South African police said Friday they had launched a series of murder inquiries after 23 males died while undergoing circumcision during traditional rites of passage into manhood.
The 23 — aged between 13 and 21 — died in various places across the country’s northeastern Mpumalanga province over the course of a week.
"We have opened 22 cases of murder and one of inquest," regional police spokesman Leonard Hlathi told AFP.
One of the deaths was labelled "inquest" because the boy reportedly had an existing health condition.
There have been no arrests yet as police compile statements and await post-mortem results.
Ritual circumcision is common among South Africa’s ethnic Xhosa, Sotho and Ndebele ethnic groups.
Deaths at so-called initiation schools in South Africa are common, with several hundred cases recorded in recent years due to bleeding and infections.
Boys spend around a month in secluded bush or mountains areas for the sessions that also include lessons on the virtues of masculine courage and discipline.
There are usually two circumcision seasons – in winter during the months of May through July and in summer between November and December.
Government and the ruling African National Congress Party have expressed concern at the deaths which have nonetheless sparked little public outrage.
Government spokeswoman Phumla Williams called on the initiation schools "to ensure that precautionary health measures are exercised during this period to minimise illnesses and death."
Minister in The Presidency for Performance Monitoring and Evaluation, Collins Chabane said he was saddened by the loss of young lives.
The "loss of several young lives in Mpumalanga and elsewhere in the country is regrettable," Chabane said this week.