OP-ED

Why did Enock Mpianzi die?

By Robyn Wolfson Vorster 28 January 2020

Parktown Boys High School Grade 8 pupil Enock Mpianzi, who died at a school intiation outing. (Photos: Chanel Retief | Enoch Mpianzi / supplied)

When 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.

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

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