The education department comes down hard on Parktown Boys’ High after shocking claims emerge in the Enock Mpianzi tragedy
ITS official website describes it as one of the oldest schools in Johannesburg, an institution “consistently rated as among the best performing schools in South Africa as well as in Africa”. But after the Enock Mpianzi tragedy, it is a school in crisis. Allegations of lies, cover-ups and instructions for silence have shrouded Parktown Boys’ High in a cloud of controversy that shows no sign of lifting.
This is by no means the only scandal to have hit the school: in 2018, assistant water polo coach Collan Rex was jailed for 23 years on 144 charges of sexual assault involving 17 boys.
Now, as the fallout continues unabated, there are even calls for the centuryold school to close its doors.
What happened on the Crocodile River at the start of the new school year is now the subject of a high-level investigation by the Gauteng department of education (GDE), which has appointed an independent law firm to probe what happened on that ill-fated orientation camp.
“It would appear during the water activity something went horribly wrong,” Gauteng MEC Panyaza Lesufi said in a statement.
Of that there is no doubt. A harrowing account from one of the boys on camp with Enock tells of chaos and panic during an exercise at the Nyati Bush and Riverbreak near Brits in the North West that ill-fated January day.
“I felt like I was going to die,” Lizo*, who was on Enock’s team, told Radio 702.
He said boys had been instructed to build a stretcher that had to be transported on a section of the river – flowing fast from recent rains – as a makeshift raft. None of the children were given life vests, he claimed.
Their raft came apart in the strong current, and Lizo saw Enock struggling in the water.
“I grabbed a pole and tried to pass it to Enock. But I couldn’t reach him – the river swept him away. Some of the boys
started screaming for help as they also saw Enock struggle. But there was no adult in sight.”
Camp facilitators were waiting further downstream, he said, and fished the boys out of the water.
When they reached the camp hall, the first roll call of the trip was done, Lizo says.
“Solly*, my friend, raised his arm when Enock’s name was called. He was asked by the roll-caller if he was Enock.”
The boy answered “no”, meaning to alert the roll-caller to Enock’s absence but the man moved on to the next name.
“The person doing the roll call said he thought Enock didn’t come to camp.”
Lizo said he was repeatedly ignored when he tried to raise the alarm and it was only on his fifth attempt – the following day – that he was able to convince a teacher Enock was missing and the search began.
Later, police were called and Lizo and
Solly were interviewed. Malcolm Williams, the school’s headmaster – who has since been placed on “precautionary suspension” – ordered the boys not to speak to anyone else about the incident.
In a statement, the camp said the school hadn’t done a roll call. When they established eight learners hadn’t pitched up for the camp, they then contacted their parents to find out if they were meant to be there.
It was only then, when contacting Enock’s parents, that it was confirmed the boy was missing.
EXPERTS and commentators agree the camp and the school must be held to account for Enock’s death. Sara Black, a Cape Townbased education researcher, says those in charge did not take proper care of the children and “a culture of toxic masculinity and initiations at former model-C and private schools” also need to be examined.
“It’s wrong that they have a mentality of ‘making boys into men’, or that boys should not cry or want life jackets because ‘that is for sissies’.
“There is a culture of forcing boys to toughen up, and it’s wrong. It also begs the question, what kind of men will be made out of these exercises? What is the purpose of these camps and what are they meant to achieve?”
Black says it’s clear the school and the camp ignored basic safety regulations. “It is unacceptable that they were not able to tell between an absent and a missing child.
This was not the first camp the school had sent learners to, nor was it the first time this camp had hosted such a group of learners. With all that experience, standard safety measures should have been in place and followed.”
Rams Mabote, a Parktown Boys’ High parent, wrote a hard-hitting open letter to the headmaster in which he said Enock’s death was “a classic case of toxic masculinity”.
“A boy disappears (and later dies) and all the men in charge of the boys agree on a brotherhood of silence and a conspiracy of lies – if not by commission, certainly by omission,” it reads.
Mabote, a commentator and journalist, accused the headmaster of being “tasteless” when he told learners not to talk about the drowning.
“You asked the boys to participate in secrecy and deceit. Is this what you are bequeathing to our boys? Are these the leaders you are preparing for tomorrow?”
He went onto say that South Africans are beginning to associate Parktown Boys’ High with “crisis and grime, bad culture and poor leadership”.
Shutting down the school is not an option, department spokesman Elijah Mhlanga says.
“We are saddened by this, but closing a school is a process and requires procedures to be followed.”
LESUFI, in a wide-ranging statement released seven days after Enock’s death, said “tough questions have been asked – and rightly so – about whether Parktown Boys’ High and the camp exercised reasonable duty of care in ensuring the health and safety of the Grade 8 boys.
“What has also emerged from media reports is the inconsistency of facts and that there may have been serious negligence on the part of the school and the camp.”
The inconsistencies are the reason the department appointed an independent law firm to investigate the matter.
“The investigation is being conducted with urgency,” he declared.
“However, due to the traumatic nature of this incident, no undue pressure will be placed on any of the witnesses.”
Lesufi also revealed that the school applied to the “district” office to approve the trip.
“However, by the time the school embarked on the trip, the district and head office had not approved the trip, thus making the trip an unauthorised activity.”
For this reason, headmaster Williams was “served with a letter of precautionary suspension in order for the investigation to proceed without hindrance”.
District officials “who have a case to answer for” have also been suspended, Lesufi added.
Getting to the bottom of what happened is the primary motivation of the investigation to ensure that “all those affected by this sad reality find closure, but more importantly to ensure incidents like this are avoided”.
Mabote said Enock deserves the truth “even if it is too late”.
“You should have done better,” he said in his letter to the school. “You can still do better.”
*Not their real names
‘There’s a culture of forcing boys to toughen up, and it’s wrong’