Violence against children – prevention is possible, and better than cure

Violence against children – prevention is possible, and better than cure

The 16 Days of Activism is a palpable reminder of the horrible human cost of violence against children. But as we admit failure in ending violence through policing and the criminal justice system, underfunded prevention programmes are quietly changing communities and saving lives.

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Every 16 Days of Activism, the media is awash with the heartbreaking stories of children whose lives have been changed by violence. According to Police Minister Bheki Cele, 558 children were killed in the six months between April and September 2022. In the three months between July and September, there were 294 attempted murders of children reported and 1,895 grievous bodily harm cases involving children.

Sobering as these stats are, we cannot fully appreciate the impact of violence without insight into the loss in human capital due to experiences of violence during childhood.

The World Bank Human Capital Index (HCI) measures the productivity and human capital potential of each child in the country given optimal health and education conditions. It captures the expected potential of children given the conditions in their country. On this measure, if a child born in South Africa today completed their education and had full health, they would only reach 43% of their potential productivity as an adult.

In 2015, a study by Save the Children South Africa estimated that this loss of human capital equated to roughly R238-billion (about 6% of 2015 GDP), “double what we are currently spending on the criminal justice system annually, and more than 10 times the cost of gender-based violence”.

According to an Institute of Security Studies policy brief in 2017, children who experience neglect and abuse, or witness violence, are at increased risk of negative health and behavioural outcomes, and of perpetrating violence.

Using data from the Birth to Thirty (Bt30) cohort study and the adverse childhood experience framework, researcher Sara Naicker found that violence represents a threat to development throughout the life course. Children exposed to a range of adversity in their homes and communities, including physical, emotional and sexual abuse, chronic unemployment, household substance abuse, community violence, and parent or household death, are likely to experience poor health and well-being as adults, an increase in harmful risky behaviours and reduced human capital.

The study confirmed that early adversity was linked to poorer health, well-being and social outcomes in young adulthood, and that the more adversities a child experienced, the greater their risk of suffering negative physical and mental health and social outcomes including criminality, psychological distress, incomplete schooling, illness, poverty and unemployment.

Disturbingly, 87% of the Birth to Thirty cohort had experienced exposure to at least four adverse childhood experiences by the age of 18.

While all adversities caused harm, the research found a particularly strong link between violence and poor outcomes. Physical abuse in childhood increased the likelihood of a child dropping out of school, being unemployed and experiencing social isolation, while exposure to community violence led to increased substance abuse and psychological distress as adults.

Bt30 data show that “in a single generation, just 28 years, children subjected to high levels of adversity and widespread violence were more likely to drop out of school, be unemployed, engage in crime, have mental health problems, be socially isolated and have poorer health”.

Naicker explains that “at the age of six, young children in the cohort who were exposed to high levels of community danger and intimate partner violence within the home were displaying symptoms of anxiety, depression, aggression and poor emotional adjustment, such as oppositional behaviour, or patterns of deviant and hostile behaviour and impairment of social relationships”. This exposure to violence was amplified in adolescence and young adulthood, especially among young women.

For this reason, preventing children from being subject to serious and persistent adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) is important for building human capital and promoting human development.

What is being done?

Given that intervening to prevent violent crime (especially interpersonal violence) and break entrenched cycles of violence is essential for growing the economy and improving the nation’s health, behavioural and social outcomes, and given the significant impact of violence on children’s mental health and development, what is being done to combat violence against children?

According to the ISS policy paper, in 2017, South Africa was spending R126.71-billion (9.68% of expenditure) on the criminal justice system and R45-billion on private security. But despite this, it reported “no apparent correlation between spending more on the criminal justice system, increasing the number of police, and a reduction in crime rates”.

By contrast, in the same year, the country spent just R9-billion (less than 1% of the Department of Social Development’s national and provincial budget) on violence prevention or early intervention.

This is despite the link established by the Save the Children study between preventing children from witnessing and experiencing violence, and ensuring that they have a good start in life, with building an inclusive economy in the medium to long term and growth in GDP:

Not investing sufficiently in preventing… violence against children contributes significantly and directly to lowered human capital, which severely impinges on our country’s economy. That is because children who experience neglect and abuse, or who witness violence, are likely to go on to repeat the cycle of deprivation and disadvantage. This is exacerbated by exposure to violence in the home, stressed parents, harsh corporal punishment at school and at home, and bullying at school. Together this creates a toxic mix that massively reduces human potential and lays the basis for continuing cycles of violence.

According to Naicker, the country’s Violence Prevention Forum, which consists of research institutions, government departments and non-governmental organisations, recommends the adoption of the following violence prevention definition into approaches for development across all social, health and economic policies and practices:

“Violence prevention is the whole of society working deliberately and sustainably to remove sources of harm and inequality, and heal woundedness, by intentionally growing an ethic of mutual care and inclusion to build peace.”

But the government places the onus for violence prevention on NGOs which are notoriously erratically funded, making it hard to quantify how much money is being spent on these initiatives.

Nevertheless, many are making a significant impact in their communities and families, most notably the South African Parenting Programme Implementers Network (Sappin). A network of 12 core non-profit (NPO) members with shared values of collaboration, ethical and cultural sensitivity and support for staff, Sappin runs many research-based parenting programmes across the country to foster secure and non-violent home environments for children.

One such project is at Touwsranten near Wilderness in the Western Cape, an eight-year community intervention run by Sappin’s Seven Passes Initiative, the Institute of Security Studies and the UCT Psychology Department between 2012 and 2020.  

Touwsranten is a rural community comprising 762 households and about 2,245 inhabitants. According to 2011 census data, almost half of the adults in the community were unemployed, not economically active or discouraged work seekers. Just nine residents had more than a matric certificate. In 2016, only 20% of residents weren’t receiving one or more government grant.

A 2013 survey found that 60% of families described running out of money to buy food four or more times in the past month.

It also reported that 12.7% of the children aged six to 18 suffered from anxiety or depression which should have been receiving treatment, and 15.3% of the children of the same age experienced behavioural problems that needed treatment. Parents’ inconsistent discipline and use of spanking and slapping were strongly related to children’s behavioural problems, and to their anxiety and depression.

A third of parents who had a partner described experiencing intimate partner violence and one-fifth of parents reported such high levels of parenting stress that they were classified as being at risk of child abuse.

Surveyed parents identified unemployment, illicit drugs, particularly methamphetamine (tik), public drinking, petty crime and a lack of recreational facilities as factors negatively impacting the safety of children. They noted that physical and verbal abuse, bullying and neglect of children were common.

The environment in this community was typical of many others in South Africa, with parents “stressed and disempowered by the very difficult socioeconomic circumstances in which they raise their children and the compounded effects of racialised intergenerational trauma and poverty”. Further, in Touwsranten, as is common across South Africa, violence in the home and community was undermining the safety and happiness of its children.

The longitudinal intervention which aimed to show that it’s possible to develop and support “positive, non-violent parenting skills that help parents keep their children safe in and outside the home, and reduce parenting stress”, consisted of four parenting programmes. These were designed to increase positive parenting, reduce corporal punishment and provide parents with social support.

The goal was improved parent mental health, reduced parenting stress, and better communication and relationships between caregivers and children. It also consisted of several community initiatives to clean up the community, fix play areas and infrastructure for children and encourage accountability for positive parenting choices.

Evaluation of the programmes found that an optimal return on investment for parenting programmes was impossible unless material conditions changed for parents, and there were reductions in intimate partner violence, substance abuse and mental health problems.

Nevertheless, the programme, attended by one-fifth of parents over its duration, resulted in decreases in parenting stress and in both children’s externalising behaviours (through which the child makes their distress visible to others such as fighting or stealing or related conduct problems) and internalising behaviours (when a child’s distress is kept internal and may manifest as anxiety and depression).

Behavioural problems among younger children decreased by 33%. It also saw a reduction in the use of corporal punishment, an increase in positive parenting (even among those who did not attend a programme), and a slight improvement in parents’ mental health.

Moreover, changes at family level were evident in Touwsranten. The Smit family* entered a parenting programme for teens shortly after their sons were returned to them eight years after they were removed and placed in foster care due to the parents’ abuse of alcohol. The family was reunited because one of the boys had begun using drugs and the foster family no longer wanted to foster them.

These factors created a high-risk environment, making intervention critical. The programme gave them the skills as a family to handle difficult relationships in the family and cope with stress.

The intervention helped the father, Dan*, to control his anger and become calmer. He started fishing with the boys, cooking for them and cleaning the garden together. The boys responded by praising their dad. Their mom, Marie*, the breadwinner, began to spend more time with her sons and praise them for their positive behaviour. The family now love talking and doing activities together.

In KwaZulu-Natal, the NGO Give a Child a Family tells the story of two little girls, Sindi and Thembi*, who were placed in their care after being removed from their mother. When the organisation’s social worker met their mom, Bongi Thola*, to try to assist her to be reunified with her daughters, she confessed to feeling like she had nothing to give her girls. She was struggling to make ends meet, lived in a tiny home and her boyfriend had no interest in her children. She had lost hope of having her daughters returned.

The social worker offered her assistance, inviting her to a parenting skills programme. Bongi initially declined, but within a week she had changed her mind. She broke up with her boyfriend and joined the course. To the children’s delight, they were returned to her soon thereafter with supervision and follow-up meetings.

Six months later, the social worker was visiting Sindi and Thembi’s school when she was hailed by the principal. “What have you done with Mrs Thola?” he asked. “She has found her voice. She is talking to the other parents and telling them to get involved with their homework and school activities, she is telling the parents how to discipline their children.”  

The course she attended convinced Bongi that money, or the lack thereof, was not significant. She learnt the importance of connecting with her children and how being an adult who is crazy about them helps them thrive.

Nor is it just at-risk children who have been placed in statutory services whose lives can be changed by parenting interventions. The Seven Passes Initiative tells many stories about families in Touwsranten where the programmes came in time to help parents deal with stress, anger and risky behaviours, saving the children from the adverse impact of poor parenting.

Its mom and baby parenting programme transformed a teenager’s experience of motherhood. Teenage moms experiencing a crisis pregnancy may abandon, neglect or abuse their baby. Tami* was a 15-year-old mom who was not interested in her baby or parenting the child. With the help of Tami’s mom, the parenting facilitator who ran the programme supported her to be able to go back to school and balance school with caring for her baby.

Violence a language of love

Dr Dee Blackie who runs Courage, a long-term community engagement change-management programme focused on prevention and early intervention in child protection, echoes Sappin’s concern that high levels of violence perpetrated against children in South Africa are exacerbated by people’s desire for quick fixes, instead of meaningful long-term approaches to behaviour change.  

Courage workshops help communities envision the kind of world they would like to create for their children. They then identify the child protection challenges in their community, understand and prioritise these challenges, and develop empowered solutions to address them. Courage helps them understand the legal child protection and safeguarding process, identify community partners, and the values that will drive the achievement of their vision, and ultimately to create a community-based action plan.

Blackie tells a story from a workshop she ran in Alberton, Gauteng, about a young girl who spent the night out with her boyfriend. On her return, her father beat her so badly she ended up in hospital for a month. When social workers asked the father, who was imprisoned for the crime, why he did it, his response was, “because I love her”.  

The programme helped the community understand that violence had become a language of love. It made them realise that especially among parents, they had to teach a new language of care and empathy to resolve conflict, instead of violence.

Similarly, in a workshop run with children in Diepsloot, a notoriously violent township in Johannesburg, a young man explained that he now had words to describe children’s daily reality. Violence was so normalised in his community that children weren’t aware that the violence perpetrated against them was problematic.

Prevention interventions allowed the community to finally “speak up” and advocate for change.

Policing is a much easier sell than prevention. But it is parenting programmes like those run by Sappin, and community mapping processes like Courage, that can minimise violence against children and child homicide. If care for individual children isn’t sufficiently motivating, the cost to the country and human capital of adverse childhood experiences, especially violence, should drive funds to prevention interventions.

As we pack up our 16 Days of Activism pins and posters for another year, and return to a lived experience where violence against children and its impact are routine and mostly invisible, we should require nothing less. DM

* Names changed to protect their privacy.


Article originally printed in the Daily Maverick 15.12.2022

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Secrecy, initiation, grooming and the ‘Parktown Boys way’

Secrecy, initiation, grooming and the ‘Parktown Boys way’

One of the most significant events of the 2018 ‘16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children’ was the sentencing of Collan Rex, the abuser of 23 Parktown Boys’ pupils between the ages of 13 and 16, to an apt 23 years in prison. But as welcome as the sentence was, there is much about the case that is still troubling for child protection activists. Particularly concerning are the failure of the abuser and the structures that supported him to acknowledge the impact of the abuse, and the role of the school and its traditions in allowing Rex to flourish. As the 2019 school year begins, holding all parties accountable is critical, not only for the boys’ healing, but also to prevent future incidents of abuse.

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The noise that the wooden stands made when hundreds of boys in black blazers and boaters stamped out the rousing school anthem Arise, Arise, Parktown whenever their team played rugby is an enduring memory from my childhood. Fast forward to rugby season 2018, and another generation of Parktown Boys was chanting their anthem. But this time the response of their biggest rivals, King Edwards and Jeppe Boys, was to chant back, taunting them, calling them “gay”, “homos” and “faggots”.

It was an ugly consequence of the sexual abuse scandal involving the school’s water polo coach that has kept Parktown Boys in the news. It may be one of the reasons why in September 2018, Parktown’s School Governing Body (SGB) declined an interview on SABC news to talk about testimony given by Collan Rex in his own defence, stating that they were hoping that the story would “quieten down” if they didn’t speak. Child protection activists disagree. They maintain that the story needs to remain in the public domain, not, as some might assume to the detriment of the boys, but for two important reasons.

The first is that while Parktown Boys has been in the spotlight because of the case, the practices and structures that led to this predator not just surviving, but thriving, are common to many boys’ schools, even to co-ed schools with strong traditions. In his pivotal report on the Parktown Boys abuse case, veteran activist Luke Lamprecht explained how the purpose, culture and structure of boy’s schools enable and sometimes tacitly condone abuse. He drew the troubling conclusion that although the focus is currently on Parktown Boys, these factors are present in most traditional boy’s schools.

The boys chanting “faggots” at those rugby matches could also be in danger if practices of initiation, institutional rigidity and the culture of secrecy exist in their schools, and aren’t addressed. Secondly, although Parktown Boys would understandably like to argue that the current scandal is linked exclusively to one individual and his deviant practices, reports from child protection activists belie this. And despite admirable measures from the school to protect boys going forwards, failure to address the long-term nature of the problems facilitate a culture where predators can thrive.

In his report, Lamprecht explains how traditionally, boys’ schools were designed to produce boys ready for military service. The resultant patriarchal and misogynistic structures are programmed for obedience and secrecy. Schools form boys into an “elite” that needs to be protected from outsiders, often through a code of silence: in the case of Parktown Boys: “what happens at Parktown, stays at Parktown”. It is a culture that is maintained by teachers and older boys, who have often been subjected to the same rituals and practices in the past, and who have internalised the code. In many cases, teachers at Parktown Boys chose not to respond to boys’ reports of physical and sexual abuse despite Section 110 of the Children’s Amendment Act and the Sexual Offences Act making it compulsory for them to report it.

In addition, older boys perpetuate the culture through the age-old practice of “fagging”. Fagging was defined in the 1800s by the then headmaster of Rugby School “as the power given by the authorities of the school to (the oldest boys), to be exercised over younger boys… reminiscent of the relationship between squire and knight in the Middle Ages.” In Parktown Boys, it can be clearly seen in the “old pot, new pot” system. The fag system is reinforced through initiation practices, which can range from relatively benign pranks to protracted patterns of behaviour that rise to the level of abuse or criminal misconduct. Initiation may include physical or psychological abuse, nudity or even sexual assault.

The most extreme version is hazing which can involve severe aggression and sexual perversion, both of which have been identified at Parktown Boys, especially on sports camps and in the hostel. Add to that the total institution found in a hostel environment, where boys’ lives are controlled and regulated in every way, and it is easy to see how boys could be induced into acts that violated their own boundaries. Total institutions also provide a unique environment for perpetrators to hide abuse. In Rex’s case, he had unfettered access to the boys he abused and absolute power to control them and make them compliant.

According to Lamprecht, two of the most important prerequisites for abuse to occur are for the abuser to avoid external inhibitors like possible legal implications, and to overcome the inhibitions of the child, sometimes done through force, but usually through the processes of grooming and gaslighting. In addition, the culture of secrecy, which Lamprecht describes as the “power of abuse”, shortens the activity of grooming because it is all bracketed within the initiation process and “what happens at Parktown, stays at Parktown”.

Grooming occurs when the offender overcomes the child’s resistance by making the child their “favourite”, giving them special treatment, isolating one or a small group, and gradually using boundary and taboo violations to blur a normal caring relationship into one that meets the offender’s sexual needs. Grooming is also premised on the sharing of secrets, often illicit drinking, drugs or the use of pornography. These are usually introduced or permitted by the abuser, followed by the promise that, “I won’t tell anyone, it will be our little secret”. The little secret then shifts to include a bigger secret, namely the abuse. Both aspects of grooming make the child feel a sense of responsibility for the abuse, resulting in guilt and shame, and become a barrier to purposeful disclosure.

The script of Rex’s abuse is textbook. He was only slightly older than the boys he abused, and therefore potentially “cool”. He was ostensibly a peer, with the mentality of a teen. But he had authority over the boys, a sports coach and junior hostel master with the power to make favourites in the hostel and the swimming pool, access to introduce illicit behaviour, and the physical strength to subdue them.

Add to that Rex’s use of gaslightingwhich Lamprecht defines as “manipulation of someone by psychological means into doubting their own sanity”, and Rex’s denial (in particular his denial of the impact of the abuse, something he clearly communicated to the boys, and evident in them referring to his behaviour as the “Rex way”), and it is easy to see why the boys’ testimony may have seemed uncertain at times.

During the trial, the boys testified how Rex’s behaviour overstepped boundaries including introducing pornography and adult content such as Fifty shades of Grey, drugs, and even a stripper being brought to school. Rex justified pulling down boys’ costumes and rubbing up against boys in the pool as being “just part of the sport”. It is particularly telling that one of the boys reported his abuse to a teacher, but only much later because he “wasn’t sure”. This evidence should have been interpreted as classic indicators of grooming and gaslighting, but it wasn’t. Instead, the magistrate dismissed the boys’ evidence as not credible, much to their deep distress given that they had risked everything to testify. The legal system’s choice not to interpret their testimony in the context of grooming and gaslighting was evidence of how effective Rex’s abuse was.

For his part, Rex admitted to the content of the charges against him, but he did not plead guilty. Instead, he minimised the impact of the abuse by blaming the water polo culture for his actions. His contention was that the touching of genitals was a necessary part of the sport. In addition, he attributed his abusive ways to his own experience of being molested at the school, using what psychologists refer to as the “vampire myth” to effectively claim that the “Rex way” and the “Parktown way” were the same.

But according to Rees Mann from the Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse, the argument that all abusers go on to abuse others is incorrect. Mann questions why we believe it of abused men but not of abused women. Lamprecht contends that the vampire myth arose from very limited studies of incarcerated sexual offenders who had the motive to blame their behaviour on prior abuse, and in many cases, no evidence to support it. But the vampire myth not only takes away the agency of the abused, but it also implies that boys cannot be simply viewed as vulnerable victims, instead they become “abusers in waiting”.

Interestingly, the magistrate did not accept this as a defence in mitigation of sentencing and held Rex completely responsible for his actions, sentencing him to 144 counts of sexual assault and 12 counts of common assault. But, crucially, the ruling does not clear the school of culpability. What is clear from extensive studies of the school is that Rex did not form Parktown Boys, he was formed by the school. Instead of excusing his crimes, his history of abuse widens the list of those culpable for his actions to include his own abusers, and more importantly, the school that produced him, and chose not to vet him appropriately.

It is no coincidence that the last major scandal at Parktown Boys occurred in 2009, the year that Rex entered the school. It involved Grade 11 learners from the hostel who were seriously assaulted during an initiation ritual. The initiation took place at night, apparently unsupervised by staff but educators were very clearly complicit. Labelled a rite of passage, whose stated goal was to make the Grade 11s earn the privilege of having a kettle, the victims were taken out of their beds at night, physically beaten with bats and clubs and had Deep Heat rubbed into their genitals. In response, Pene Kimber, the mother of one of the Grade 11 boys who was assaulted in this ritual, pressed charges against the Grade 12 boys involved. What is significant according to Lamprecht is that although the assault was both sexual and physical, only the physical was publicly emphasised, and the school obtained a civil settlement which included a non-disclosure agreement. And troublingly, the case prompted staff, management and Old Boys to close ranks around the perpetrators and the school traditions.

High-profile arguments for the right of the school to continue initiations and “it happened to us and look how well we turned out, so what is wrong with you”, dominated the narrative, and the family who made the allegations public were subjected to ridicule and death threats. The upshot was that although the school had a significant opportunity to transform its culture in 2009, it actively resisted change. The ethos of secrets, initiation and violence was still prevalent when Collan Rex entered the school, with devastating results. Some may even argue that it worsened as a knee-jerk response to the Kimber case.

Peter Harris, who presented the Harris, Nupen, Molebatsi report, commissioned by the Gauteng Department of Education in response to parent outrage about how the abuse of the “Parktown Boys 23” occurred, confirms this belief: “Unfortunately, since 2009, initiation practices that involved quite severe assaults have taken place and…there have been allegations of severe initiation practices taking place at various camps on various occasions and in various sporting teams over the years”.

When considering accountability for this case, it is also crucial to acknowledge that when Rex’s abuse was accidentally uncovered by a boy viewing security footage of the hostel common room in the hope of finding lost water polo caps, the school again tried to use a civil case to cover it up.

Nor are these the only instances of abuse in the school’s history. The South African Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse has a sexual abuse case from the school dating back as far as 1969. But the inception of the sexual abuse at Parktown is widely believed to be the late 1980s when the hostel was opened. The implication is that some of the boys who were proudly chanting on the stands when I was a child were already being molested. In his report, Harris detailed a long history of abuse. Practices included “sexually predatory behaviour” by senior pupils against junior pupils, a culture of assault and sexual assault under the guise of “initiation practices” and “profoundly shocking” utterances made by teachers in the presence of pupils.

“While it is a problem at most schools, it would appear that this has become a generational practice at Parktown Boys,” Harris said.

In 2006, a boy was badly assaulted in a prefect’s assembly. His mother reported the abuse to the school and the department, and was informed by the department that she was trying to destroy the school. Tragically, her son didn’t ever recover from the abuse, and he took his own life in December 2017. According to Harris, some of the most troubling incidents they uncovered involved sexually predatory behaviour by senior pupils against junior pupils in 2014 and 2015, and the lashing of a boy during a water polo camp as recently as 2017.

And it isn’t just the long history of hidden physical and sexual abuse at Parktown Boys that is troubling. In an interview on 702, Eusebius McKaiser presented a cogent concern that there has not been a sufficient apology or full disclosure from Parktown Boy’s management, and in its absence, there are a number of lingering worries about the abuse.

One of the most critical questions is why Rex was employed in the first place. Lamprecht’s report indicated that Rex had a history of being abused and being abusive. When he was at the school, his peers, who apparently all knew about his abusive behaviour, warned younger boys to be careful when they were with him because he was “touchy and possibly gay”. He also reportedly went to the younger boys’ rooms, and as he got older and wielded more power and authority (as was set up in the school and hostel system), he began to demonstrate many of the actions that led to the abuse of the 23 boys when he later became an assistant hostel master.

Also, while Rex was at high school, one younger boy told his peer that Rex often lay on his bed and touched him inappropriately on his private parts in the guise of wrestling. He would later get a “joke award” for this as an assistant master when the boys began to refer to his behaviour as “the Rex way”. But given that this conduct was already so evident when he was a pupil, it is hard to see how the school could have missed his abusive tendencies. School management would surely have reviewed his history prior to recruiting him. But even if they did overlook it, it appears that he made little attempt to hide his behaviour when he was an assistant master. The question of culpability becomes an important one. How did the responsible adults in the hostel and the school miss the abuse? Or did they note it and just turn a blind eye?

The Harris Nupen Molebatsi report indicates that as with historical abuse, some educators at the school were aware of what was occurring, and failed to report it, and some enabled it. Others mocked the boys for telling their stories and for their “perceived weakness”. The boys were infantilised for expressing their pain and labelled as “cry babies”, and victims were humiliated, insulted and warned that “snitches get stitches and fall into ditches”. Allegations against staff articulated in the report include condoning and encouraging initiation practices on sports tours, and bringing alcohol and even a stripper on to school property.

Harris noted that “it is quite conceivable that certain of the initiation practices, the code of silence, as well as certain of the assaults perpetrated by senior boys on junior boys may well have taken place with the tacit if not complicit consent of certain staff members, who themselves, when they were boys at the school, suffered a similar fate”. Concerningly, at the inception of the 2019 school year and more than four months after the reading of the report (it has still not been released), parents of the school allege that some of the educators named in the report remain at the school, while others continue to be employed in other schools.

Nonetheless, the school and the Gauteng Department of Education have taken some commendable steps to make the boys safer, especially in the hostel. The hostel is under new management and the school has increased the number of security cameras in common places, introduced the Guardian app to allow boys to report bullying and abuse anonymously, and the proper evaluation and psychological assessment of staff members at recruitment.

Initiation practices have also been banned, with the school focusing on older learners earning respect rather than demanding it. But the practices are hard to eliminate, and the school has an ongoing challenge of policing culture, especially in an environment where some old boys and teachers condone initiation. There also remains the question of who will be the first generation of Grade 12s to say, “it was done to us, but we won’t do it to anyone else”.

The parents of the “Parktown Boys 23” argue that despite Rex’s sentence, the lack of acknowledgement of culpability from the perpetrator and the school remains a barrier to healing. They also contend that the changes are “too little, too late” for their boys, many of whom suffered tertiary trauma through testifying, and the appallingly slow and inept Department of Social Development process of gathering evidence to ascertain the impact of Rex’s crimes. Several of these boys remain depressed, detached and on suicide watch.

Nonetheless, these parents continue to fight for the class of 2019, especially the new Grade 8 intake, and all the boys whose lives will be impacted one way or another by Parktown Boys. In the end, nothing short of an end to initiation, cadets, the code of secrecy and the toxic masculinity it produces will effect a change in culture. If Parktown Boys and the other boy’s schools like it don’t make the changes required, more predators like Rex will thrive, and the boys produced by the system will not become proud old boys, but rather, broken men. DM


First published in the Daily Maverick: 07.01.2019

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