Running up and down the dirt sports ground playing soccer, 22 boys were abducted, bundled into a minibus taxi and smuggled onto the last train from Orange Farm to New Canada station in Soweto.
From there, they were forced to walk in the dark to a secluded area around the sprouting mine dumpsite in Meadowlands, Soweto, where they were physically abused and starved for two weeks.
This was as they apparently underwent the rite of passage into manhood at an illegal initiation school – in the heart of Soweto.
The group of 22 boys, aged between 10 and 18, were rescued on Friday as authorities battle to contain the death toll of initiates dying while undergoing the ritual across the country.
The number of rescued boys in Soweto is equal to the death toll across parts of the country, which authorities confirmed on Tuesday.
Of the 22 deaths, 19 were reported in the Eastern Cape, two in Limpopo and one in Mpumalanga, according to Deputy Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Obed Bapela.
Several incidents of abducting boys have been reported in some parts of the country, notably in Ekurhuleni, since the initiation season started last month. Yesterday, the brutality that often characterises the centuries-old ritual was revealed at an impromptu media briefing in Soweto.
Gauteng Social Development MEC Faith Mazibuko, who was present when the boys were rescued, said the rescue followed tip-offs from the community.
“Four were taken to hospital for severe burns. One was said to have fallen into a fire, another was burnt by hot porridge and another was prodded on the buttocks with a hot object,” she said.
Two other boys, she said, had septic wounds as a result of the botched circumcision procedures . They were treated and discharged from hospital. Another boy had broken ribs from being kicked in the chest.
All the rescued boys who are not in hospital have been taken to a place of safety. A 22-year-old man was arrested and charged with 22 counts of abduction, with additional charges expected to be added later.
None of the boys’ parents had opened missing person cases.
“Parents are reluctant to open cases because they are threatened. If they open cases, their children are either abused or they never go back home.
“It seems there is a syndicate and it operates just like human trafficking,” Mazibuko said, adding that the illegal schools demand up to R2 500 from the initiates’ parents.
Community member Kamogelo Mahapa described the boys’ ordeal, and how they were rescued. “The boys used to come down from the mountain to our houses and ask for water. One day, one of the older ones came down to ask for water and food at the church, and when he went back, he was assaulted,” he recalled.
“The older boy then convinced a younger child to escape and come and ask for help from the community,” Mahapa added.
Between May and last month, 77 boys were rescued from 16 illegal schools across Gauteng, according to Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs head of department Nhlakanipho Nkotwana. The number doesn’t include the Meadowlands boys.
Twelve of the illegal schools were closed in Joburg, two in Sedibeng and one each in Tshwane and on the West Rand. Nkotwana said they were trying to close another illegal school on the West Rand.
This year, 302 applications for initiation schools were received in Gauteng. There were none in Joburg, but about 135 schools were registered in Tshwane.
Authorities seem at their wits’ end in their efforts to clamp down on illegal schools. Also worried is Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa) Gauteng chairman Prince Manene Tabane.
“We were previously not in this mess. In urban areas, we sometimes don’t have elders who can help lead the schools.” He pointed out that Contralesa had a rescue centre were initiates removed from illegal schools can be taken to.