BLOEMFONTEIN – On a non-descript dirt road in a side section of Botshabelo, Alice Matsipa lives alone, her family grown up and moved out, but what she remembers most and still sheds tears over some eight years later is the death of her son Itshokolele.
Determined to go to initiation school despite it not being a family practice, Itshokolele was described as a sensitive boy who could not easily take harsh words and physical harm.
“He was sensitive, delicate, he grew up as an emotional child. It hardly took a beating to get him deeply hurt. He would be upset from being shouted at,” said Alice after she agreed to talk about her experience of losing her son.
“He was helpful in a lot of ways at home; gardening, babysitting, I hardly needed extra hands with him around. I relied on him for a lot of things. His older brothers are married and taking care of their families.”
Much of the practice of initiation has to do with clan identity but Alice doesn’t feel this had anything to do with Itshokolele’s death.
“Before he went I gave him his real clan name. I told him he is Tswana, his father’s tribe, not mine.”
After indicating that Itshokolele spoke to his father, who lived elsewhere, and got his blessing to go to a Basotho initiation, Alice says, “I don’t think identity issues had anything to do with his death. From what I can gather, it sounds like he could have been assaulted to his death.”
While the actual cause of Itshokolele’s death is left unknown, the experience and the lingering feeling in Alice that something went wrong at initiation and her son was somehow targeted continues to haunt her. And her feelings are not unique. Other individuals suspect that the weak or more sensitive members of an initiation group are somehow singled out for harsher discipline.
“It is a nightmare I struggled to wake up from. It was hard to believe,” said Alice.
“I wish I could’ve been called when he started feeling ill…or someone could have taken him to the clinic.”
But instead Alice was not allowed access to her son. The mortuary, by Alice’s own admission, did not suspect foul play, but she says, “He was darker than his usual self.”
Alice says the initiation school owner did not want to be involved in dealing wth Itshokolele’s death, denying any wrongdoing and refusing to contribute to the funeral costs.
The experience has left Alice feeling betrayed by her community and the practice that her son felt was so important to his growth into manhood.
“I hate it. It killed a beloved son of mine. It would’ve been better if he died of TB, not initiation.”