initiation schools, where admission procedures and eligibility were lax and less onerous, and parental consent in such facilities was usually not required.

In terms of the pull factors as defined earlier, findings revealed that initiates voluntarily subjected themselves to initiation and circumcision practices by illegal and unregistered facilities. This was done by initiates without considering vital issues that were most likely to impact their lives. Issues of great importance, such as healthcare, safety and security, food security, shelter, access to water and sanitation, which are crucial basic human rights services that need to be taken into consideration as per the initiation rules and regulations were simply ignored or even not considered at all. The findings revealed that initiates attended these schools to show respect for the cultural practice by both the caregivers and the initiates; the idea of transitioning from boyhood to manhood; and the promise of the benefits of being an adult, such as the ability to take a wife and be given adult responsibilities, and thus avoiding the disrespect that comes with being an uninitiated young man or boy.

The factors discussed above proved to be playing significant roles in driving young men towards illegal rather than legal initiation schools and subjecting them to risk their health, welfare, safety and their lives in general and degrading or devaluing a culturally dignified tradition.

Conclusions and recommendations.

The CGE concluded that the existence of illegal initiation schools was widespread and dangerous to young boys, even though actual figures could not be obtained to establish trends and comparisons due to the clandestine and sporadic manner in which illegal schools operated.

Factors that contributed to the existence and flourishment of illegal initiation schools ranged from social to economic justifications that attracted young men and boys to enrol themselves in illegal initiation schools despite the risks to the health, welfare and lives of initiates. 

It appeared that the social benefits of being a graduate outweighed the risk of undergoing a potentially harmful and even fatal route of illegal initiation by those who enrolled in these schools.

Furthermore, poor oversight and enforcement associated with the practice of traditional initiation and circumcision in some provinces have laid fertile ground for the rise and co-existence of illegal, unregistered or fraudulently registered initiation schools, alongside the registered initiation schools in South Africa. The secrecy that usually surrounds this practice has also created an enabling environment for illegal initiation schools and formed the foundation for illegal and criminal activities.

Another conclusion drawn was that the various issues identified in the study outlined that the traditional initiation sector struggled with not only the lack of effective enforcement of current laws, rules and regulations but also a lack of effective, direct and ongoing monitoring of the activities of the schools.

In light of these conclusions, the CGE recommended that Cogta ensured that norms and standards for oversight, monitoring and evaluation of the work of traditional initiation schools were enacted in line with the new Customary Initiation Act, No 2 of 2021. The Commission further recommended that the SA Police Services at a provincial level, alongside other municipal policing bodies developed and strengthened their detective and intelligence gathering units to build capacity to fight the scourge of illegal initiation schools and the criminal activities that were associated with them, including kidnappings and killings.

The Commission recommended appropriate and effective education and awareness programmes at the level of the House of Traditional Leaders, working closely with municipalities and other key stakeholders (such as the parents, school principals and educators) in communities affected by the problems covered in the study.

Finally, it is imperative that the CGE works closely with other relevant institutions, which include the SA Human Rights Commission and the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities to ensure that initiates undergo the cultural practices of initiation and circumcision in safe and secure environments, where their cultural, human and sexual reproductive health rights are not violated.