Three people have been arrested after a Pondoland initiate who lost his penis and spoke out about it in public was beaten for “shaming the custom”.
Three suspects are to appear in the Flagstaff magistrate’s court on Wednesday for allegedly assaulting a 20-year-old man from Pondoland in the Eastern Cape after he spoke at a community meeting of his dismay at losing his penis in a botched traditional circumcision in June 2012.
Dingeman Rijken, a doctor who treated the man at the time of his injuries at Holy Cross Hospital near Flagstaff, said: “The initiate was allegedly accused of ‘shaming the custom’ by sharing his story of penile amputation at the meeting on Wednesday last week. The next day, on the Thursday afternoon, three men beat him severely. He suffered injuries to his head, feet, arms and legs. He was hospitalised and has since been discharged, but his injuries are still so severe that he cannot speak.”
According to a community member who witnessed the assault but asked not be identified, the attackers were in their mid-20s and appeared to be drunk.
A person who attended the meeting and wanted to remain anonymous said: “The meeting at which the young man disclosed his condition was a gathering to discuss general issues, not initiation-related issues. But the amputee felt the urge to share what had happened to him and to ask traditional leaders what they were going to do about it. The three attackers felt the tradition is sacred and speaking about injuries harms the culture.”
Pondoland has in recent years endured some of the highest numbers of initiation-related deaths and injuries in the Eastern Cape. According to provincial health department figures, 43 initiates died during the previous initiation season in December 2013. The next initiation season starts in June this year.
Losing part or all of their penises
In 2013, Rijken and a colleague conducted a study in Pondoland of initiates who lost their penises, or part thereof, as a result of initiation-related injuries. “Just during last year’s winter season, 175 initiates were admitted to public hospitals in the Alfred Nzo and Oliver Tambo districts and 25 lost a part or all of their penises,” Rijken said.
The Netherlands-born doctor has since moved to Malawi to practice medicine. In January, he set up a website, ulwaluko.co.za, which criticises traditional leaders for the high number of initiation-related deaths in Pondoland and advocates for the incorporation of medical male circumcision into initiation ceremonies. Traditional leaders have rejected the website, accusing Rijken of interfering with their culture and pornography, as a result of his publishing photos of injured and mutilated penises.
In Pondoland, injured initiates, or penile amputees, live in constant fear of their condition being discovered. In August 2013, the Mail & Guardian published the stories of such men. The man assaulted this week was one of the men featured. In the story, the M&G referred to him as Ayanda Bityi, a pseudonym. Bityi said: “I went into that tent to become a man. But I came out as nothing. Today, I don’t know what I am. I want a wife, but how will that ever be possible?”
At the time, Bityi fled his home village in an attempt to “have a better life”. He told the M&G: “My life has become a race of running away from the truth. I keep blaming myself for what happened.”
‘Being allowed to get away with murder’
After Bityi spoke out in public last week and admitted to being an amputee, the young man’s grandmother, his closest living relative as both his parents died years ago, was “traumatised”, according to a friend. “She’s so surprised and shocked that all along he was living with a deep secret like this. She’s very concerned about her grandson and so is Bityi’s younger brother,” said the source.
Nkululeko Nxesi, director of the Community Development Foundation for South Africa that works with traditional leaders to make circumcision safer in the Eastern Cape, said he was not aware of the latest incident. “But we’re condemning such action with the strongest contempt because injured initiates should not be stigmatised or ill-treated, they need to be accepted. There’s a criminal element involved here that needs to be discussed with traditional leaders.”
Eastern Cape health department spokesperson Sizwe Kupelo condemned the attack, saying the perpetrators should be brought to justice. “This man’s penile injury is not an isolated incident. We have many initiation-related injuries and the ritual needs to be made safer. We, as the government, need to ensure that initiates who have been injured are supported and that perpetrators, including the traditional circumcisers and nurses responsible for penis-related injuries, are severely punished. They’re being allowed to get away with murder.”
Mia Malan is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bhekisisa. She has worked in newsrooms in Johannesburg, Nairobi and Washington, DC, winning more than 30 awards for her radio, print and television work.