“Mababuye Bephila” – ActionSA’s Call for Collaborate for the Safe Return of Initiates

ActionSA urgently calls upon all health bodies in the Eastern Cape, all parents of prospective initiates, local communities, and the esteemed custodians of the isiXhosa initiation practice of Ulwaluko, to unite and ensure a safe and dignified initiation season.

The success and value of this sacred cultural practice rely on the collaborative efforts of all of its custodians.

We deeply respect the rich cultural traditions within the Eastern Cape, especially the initiation of young men—a profound rite of passage that binds communities to their heritage and mould’s individual identity. However, we cannot turn a blind eye to the tragic loss of life during these traditional initiation processes; addressing this concern is a shared responsibility.

While recognising the sanctity of this age-old practice, it is paramount to acknowledge the regions within the province where winter and summer initiation seasons occur without incidents or fatalities. This success is attributed to the strict control exercised by the initiates’ families, the community, traditional leadership where applicable, and the identification of properly qualified traditional surgeons and “nurses” (Ikhankatha).

Crucially, priority must be given to the safety of the initiate at every stage of the Ulwaluko process. As per the Customary Initiation Act 2 of 2021, initiates must undergo medical screening before embarking on the initiation process. Initiation schools must be registered and recognized (Section 26 of the Act). Additionally, traditional surgeons or “ingcibi” (traditional nurses) must be registered with the Department of Health, following the Traditional Health Practitioners Act 2007 (Act No. 22 of 2007).

Under the banner of “Mababuye bephila,” (They Must Return Alive) ActionSA will drive a targeted campaign to raise awareness and call for collaboration and participation that ensures the safe return of our initiates.

We are committed to starting a dialogue about this sensitive subject, and as part of this initiative, we will physically visit the initiation schools that we have access to. This hands-on approach underscores our dedication to actively engage with the custodians and communities to foster safer initiation seasons.

The statistics related to mutilations and deaths reflects a general abdication of responsibility for care from both government departments, local communities, and custodians of the Ulwaluko process. The scourge of initiate deaths is a grave reflection on everyone involved, including public institutions tasked with preventing the unnecessary and annual loss of life among our young men.

Moreover, it is crucial to emphasize that the custodians of this sacred cultural rite of passage must take responsibility for ensuring that customs and practices are carefully observed and respected. During Chairperson Athol Trollip’s 15 years of direct involvement overseeing initiation schools as an MPL and Mayor, he observed instances of abdication, neglect of responsibility, and the consumption of alcohol and drugs at initiates’ huts.

This taboo behaviour compounds the impact of dehydration which is one of the main causes of initiate deaths. When traditional customary practices are disrespected and lead to the loss of life, reconsideration of the cultural practice or reinforcement of necessary customary and cultural practices is essential. Failure to take these steps will perpetuate the unnecessary and unacceptable loss of life among future generations.

ActionSA extends its heartfelt wishes for a safe and enriching journey to all initiates. May this season be marked by the preservation of cultural traditions, a deep sense of responsibility, and the safeguarding of precious lives.

ActionSA urges all custodians to actively embrace their respective responsibility and work collaboratively to uphold the sanctity of initiation traditions, ensuring a safe return for our youth. Mababuye bephila – may they all return alive.