Parents have been urged to verify the legitimacy of the places they send their sons for the circumcision rituals being conducted during the winter holidays, as the death toll increases to at least four boys.
"We have appealed, cap in hand, that parents must work with us," said Eastern Cape co-operative governance and traditional affairs spokesperson Mamnkeli Ngam.
He urged parents to take their children to a doctor for a check-up before sending them off to the traditional rite of passage, and to tell the police if they hear of illegal circumcision retreats.
He stressed that unknown "fly-by-night" people offering a place in an "initiation school" for a fee pose a high risk to the safety of the boys.
Parents should only send their loved ones to schools that are established and recognised by traditional chiefs, and which are well known in their community.
So far at least four initiates have died as the initiations coincide with the plummeting temperatures of the July winter holidays.Ngam said three initiates died on Thursday at illegal initiation lodges in Nyandeni.
Since then Mthatha police spokesperson Captain Dineo Koena said a 16-year-old boy was found dead on Saturday, and another boy of the same age was rushed to hospital in a critical condition.
Koena said a 23-year-old man has been arrested by Libode police and will appear in the Libode Magistrate's Court on Monday to face charges of murder, attempted murder and unlawful circumcision.
She said police would work to make sure that boys who attended initiation schools were safe.
"It is imperative that we continuously visit the circumcised so as to make sure that they are not ill-treated and that they are safe. Those that are not lawful doctors should be arrested because they are terrorising our youth," said acting cluster commander for Mthatha Colonel Phathekile Majaja.
Ngam said the health department would provide figures later on how many initiates there were this year, but in the meantime wanted parents to be sure they did not send their children to people exploiting the tradition by establishing "initiation schools" for commercial purposes.
Asked why there was no official immediate intake record for initiates by the government to ensure that everybody went home safely, he said this could be proposed within traditional structures and discussed.
"This ritual is very sensitive. Any proposal that is going to save lives is very welcomed," he said.
He explained that legitimate places for the ritual were known in the community, and were so familiar that a family member would build the hut the boy was to live in.
They knew that the boys' safety was paramount and would ensure that they had enough blankets for the cold, and would not be at risk when they built their fires during the three to four-week ritual.
Any parent whose child is harmed, or who has suspicions about the place they were sending their child to, must open a complaint at a police station so that it can be investigated promptly, and the perpetrator prosecuted, Ngam said.
In the meantime, the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, the police, and the Department of Health visited the Amalinda circumcision camp in East London, with the view to pray for, guide and advise the initiates on a number of issues including safety, crime and manhood.
"In the visit, the matter of the availability of fathers in this period was stressed as a key element in preventing initiates' deaths and what was encouraging was the presence of fathers in this camp who were looking after their boys in ensuring that we achieve our goals," said police spokesperson Captain Mluleki Mbi.