By Mondli Makhanya
This week, Derek Chauvin, the police officer who last year knelt on George Floyd’s neck until he died, pleaded guilty in a civil rights case arising from the same incident. He also pleaded guilty to violating the rights of a 14-year-old by using the same method to restrain him.
It was Chauvin’s nine-minute choking of Floyd that galvanised the #BlackLivesMatter movement, putting racism on notice worldwide.
Originally established in 2013 in response to the police killing of Trayvon Martin, it gained traction as more black people died at the hands of cops.
With our own history of institutionalised racism and our inability to shake off the legacy of our apartheid past, the #BlackLivesMatter message also found traction in South Africa.
There were marches on the American embassy and petitions delivered to US diplomatic missions in different parts of the country. Floyd became a rallying point for all those outraged over the senseless violence against black people on the other side of the ocean. That outrage continues to this day.It’s strange, then, that the same outrage is not seen when young black men die senseless and preventable deaths during initiation season.
During every winter and summer holiday, we are treated to the grim tally of boys dying in the most cruel ways. The usual causes of death are dehydration and septic infections.
There have been instances in which beatings, mistreatment and food deprivation (all in the name of hardening the initiates for manhood) have contributed to deaths.
It has become predictable that, as the death toll climbs, politicians and traditional leaders pledge to crack down on illegal initiation schools and tighten monitoring of the legal ones that flout norms and standards. Then nothing happens.
This week, the Eastern Cape government announced that, just halfway through December, 23 boys had already died in initiation schools. More than 50 had been hospitalised and you can be assured that, when they are discharged, some of them will have had their health irreparably compromised.
The number of boys who have been murdered in this fashion since 2006, when active recording began, is now fast approaching the 1 000 mark.
Two years ago, the number of boys who had had their private parts amputated after botched circumcisions stood at 317. Although the death and injury tolls were limited last year because of the hard lockdowns, the number of amputations is likely to be much higher by now.
This week, Eastern Cape Premier Oscar Mabuyane was quoted as saying that the situation “is just not acceptable. Actually, people should be charged with murder. If a child dies because of dehydration, that simply says that we are irresponsible.”
Mabuyane expressed similar sentiments in a December 2019 interview with City Press as the nation watched the death toll climb.
“This is very painful. You cannot even explain it. You cannot even understand it. But the summary of it all is that children die of dehydration. It is clear when there are problems of renal failure in one’s system that it becomes disorganised.”
In a poignant remark about the role of male adults in these murders, he had this to say:Women carry these boys in their wombs for nine months, they raise them. They give them to us men at 18 years old and we kill them in just eight days.
It is all well and good for Mabuyane and other bigwigs to make emotional statements and commit themselves to dealing with this scourge.
But there is no indication whatsoever that we are treating this macabre annual death ritual as a national emergency. When those boys die, we tabulate their deaths, mouth platitudes and then move on.
It was quite telling this week that the deaths hardly made it into the national conversation. Our attention was more on the court ruling that the double-headed one return to prison; Eskom’s slow but certain march back to financial health; the continuing surge in Covid-19 cases; and the order for Hlaudi Motsoeneng to pay back the money.
That 23 young men had been murdered by their elders was clearly a reality that we have learnt to tolerate as just one of those things.
They died, so what?
When the initiation season ends next month, the death toll will no doubt be much higher.
The statistic will make headlines for a day or two and then we will be talking about the matric results, the oversubscribed university registration rush and other things pertaining to the month of January.
Those in charge of the sacred rite of passage, in government and traditional leadership, will start putting together plans for the winter initiation season.Winter will come and we will kill and mutilate yet more young men.
There will be more platitudes and promises, and then we will move on.
December 2022 will roll around and there will be a fresh round of murders. We will pay this a little attention and then move on again. As the pipe-smoking former president would say, and so forth and so forth.
Those who are correctly appalled by the racism of the American establishment and the unabating violence of that country’s system towards black people should be asking themselves why they are not scandalised by the deadly violence meted out on young black men right here.
Year after year, with depressing predictability.
Or do these particular black lives not matter?
—Mondli Makhanya is the Editor-In-Chief of City Press