Eastern Cape cooperative governance and traditional affairs spokesperson Mamnkeli Ngam says there is still widespread support for initiation schools, despite the deaths that occur at them every year.
"There is no scientific evidence, but there is huge support and a lot of people want to go to initiation schools. Many people still prefer it," Ngam told HuffPost on Monday.
Because of this, the department says it has taken steps to ensure that the schools operate in the most efficient way possible.
"We are monitoring hotspots [where there are many deaths] — there are teams that make sure everything is in order," Ngam said.
"There is training for initiation nurses, and department of health officials work with the schools. There are schools which are registered with the department, and they comply with health standards. There are some schools where there have been no deaths," he added.
Initiation schools have been a talking point following the premiere of the controversial movie "Inxeba (The Wound)". The Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa) has called for a boycott of the film, arguing that it misrepresents the Xhosa ulwaluko rite of passage (the traditional male initiation and circumcision ritual).
Last week ahead of the opening of "Inxeba", Contralesa marched on various cinemas across Eastern Cape, resulting in the postponement of screenings at Walmer Park shopping centre in Port Elizabeth and Hemingways Mall in East London.
When asking the department about its views about the movie, Ngam said: "We [department officials] have not seen the movie yet."
"One death is one too many, hence the deaths are unnecessary and can be avoided through the collaboration between parents, key role players and co-ordination structures in all municipalities."
According to statistics released last week, the summer initiation season (December 2017) claimed 17 lives throughout the Eastern Cape.
The MEC for cooperative governance and traditional affairs in the province, Fikile Xasa, is relieved that the numbers are at a three-year low. However, he believes more should be done to ensure the safety of initiates, local paper Grocott's Mail reported.
"One death is one too many, hence the deaths are unnecessary and can be avoided through the collaboration between parents, key role players and coordination structures in all municipalities," Xasa said.
Here are the statistics for the past nine years (these represent deaths only. The number of initiates who have suffered partial or complete penis amputations as a result of botched circumcisions is unavailable):
Number of Deaths at Initiation Schools by Year
1. December 2009: 36 initiates
2. December 2010: 21 initiates
3. December 2011: 36 initiates
4. December 2012: 25 initiates
5. December 2013: 43 initiates
6. December 2014: 28 initiates
7. December 2015: 46 initiates
8. December 2016: 31 initiates
9. December 2017: 17 initiates
The main causes of death include septicemia, gangrene, dehydration, suicide, renal failure and assault.
Xasa said in cases where there are clear signs of assault and dehydration, members of the SAPS must make arrests as soon as possible.
"Any person found to have physically abused, assaulted, disseminated liquor or denied an initiate access to clean drinking water is guilty of an applicable offence as stipulated in the Act," he said. "This includes admitting a child below the age of 18 years to an initiation school – [anyone who does] must be arrested and have his or her day in court."