South Africa

PARKTOWN BOYS’ DROWNING

Principal suspended as school culture comes under criticism

Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi on January 16, 2018 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sowetan / Sandile Ndlovu)

Parktown Boys’ High School principal Malcolm Williams has been suspended following a preliminary investigation into the death of Grade 8 student Enoch Mpianzi, Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi announced on Friday. More heads are expected to roll at the school that has drawn repeated complaints about its culture.

Parktown Boys’ High School principal Malcolm Williams has been suspended with immediate effect following the drowning of Grade 8 student, 13-year-old Enoch Mpianzi, at a school camp last week.

Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi made the announcement at his department’s offices in Johannesburg on Friday after he received a preliminary report from Harris Nupen Molebatsi Attorneys, which has begun interviewing the parties involved and on Friday was conducting a site visit at the camp where Mpianzi died, Nyati Bush and River Break in Brits, North West.

Lesufi said the Grade 8 camp, meant to introduce learners to each other and foster values of teamwork, was not approved by the district or head office. Schools are required to submit camp applications to the district three months in advance but Parktown Boys’ submitted its application on 19 November 2019.

“We have enquired the roles of all persons who are in the line of authority and have responsibility to care for and support our learners in schools. In this regard, we have concluded that the principal of the school is the delegated authority with the responsibility for the safety of our learners in schools,” said Lesufi.

He would not elaborate on the specific basis for Williams’s suspension while the investigation continues. Williams was served with his suspension letter on Friday morning.

Lesufi said district officials who were meant to handle the application timeously and approve safety plans will be suspended as the investigation continues.

The Harris Nupen Molebatsi Attorneys investigation has a wide mandate to investigate the process school officials followed ahead of the camp, the role of the school governing body (SGB), the camp, what happened when Mpianzi went missing, and whether the provincial department has any liability.

Lesufi said the investigation was launched “due to the inconsistency of the alleged facts that have been presented to us”.

The MEC was due to meet parents of Parktown Boys’ students at Wits University on Friday evening where he said the agenda would include what happens to the current SGB. The department is establishing which teachers that were present at the camp were employed by the department and which by the SGB. The department can only discipline those it employed.

In future, any applications for school water activities will have to be approved by the Gauteng education department’s head office rather than the district.

Meanwhile, details continue to emerge of how Mpianzi was swept away during an activity in the river at Nyati Bush and River Break and why it took almost a day for teachers and camp facilitators to realise he was missing.

According to a Grade 8 learner who spoke to radio station 702, and Daniël Eloff, the legal representative for Nyati Bush and River Breakaway, from law firm Hunter Spies, which Lesufi noted often represents AfriForum, students participated in an activity known as the “stretcher run” after they arrived hours late at the camp last Wednesday 15 January 2019.

Eloff said the camp cancelled the introduction and ice-breaker activity due to the late arrival.

The “stretcher run” activity required the boys to split into groups and imagine themselves in an emergency situation where one person is injured and the rest of the boys would have to get the “injured” person across the river in a craft made of materials around them.

Eloff in his statement said that eight out of the 17 camp facilitators were present during the “stretcher run” activity. Eyewitness reports claim no teachers were at the river.

The student, whose testimony was read on 702 by a member of the radio station’s team, said he was in Mpianzi’s group and their stretcher, which was made into a raft using a rubber tube, capsized shortly after they entered the river, where the flow of the water was so strong students struggled to swim. He said he only saw facilitators further down the river.

He said he saw Mpianzi swept away by the strong currents. Later, he and a fellow student made repeated attempts to tell teachers and facilitators that Mpianzi was missing but they continued to say he either had moved to another group or had not come on the camp.

Repeated questions have been asked as to how the school only realised Mpianzi was missing on Thursday morning.

The Star reported that teachers left the roll call and indemnity forms on the bus that took them to the camp, meaning they could not confirm which of the over 200 students enrolled in Grade 8 were at the camp. Sources say teachers then attempted to retrieve the documents from the buses, which were on their way back to Johannesburg.

Theuns Nieuwoudt from Bus 2000, the company Parktown Boys’ used to transport the students, told Daily Maverick the buses had left Brits on Wednesday and while they were returning the company received a call from someone saying that “they left a list on the bus”.

“So then afterwards I called the driver on which bus they said that the document or the list could’ve been,” Nieuwoudt said. “And he says he was not aware of any list and they did check the bus after they dropped the learners off.”

Daily Maverick tried to get comment from Parktown Boys but was met with hostility. Kim van Es, media Liaison for the school’s SGB, said she would not answer specific questions outside of the formal investigative process, especially in regard to the documents supposedly left on the bus. 

“That’s a crucial part of the investigation,” van Es said. “We will not have a trial by media.”

Lesufi said Nyati Bush and River Breakaway is a key part of the investigation after it came to light that four people had drowned on camps there since 1999.

The camp’s lawyer, Eloff, told Daily Maverick that the facilitators were aged between 19 and 25 years old. Asked about their qualifications and experience, he said: “The facilitators are all trained by the camp to conduct the camp’s activities.

“The camp follows a ratio of one facilitator per 15 learners and with Parktown Boys High there was one facilitator per 11 learners,” Eloff added.

Parktown Boys faced a barrage of criticism in 2018 after water polo coach and former student Collen Rex was sentenced to 23 years in prison for sexually assaulting and assaulting students. That year, Lesufi’s department commissioned Harris Nupen Molebatsi Attorneys to conduct an investigation into widespread allegations about the school’s culture.

That investigation, which hasn’t been publicly released, found examples of sexually predatory behaviour committed by older students against younger students and which were committed in the name of “initiation practices”. Information seen by Daily Maverick shows how many of the toxic practices began at the Grade 8 camp.

A group of concerned current and former parents has long campaigned to put an end to the Grade 8 camp. The camp was scrapped in 2018 but was reintroduced the next year.

Frieda Scheepers, a lawyer who has long acted for concerned parents fighting to change the culture at the school, told Daily Maverick, “I have always believed that it will take the death of an innocent child for government to realise exactly what is going on at Parktown.”

Lesufi changed the leadership at the school after the 2018 report and Parktown Boys’ leadership committed to ending hazing practices. On Friday, however, Lesufi said the “code of silence” that the report revealed continues at Parktown Boys despite changes since the report came out.

“We changed it on paper, but the culture continues,” said Lesufi.

Asked detailed questions this week, the SGB’s Van Es referred Daily Maverick to the school’s most recent statement.

“We are utterly committed to ensuring Enock and the Mpianzi family receive the justice they deserve,” it said.

“We have pledged our absolute support and commitment to the GDE and the South African Police Service (SAPS) investigation into the tragedy at the Nyathi Bush and River Break which hosted the camp.

“As such we are focused on providing answers to the investigators in order to help them complete their work as quickly as possible. We are not answering specific questions outside of the formal investigative process in order to respect due process.”

Lesufi on Friday dismissed calls to close the school. He said it had troubles but was one of the province’s best performing high schools.

“There are elements of excellence but there are also elements that we need to clean,” said the MEC. DM

 

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