Abuse and suicide, the spectre that haunts elite boys’ schools: Parktown Boys’ High (Part Two)

Abuse and suicide, the spectre that haunts elite boys’ schools: Parktown Boys’ High (Part Two)

When it comes to sexual abuse, grooming and physical brutality, what happens in school doesn’t always stay in school. For many boys, the trauma they experience in their elite schools indelibly changes their lives and can lead to their eventual death.

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Read Part One here.

In 2008, the 13,915 reasons for equity in sexual offences legislation study reported that 44% (two in every five) of the school-going boys included in the study had been sexually abused before the age of 18. Of those boys, 20% were abused by teachers. One in every 20 schoolboys in the study reported being asked to have sex by a teacher.

These shocking statistics were supported by the 2016 Optimus study which found that 36.3% of boys had been sexually abused before the age of 16.

US-based advocacy group, Darkness to Light, says that “child sexual abuse is likely the most prevalent health problem with the most serious array of consequences that children face.”

Research indicates that “sexual abuse and, to a lesser extent, physical abuse in childhood”, are consistently associated with suicidal behaviour and that “those reporting any traumatic experience in childhood show a two to five-fold higher risk of being suicide attempters compared to those who do not”.

This statistic was confirmed by 68 studies by psychologists from the University of Manchester and the University of South Wales which found that suicide attempts were:

  • Three times more likely for people who experienced sexual abuse as a child.
  • Two and a half times more likely for people who experienced physical abuse as a child.

Other significant contributing factors to suicidality are dissociation from the abuse, how severe and physically painful the abuse is, how long the abuse continues and the age at which it occurs: “Earlier onset of the sexual abuse and duration of the abuse were associated with more lifetime suicide attempts.”

The abuse allegedly perpetrated against Julio Mordoh, whose story is told in part one of this series, began when he was 10 and lasted for three years – to cope with the trauma, his brain disassociated from it. Small wonder he felt he could never recover.

Like Julio’s parents, Ben’s* family chose his elite school, Parktown Boys’ High School, because they wanted him to have the best possible opportunities in life. But before he had finished high school, they found themselves helpless onlookers as he hung from a bridge over the highway, threatening to let go.

To understand why he was on that bridge, his family points to the impact on Ben of his school’s devastating failure to safeguard its pupils from the outset, beginning with the Grade 8 initiation camp when he and the other boys were forcefully initiated into the “Parktown way”.

They were taught that weakness was frowned upon and that “snitches get stitches”. They were also taught that “what happens on tour, stays on tour.”

The outcome was that Ben and his classmates were well-schooled in secrets and boundary violations by the time their new water polo coach and junior hostel master, Collan Rex, arrived at the end of his Grade 8 year.

Rex then began to groom and sexually abuse the boys in his care.

In an interview with Ben, now 23, he described Rex as an overgrown schoolboy, charming with the parents but an instigator of trouble in the hostel, and able to overpower the boys physically and introduce illicit behaviours.

Like many other predators, Rex followed these stages when grooming Ben and at least 22 other boys in the boarding house and water polo team:

  • Identifying and targeting the child.
  • Gaining the child’s trust and access to the child often through needs or vulnerabilities.
  • Playing a role in the child’s life and filling a need for the child.
  • Creating a “special secret relationship” with the child while isolating the child.
  • Sexualising the relationship through the process of desensitisation.
  • Maintaining control of the relationship with the child.

Ben explains that Rex began working his way through the hostel and water polo boys carefully and slowly. Weeding out those who resisted, he then deliberately lured the other boys in, normalising pulling off their towels when they were changing, grabbing their genitals, wrestling them into submission, dry humping and team showering.

Rex used the hostel, which was off limits to parents and largely unpoliced by other teachers, as well as school tours, bus trips and time in the water polo pool and change rooms to take advantage of the boys.

Ben says that the behaviour became so commonplace that they began doing it to each other and the younger boys, and that Rex used the boys’ inappropriate actions towards each other, as well as contraband, to reinforce the secret.

The impact of Rex’s short tenure at the school has been well documented, culminating in him admitting to the content of 144 counts of sexual assault, 57 of which were for crimes committed against Ben, and 12 counts of common assault.

Rex did not plead guilty, instead arguing that what he did was part of the culture of water polo, which had also happened to him while he was a pupil at Parktown Boys.  Nonetheless, he was found guilty and sentenced to 23 years in jail.

Less well publicised, though, is what happened to the boys, especially Ben, who had been his victims, and who still had two or three years of school left when Rex was arrested.

Ben’s family describe him as fearless; one who would never back down from a challenge, a clown, but also a natural leader who didn’t like to see anyone else in pain, either physically or emotionally. He was also the one willing to take the fall or be a target to protect those weaker than himself.

It was those leadership qualities which appear to have made him a special target for Rex, but also made him the whistle-blower who exposed his erstwhile coach.

Ben explains that his now famous “missing water polo caps” ruse, which he says was designed to “stop [Rex’s] s#!%”, occurred after three major incidents, mostly on tour, where he and other boys were victimised in ways that were clearly no longer a “game”, as Rex made it out to be.

Strongly empathetic, Ben began to recognise that he and Rex’s other victims were starting to interact with younger boys in the same way that Rex did, and, seeing through those children’s eyes, he realised this was far from “normal” behaviour.

Ben says his goal was to get Rex fired, not send him to prison. But when he was arrested, it was Ben who helped other boys to come forward. After the arrest, authorities were struggling to get the boys to break the code of silence. It was Ben who explained to them that they had been groomed by Rex into believing that what happened to them was “not so bad”.  He also counselled them that they weren’t “snitching” if they told their stories.

For the boys, the question that changed everything was, “If you were a parent, would you be okay with this happening to your son?”

Ben’s family wonder if things would have turned out differently for him if the victims had been supported at the school rather than just by the hostel master and matron. The school also did little to protect the victims’ identities, and Ben’s role in Rex’s arrest quickly became common knowledge.

Ben was even confronted by a former Parktown Boys teacher at a water polo game, who told him he knew Ben was the one who “snitched”.

At the school, teachers and fellow pupils defended Rex. Unwilling to believe that he was an abuser, they expressed anger at the victims, leaving them isolated and vilified.

Luke Lamprecht, head of advocacy at Women and Men Against Child Abuse, describes how perpetrators use three strategies to avoid detection and prosecution: denial of facts, denial of responsibility and denial of impact on the victim, thus obfuscating the extent of the harm caused by their actions.

The unfortunate result is that schools and peers are often manipulated by that narrative and don’t believe the child.

Although the victims of Collan Rex were finally vindicated when he was found guilty, many had matriculated by that point. Their final years at Parktown Boys were therefore defined by their having exposed Rex and the resultant accusations that they had hurt their peers by “bringing the school into disrepute”.

report by the Harris Nupen Molebatsi (HNM) law firm, which has still not been released to the public, even in redacted form, is known to have documented in painful detail how these abuse survivors were isolated by teachers and fellow students, victimised, verbally abused, intimidated and even physically abused. Only one of these incidents led to the teacher resigning when faced with a disciplinary hearing.

It was particularly bad for the boys who were seen to have “snitched”.

In a well-publicised racist and victim-shaming rant that the boys recorded, the school’s former art teacher labelled the boys who had alerted authorities to Rex’s abuse as “snitches” and “evil”. He also crudely referenced what had happened in “room 13” behind closed doors in the hostel, before threatening to blow the hostel up.

Survivors had their leadership roles challenged and one of the boys left the school after being violently whipped in a water polo first team initiation and was then threatened and spat on because he broke the “code of silence” about the initiation.

After the lashing, Ben was appointed as captain of the water polo team in place of the boy who carried out the beating. Despite this, when Ben and his dad visited the school earlier this year, they discovered that Ben’s name had been removed from the board honouring past captains.

By the time the HNM report was finalised, three victims were in long-term counselling and six more were on suicide watch.

After a year of providing support for the other victims, Ben began struggling with trauma-induced depression, compounded by his ongoing experience of isolation.

Rex’s grooming was so effective that Ben was in turmoil about turning him in.  Ben confessed that he still feels sorry for his abuser and guilty about having him arrested, a feeling that was reinforced at school.

Edith Kriel, executive director of Jelly Beanz, a group dedicated to providing mental health services to children affected by sexual abuse and trauma, describes grooming as a process in which the child is psychologically manipulated in a myriad of nuanced and multi-layered ways to be entrapped in the relationship with the offender.

In that relationship, the child may be made to feel complicit in sexual acts that ensue, either through affection, gratitude or fear of the perpetrator. The sexual acts may further be minimised or normalised so the child doesn’t necessarily understand the wrongfulness of the behaviour.

According to Kriel, grooming and its impact is often the part of the sexual abuse which is most confusing to the child. She says it causes enormous emotional damage and has long-term consequences. She stresses that the betrayal of children’s trust hurts them deeply.

A 2023 Canadian study on externalisation of suffering among male survivors of sexual abuse found three main types of externalised behaviours: aggressive behaviours to express anger, rule-breaking and substance abuse to avoid suffering. Before the end of his time at Parktown, Ben manifested all three behaviours.

Darkness to Light’s research indicates that male survivors of sexual abuse are 2.6 times more likely to experience substance abuse problems than non-victims and more than 70% of male victims seek psychological help for substance abuse, suicidal thoughts and attempted suicide.

Ben began to struggle with destructive anger, which, to his dismay, was often directed at his family. A year after Rex’s arrest, he went from considering substance abuse a weakness that he abhorred, to finding ways to numb the pain of Rex’s abuse and the secondary victimisation he experienced at school.

Then came the fateful day in his matric year when Ben, convinced that he was hurting the ones he loved most, climbed out of his family’s car on a major road, ostensibly to walk back to his girlfriend’s house. He was followed by his twin brother who, seeing that Ben was overwrought, ran after him, worried he would do something desperate.

Ben says the more his twin followed him and fought to keep him safe, the more he ran. He finally broke through the fence that led him to a bridge across the N1 highway in Johannesburg. As his brother pleaded with him to stop, he found himself holding on by one arm, threatening to let go if his brother came any closer.

Ben vividly remembers the moment, while hanging from the side of the bridge, when he heard his brother crying. He kept his eyes on the tattoo on the arm that was still holding onto the bridge – a tattoo with the letters “IDBK” – the initials of his parents and brothers.  Ben didn’t let go.

Ben’s* life-saving tattoo. (Photo: Supplied)

If this were fiction, the story may have ended there, with Ben’s life-saving tattoo and a tearful reunion with his twin. But choosing not to die did not make living with the depression, anger or addiction that had become a constant part of Ben’s life post-abuse any easier for him or his family.

Shortly after, he was admitted to a psychiatric institution and placed on suicide watch. He was there for 56 days on 26 tablets a day. He wrote his matric finals in the facility.

The boy who had once dreamed of being an architect went from a top sportsman who excelled in maths to barely passing; from hating drugs to self-medicating to cope with the abuse and its aftermath.

And like the Mordohs, who are still struggling with the cost of Julio’s psychiatric care and rehab a year after his death, Ben’s family have had to sell a house and a car to give their son the support he needs.

Ben says that if it weren’t for his family, and now his commitment to his baby and fiancé, he might have succumbed to the pain years ago.

But even now that Ben has a new family and so much to live for, the emotional anguish of the abuse and the years that followed still occasionally drive him to desperation and back to high places.

As recently as July, after a prolonged bout of psychosis, a fear of letting his family down led him to the edge of a mountain. Once again, he didn’t jump.

The themes of abuse – including sexual abuse, victimisation and suicide – are tragically common to many stories from those who were once proud pupils of Parktown Boys.

As with sexual abuse, there is a strong causal link between traumatic physical abuse and suicide. And, unlike Ben, not all boys survive.

When Pene Kimber’s son was violently beaten by Grade 12s in a 2009 hostel initiation where boys had to run the gauntlet of matrics wielding cricket bats, hockey sticks and golf clubs, and were made to rub deep heat on their genitals to earn the privilege of using a kettle, the furore that followed resulted in many families telling their stories of initiation at the school.

In one tragic case, the parents of a teenager opened a case against the school after he was beaten there. They later withdrew it because the boy was being victimised. Their son went on to take his life.

In another story, a mother told of how her son had been relentlessly bullied at the school. She said he showed her damage caused by “wedgies”, where his underpants were ripped, causing bruising and splitting of the peri-anal area. Her son was frequently humiliated and told he was a “loser”.

When she threatened to go to the school, her son told her: “Mum, if you intervene, life will be far worse for me!”

She says that in hindsight, she realises a lot was hidden from her.

When she finally spoke to the then-headmaster, she says he told her that mothers tend to be over-protective and that she should understand this was a rite of passage for young men.  She was told not to worry about it.

Struggling with depression and anger, her son took his life shortly after finishing school. His psychologist said that he had never recovered from the helplessness he felt at school.

Bradley Skipper is another of those boys whose life was dramatically changed when he was at Parktown Boys.

Bradley, whose mom described him as a sensitive soul with a strong sense of fairness, was brutally beaten during a prefect’s assembly in October 2006 when he was in Grade 9.

The incoming prefects gave him punitive “PT” which involved smothering him in blazers, kicking his hands out from under him while he did push-ups, beating him in the back despite him telling them that he had scoliosis of the spine, forcing him to hold a bin full of bricks upright while they punched him in the ribs, and filling his mouth with cigarette stumps.

Despite his mother’s best efforts, only two of the boys involved were sanctioned by having their prefect’s badges removed for two weeks. But the teacher who was allegedly present at the time, and who at first denied that the assault occurred, wasn’t sanctioned. Nor was the seemingly endorsed violence addressed.

Instead, the master who investigated the incident warned Bradley’s mother that her son was now open to victimisation because he had “snitched”.

Bradley’s mom removed him from the school immediately and tried, through the headmaster, the South African Council of Educators, the provincial department of education, the Human Rights Commission and even the Minister of Education, to get justice for her son and end the culture of initiation and secrecy at the school. Her efforts were in vain.

Three years later, when Pene Kimber’s son was assaulted at the school, Bradley spoke to the media on condition of anonymity. In an article aptly sub-titled, “Fit in or F..k off”, he explained that he was terrified for his life:

“I am too scared to reveal myself. Parktown Boys has an extensive old boys’ network and I could be killed anytime I set foot in a club or a mall. When I left the school, the deputy headmaster told me I had better watch my back because he can’t do it for me.”

After 11 years of living with the fear and trauma of that day, Bradley died by suicide at the end of 2017.

In a written comment received from the school governing body (SGB) of Parktown Boys for this article, the school acknowledged that what “some of our boys went through in the past can never be diminished or forgotten.”

It said that, since 2019, the school had been implementing the recommendations of the HNM report and receiving expert input from both Luke Lamprecht and Rees Mann from Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse.

The SGB further affirmed that “the school is determined that these tragic events will never be repeated” and that “there continues to be an unrelenting and shared focus on the process of healing, learning and advancing transformation that we have embarked upon to forever change our culture.”

In 2020, Bradley was memorialised at Parktown Boys in a plaque that was laid outside the hostel on the same day that the school safety bell was installed. It was meant to be a commitment by the school and its pupils to put an end to violent initiations and abuse.

parktown boys

Bradley Skipper’s memorial stone: October 2020. (Photo: Robyn Wolfson Vorster) / Bradley Skipper, Grade 9 Parktown Boys High School. (Photo: Supplied)

Both the bell and plaque were removed by their donors when the heads of hostel, Chris and Mariolette Bossert, left the school.

The plaque dedicated to Bradley has since been placed at the Fight with Insight programme in the Children’s Memorial Institute as a reminder that abuse can drive vulnerable children to desperation, and also as a challenge to adults to never stop fighting for the protection, safeguarding and care of their children.

In the final article in this series, we tell the story of Thomas Kruger and ask why, on the 5th anniversary of his tragic death – despite an explosive podcast, an independent review, a change in leadership at the school and criminal and legal investigations – authorities seem no closer to delivering justice or even providing answers to his grieving family about why he died. DM

If a child you know has been affected by sexual or physical abuse or is at risk for suicide, please contact Childline’s Helpline 24X7 on 116 (free from all networks) or visit their Online Counselling chatrooms. Alternatively, email reportsafely@STOPS.co.za to report abuse.

These articles were written in loving memory of:

Julio Mordoh:  08.01.2002–05.11.2022

Thomas Kruger: 20.03.2002–18.11.2018

Bradley Skipper: 18.12.1989–30.12.2017

*Name changed to protect the identity of the victim.

First published in the Daily Maverick: 08:12:2023

Why did Enock Mpianzi die?

Why did Enock Mpianzi die?

hen Enock Mpianzi drowned on a school orientation camp, it was not because he was poor, black and foreign. Nor was it, as leadership of the Nyati Bush and Riverbreak Lodge has stated, ‘a terrible accident’ and ‘no one’s fault’. It was the result of a series of actions and decisions made by the adults entrusted with his care. These decisions were at best poor, and at worst reckless and negligent. Tragically, the result was foreseeable.

Listen to this article: BeyondWords

The parents of Grade 8 learners at Parktown Boys High School (PBHS) would have had some minimum expectations when they signed the indemnity form and sent their son on the school’s orientation camp. These include: that safety standards (both legal and reasonable) would be adhered to; that the school had conducted a due diligence on its chosen camp to ensure that it was a secure environment, and that the school would know the nature of activities taking place on camp and check with parents if their boys had the skill and ability to participate.  

They would also have expected teachers to compile a comprehensive list of the boys on the camp and that the list, along with the boy’s indemnity forms, would always be in their possession; that the school would use systems like regular head counts and a buddy system to check that all of the boys were present at all times; and that in the unfortunate event of an incident, the school would react immediately, and provide them with comprehensive and timely updates.

Most of all, they would have expected their sons to come home.

Yet, incomprehensibly, a school described by Panyaza Lesufi as “one of our best schools in the province” seems to have violated most, if not all, of these expectations in the incident that led to Enock’s death, the 24-hour wait before anyone started looking for him, and the investigations that followed his body being recovered.

In the days since Enock died, the media has uncovered significant information about the events around his death and some answers to two crucial questions: how did he die and why was his body not found sooner?

Much of what has emerged seems incredible: facilitators at Nyati Bush and Riverbreak Lodge decided to put boys into the Crocodile River without life jackets, there was no apparent risk assessment to determine if the conditions in the river were safe, facilitators didn’t evaluate the boys’ swimming abilities before placing them in the water, teachers did not have an accurate list of camp attendees to check after the water activity, and there was an inexplicable unwillingness to believe that Enock was missing and look for him sooner.  

In addition, there were a number of seemingly banal, but important, factors that contributed to his death. They included the school’s apparent unpreparedness for the camp (necessary permission was not obtained from the Gauteng Department of Education but the trip still went ahead, it’s uncertain if the school conducted due diligence before choosing the site, and buses arrived late to the camp). From Nyati’s side, camp facilitators were all young, between the ages of 19 and 25, and had received internal training but were not required to have any formal qualifications such as life-saving or First Aid. Facilitators also failed to get to know the boys prior to the first exercise.

Eyewitness accounts have confirmed that Enock died during the water component of a “rescue” exercise.  The boys were placed into groups (of between 11 and 15 boys depending on whose account you believe), and tasked with building a stretcher to transport an “injured” boy to safety. The stretchers were made out of logs and materials that the boys could find, most were lashed together with shoelaces. One boy was then transported to “safety” through the water on the makeshift raft, which was balanced on an inner tube, while the rest of the boys were in the water. There is no record of facilitators having done a risk assessment about the conditions (despite recent rains which had made the currents in the river stronger).

In a statement to Eyewitness News (EWN), Nyati manager Anton Knoetze said that boys were told to sit out the water part of the exercise if they couldn’t swim. But no one evaluated the swimming ability of boys (like Enock) who could swim, and no one asked if they had swum in open water before. By Knoetze’s own admission none of the boys were wearing life jackets (none was requested for the camp, and none was provided by the facility). This, despite life jackets being a legal requirement for all open water activities. Eyewitness accounts indicate that at least one of the boys noticed life jackets at the camp pool and asked if they needed them for the exercise. They were told that life jackets were not necessary because they would be staying in the shallows. 

Nyati’s press statement from 22 January stated that the boys had disobeyed this instruction, becoming competitive and trying to overtake other groups and finish first. It was a bizarre deflection, not just because it failed to acknowledge the legal requirement for safety devices, but also because, as water safety expert Graeme Addison pointed out on Carte Blanche, the boys would have had no way of knowing what was shallow water, and what was deep water.   

It’s also worth remembering that these were 13-year-old boys, who were new to the school, unfamiliar with each other, and trying to prove themselves on their first activity on camp. It seems astonishing that Nyati would blame them for excited and competitive behaviour when it was surely a typical response, one that should have been foreseeable for any experienced facilitator.

What was also predictable was that the makeshift stretchers would break up in the open water. Some boys were able to grab onto the inner tube, but not all did. Many of the boys were swept down the river. Depending on who you believe, between 30 and 50 boys (up to a quarter of the boys on camp) had to be rescued. Many boys were rescued by other Grade 8 learners because the eight facilitators deployed by Nyati at the riverbank were not in the water and, according to one eyewitness, no teachers were present. The Grade 12 learners on the camp were also not present at the water activity. They were apparently in a session with child protection activist, Luke Lamprecht, who was briefing them on leadership, and how to instil culture and the “Parktown way” without the need for hazing.

Even strong swimmers reported that they thought that they were going to drown. Boys were screaming for help, and one eyewitness stated that some boys were clinging to an island but were told by the two facilitators who jumped into the water to “let go”, so they could “catch them”.  

Given the river conditions, the lack of safety equipment and the lack of oversight, it seems miraculous that more lives were not lost.

If the exercise was ill-judged, what happened next seems even more unbelievable. Given the number of boys who were swept down the river and the trauma of the experience, the most obvious course of action by facilitators and teachers should have been to place boys into their original groups, check that all were present, comfort the boys who were vomiting and coughing uncontrollably, administer First Aid and, if all were present, debrief them about what had happened. If this had occurred, they would have known immediately that Enoch was missing.

But by Knoetze’s own admission the facilitators did not “know the children and their names”. This may have been a tragic (but again foreseeable) consequence of the Lodge cancelling planned “ice breakers” and “getting to know you” exercises because PBHS buses had allegedly arrived late for the camp. Instead, facilitators proceeded straight to a survival activity with groups of unfamiliar boys whose names they didn’t know.

Shockingly, it seems that they also didn’t know the number of boys in their groups. Facilitators wrote a group number on each boy’s hand to keep the boys together. But at the end of the exercise, the facilitator of Group 4 (Enoch‘s group) appeared not to notice that one of the 14 boys in the group was missing. When told by Enock’s friends that they didn’t know where he was, the alleged reply was that he had probably joined another group. It’s a bewildering response. Enock would have known his group number so even if it had washed off his hand, all the facilitator needed to do to find him (or confirm that he was missing) was ask the other facilitators if they had a boy from Group 4 in any of their groups.

But, they didn’t, and along with the failure to take proper safety precautions, it’s likely that this refusal to respond to an eyewitness account that a boy was missing resulted in his death.

The upshot was that Enock’s absence was not noticed at the river, at the point where he was most likely to be rescued alive. But even so, it seems incomprehensible that his absence was not noticed when roll call was taken by the headmaster, Malcolm Williams, two hours after the exercise began.  There’ve been a number of explanations mooted for the headmaster taking roll call from the full list of Grade 8 learners attending Parktown Boys, rather than a camp attendees’ list. Some news stories have proposed that no roll call was taken prior to the camp. It’s possible (albeit alarming), but even if there was no roll call, a list of camp attendees could still have been compiled from the boys’ indemnity forms. 

What is most plausible is that neither the roll call list nor the indemnity forms were at the camp when Enock went missing. An article in the Star cited credible evidence that the head teacher, Alex Meintjies, left the roll call list and indemnity forms on the hired Bus 2000 bus, which then returned to Johannesburg. Journalists from Daily Maverick have also confirmed that the school contacted the bus company after it returned to Johannesburg to report that “they left a list on the bus”. 

The bus company is now refusing to comment further on the nature of the documents, as is the School Governing Body (SGB). 

The impact of this act of carelessness was enormous. Had roll call been completed from the camp attendee list, it would have been glaringly obvious that Enock was missing. But several boys were unable to attend the camp, so when roll call was done from the full Grade 8 list, there would have been as many as 10 boys who did not respond when their names were called.

As an aside, two other outcomes of this “oversight” were that it resulted in the devastating 10am phone call to Enock’s parents on Thursday 16 January asking if he was on camp (staff would have had to contact the parents of all the boys who did not respond to roll call).

In addition, the other consequence (and possibly the reason why the SGB responded with such hostility to the Daily Maverick’s request for comment), was that almost 200 young boys would have been on camp overnight without the indemnity forms which not only contained permission for the children to be on the trip, and emergency contact details, but also their medical information, including details of chronic medication requirements and life-threatening allergies. Given the heart-stopping resultant risk, the school is probably fortunate that more boys were not hurt during this camp.

What’s critical is that even if Enock’s absence was not obvious to facilitators, teachers or the headmaster at the river or during roll call (as intimated), there has been no explanation for why they all failed to listen to, or believe, Enock’s friends who told them multiple times over a 24-hour period that Enock was missing. Surely even if the boys were mistaken, it was incumbent on the staff to investigate their claims. Speculation has abounded about why they didn’t, but it’s one aspect of this story that no amount of investigative journalism can uncover, because the responsible people aren’t talking.

The other mystery is why a school with a history of abuse and conflict over orientation camps would select Nyati for its orientation camp. As recently as 2018, the Grade 8 camp was scrapped because of the potential risk to boys. But the SGB allegedly fought to have the camp reinstated in 2019, prompting an attorney representing concerned parents to state: “I have always believed that it will take the death of an innocent child for the government to realise exactly what is going on at Parktown.” Despite these concerns, the camp was still planned for 2020, albeit with a venue change because of the identified risk to learners at the previous camp site where teachers were housed too far away from the boys.

So why, given the need to protect the boys, and the history of abuse in the school, did Parktown Boys fail to apply for permissions to hold the camp in the time frame required by the GDE, and why did the camp go ahead despite permission not being granted? Equally, where is the school’s due diligence on Nyati? One should have been completed by teachers prior to selecting the venue and, as Panyaza Lesufi has pointed out, even a cursory search on Nyati would have uncovered damning information about the camp (including the 2010 death of Mellony Sias and reports that the camp could be militaristic and rigid – a significant problem given Parktown Boy’s history with initiation). Although it wasn’t common knowledge at the time that Enock was the fifth child to die at the camp, surely one fatality would have raised red flags, as would the lack of formal qualifications and youth of the facilitators.  

If the school did not compile a detailed due diligence on the camp (including police clearances and form 30s for all facilitators, a list of qualifications and a list of activities to be performed), it certainly failed in its duty to protect its new Grade 8s from harm.

While the picture of what occurred on 15 January is only emerging now, what’s been clear from the outset is how poorly the school has handled the crisis. It’s now common knowledge that the boys were told not to tell anyone (not even their parents) about what for many had been the worst experience of their lives. According to Francis Herd, news anchor and commentator on crisis management, the first tenet of crisis management is to stop the harm. But this instruction would have produced more pressure and fear in already traumatised boys. 

Teachers were also instructed not to comment, and parents were invited to a meeting on 20 January only to be told that they could not ask questions.  In addition, the headmaster asked the media to refrain from writing about Enock’s death “out of respect for the family”. 

But, it’s hard to argue that the interests of Enock’s family are best served by silence, or by waiting the promised three months for the result of the investigations into his death, especially since information disclosed by Parktown Boys has been incomplete and improbable. Herd says that best practice at a time of crisis is full and open disclosure to the media and the public to avoid appearing untrustworthy. Had the school revealed what it knew instead of obfuscating and concealing evidence, it would have built trust and avoided the extraordinary levels of media scrutiny. Instead, Parktown Boys’ reticence to share information while others were talking made it appear that the school had something to hide.  

In a painful interview on 702, Enock’s great-uncle explained how the school could not tell them at what point Enock had disappeared (despite the boys saying he had not been seen after the water event, staff still speculated that he may have got lost on the hike), or how he died. He described the heartbreak of finding Enock’s body two days after he died, and the feeling that Enoch’s death had gone “unnoticed”. He also articulated a conviction that if journalists hadn’t intervened and organised a discussion with Enock’s friend, the boy who was brave enough to give his eyewitness account, the family may never have known what happened to their son.

Herd believes that the school has lost control of the crisis, and can no longer be an authoritative voice. She is therefore not surprised that the previous crisis at PBHS, involving sexual misconduct, has come up again in public perception and the press. Given the level of distrust from the previous crisis, she contends that Parktown Boys should have been extra responsive this time around.

So, instead of creating the impression of protecting Enock’s family, the injunction for silence seems to be part of an overall bid to keep the story quiet to protect people who may be guilty of gross negligence. It’s a truism, but those with nothing to hide, hide nothing. Instead, to quote Rams Mabote, a parent at PBHS and mentor, the “conspiracy of lies” remains at Parktown Boys.

Regardless of what happens next, it’s hard to overstate the damage done. A child, a treasured son and brother, who wanted to be an attorney so he could help people and who could not sleep the night before the camp because he was so excited, is dead. Described as a “quiet, friendly and obedient child”, he was able to form friendships in less than a day that were so strong that his friends were willing to risk everything for him.

Despite the school organising counselling, many boys who attended the camp are suffering from nightmares, and counsellors had to intervene to get the annual school gala cancelled because many boys were too traumatised to get into the water. The lives of boys in all grades have also been compromised as their school is once again producing infamous headlines, and since daily life has been disrupted by (admittedly justified) protests at their gates, interruption of schooling and the inescapable conclusion that their staff and management cannot be trusted to make good choices for them.

It’s now up to the GDE, SGB, and, ideally, parents, to decide what happens next at Parktown Boys. We can only hope that these adults make better decisions than those made on that fateful camp, the Grade 8s of 2020 and all of their peers deserves nothing less. DM

First published in the Daily Maverick: 28.01.2020

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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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