Investigating abuse at traditional healing schools

Allegations of serious abuse during the training of traditional healers are under investigation. A report into sexual violations ephehlweni is due to be released soon.

The government entity mandated to protect and promote cultural, religious and linguistic communities has been given a mammoth task.

It is investigating traditional healers and trainers accused of sexual abuse.

Sheila Khama, a Commissioner at the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious, and Linguistic Communities (CRL Commission), a Chapter 9 institution, told New Frame that the commission is probing allegations of abuse into various facilities used to initiate and train traditional healers (ephehlweni) across the country.

“We have heard allegations of sexual abuses and we are looking into them. A young woman came to testify here and her story was heartbreaking,” says Khama.

In 2016, the CRL Commission released a report on the findings of its investigations into violations at initiation schools for men. Now the commission is due to investigate abuses by traditional healers.

Nomonde Mtshali*, 23, decided to testify before the commission when she heard that it was offering a safety net for young girls and boys who were victimised in the name of religious and cultural beliefs.

In her testimony, Mtshali described how she was repeatedly raped by her gobela (trainer) during her 18-month training period ephehlweni in Ekurhuleni, east of Johannesburg.

She attended ephehlweni between April 2013 and November 2014.

Mtshali was raped for the first time in 2013, when she was 18, not too long after she went to ephehlweni with five other new trainees.

Her voice breaks as she describes the rape, which took place while she was was taking a bath and the gobela entered her room while she was unclothed.

She testified that she was raped again by her gobela in early 2014, this time in Soweto after having drunk alcohol while attending the traditional ceremony of another traditional healer.

Mtshali says she never had alcohol before that and remembers that everyone at the ceremony, except her gobela, was drunk and couldn’t walk. They all shared a room for the night.

“I must have passed out, but I remember feeling him behind me, and I woke up very wet. After that, I was depressed, it sunk in and it disturbed me in so many ways,” she says, adding that she told two other trainees after the second rape.

“I feel like everyone else who was in the room that night was aware of what was happening but they were just acting like they were passed out,” she says.

The gobela also allegedly showed some at the school explicit images and videos of Mtshali and him after the second rape. These, according to her, were the same images and videos he allegedly used later to intimidate and silence her.

Mtshali says that when she eventually managed to talk about the rapes, many of those training with her wanted him arrested, while others kept passing remarks, talking to each other about the veracity of her allegations.

She says that in mid-2014 they were told to lie and say that nothing had happened when they were questioned by their elders. “They kept talking as though I had agreed to [have sex] … but I think the remarks were mainly to protect the image of the school against my claim. I was not mentally ready for a case and I didn’t want to put my friends through that interrogation, so I also said nothing happened,” she says.

Mtshali says she was vulnerable when she first arrived at the school because she thought she was in a safe space and could let her guard down. But in the early weeks after her arrival ephehlweni, she heard about a woman who was allegedly raped just before she graduated as a healer.

Because she was new, she did not read too much into it and also had no way of verifying if the story was true. Later, she heard the woman dropped the charges. “He kept denying it after rumours were flying around, but I didn’t know what to believe … until it happened to me,” she says.

As the months passed, Mtshali says the gobela became increasingly violent and physically abusive towards her. “He would taunt me with pictures and videos he took of me, he would call me names, others would give me looks … it just got too much,” she says.

Facing this continuous assault, Mtshali reached breaking point and told her sister everything in October 2014, a month before she was due to leave the place. According to Mtshali, her family only came to see her once every two months on average, and when they were alerted of the rapes in November, damages for the “mistake” were paid in the form of a cow.

“By January [2015], my mother could see how disturbed I was and was already asking me to lay charges against him,” she says. Mtshali explains that this is because she fell ill and began acting differently, signs that made her mother realise that she was more disturbed than she had initially thought.

She did not lay any criminal charges but now she wants justice. “I volunteered to break the silence during a media dialogue [at the CRL] with the hope to free other survivors who suffered under the same circumstances,” she says.

According to Khama, it is disturbing that some traditional training facilities are going as far as practicing what is outside the traditional ways of African culture. “How do you abuse a child in a space where ancestors are? So as a commission, we realised that there is a gap, something is happening that is outside the normal practices of initiation,” she says.

The CRL Commission’s report into sexual violations ephehlweni is due to be released as soon as investigations are concluded. Khama says that the commission is still in the preface stage and hearings will be held soon.

* Not her real name

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