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Abuse and suicide, the spectre that haunts elite boys’ schools: St Andrew’s College (Part Three)

Abuse and suicide, the spectre that haunts elite boys’ schools: St Andrew’s College (Part Three)
Thomas Kruger’s bereaved family felt his 2018 suicide at St Andrew’s College in Makanda was inexplicable. (Photo: Supplied)

For Thomas Kruger’s bereaved family, his suicide at St Andrew’s College in Makhanda was inexplicable. Five years later, with the launch of a documentary focusing on harm experienced by boys at elite schools, are they any closer to getting justice for their son?

Read Part One here and Part Two here. For details on the documentary on the issue, see here

The 2011 National Youth Risk Behaviour Survey found that 17.6% of South African learners had considered attempting suicide in the six months before the survey, 15.6% had made a plan to commit suicide, 17.8% had made one or more suicide attempts and of those who had attempted suicide, 31.5% required medical treatment. Most suicides occur between the ages of 15 and 29.

Nationally, the overall death rate by suicide is approximately four times higher for men than for women.

But no one expected Thomas Kruger to take his life.

Bright, talented, personable and kind, he seemingly had everything to live for, so the phone call his parents received from St Andrew’s College on Sunday morning, 18 November 2018 came like a bolt from the blue. Thomas had been found hanging from the window of the sanatorium at the school. He was dead.

Thomas wasn’t even supposed to be at the school, he was supposed to be on a hiking adventure with the rest of his Grade 10 group. Instead, his body was found in the place where he should have been safest.

His heartbroken father, Charl Kruger, spent the next three years searching for answers to his death which led to an investigative podcast, an independent review, and a change of leadership at the school. But five years after Tom’s death, questions about why he died and who, if anyone is to blame, still loom large.

Kruger describes Tom as a caring, empathetic, mischievous and loving boy whose dream was to live on an island caring for as many adopted children and abandoned pets as possible. He explains how Tom championed children with disabilities during primary school, spent his high school holidays volunteering at a place of safety for abandoned children, and would walk to the shops on cold Gqeberha days to buy lemon cream biscuits, tea and sugar and then inspan his dad to trawl the streets handing out tea and biscuits to homeless people.

Charl and Thomas Kruger, St Andrew’s College

Charl and Thomas Kruger. (Photo: Supplied)

He was remarkable in other ways too. An all-around sportsman who excelled at water polo, cricket and hockey and was strong academically, he was awarded the prestigious Duthie Memorial Scholarship to St Andrew’s College in Makhanda.

Kruger says that Tom was very excited about attending St Andrew’s and that as a family, they loved the school’s traditions and culture of excellence, and were impressed by the quality of men in the St Andrew’s alumni.

Once he settled, Tom shone at St Andrew’s, in his sporting achievements, academically and socially. He was well-liked by his peers and teachers.

Thomas Kruger, St Andrew’s College

Thomas Kruger was regarded as an excellent sportsman at St Andrew’s College. (Photo: Supplied)

Withdrawn and secretive

But within months Tom’s behaviour began to change. Charl describes how his son, who had shared everything with him, became more private, withdrawn and secretive. An affectionate child, he started to resist being hugged. The family attributed it to his age, but his father also noticed an uncharacteristic hardening in his son.

Like the Mordohs, Tom’s parents thought the separation was a natural part of growing up. They also believed that the man St Andrew’s had entrusted with mentoring and providing him with pastoral care, his assistant housemaster and water polo coach, David Mackenzie, would give him the guidance and support he needed.

Describing Mackenzie as approachable and charming, Kruger says that he formed a very strong bond with the boys from his boarding house, Espin House, and the water polo team he coached. Kruger says Mackenzie took a special interest in Tom, who was in Espin House and played water polo for the Under-14A team. Tom seemed able to relate to him, and Tom’s family felt that Mackenzie, who treated Tom more like a younger brother to nurture and develop than a pupil, always appeared to have “Tom’s back”.

But behind the scenes, things may not have been quite what they seemed. Mackenzie was hosting secret parties in his flat which was adjacent to the Grade 8 dormitories in Espin House. Under the guise of Harry Potter, Peaky Blinders and Fast and Furious showings, Mackenzie allowed the boys to drink and smoke in his flat and on sports tours.

In 2017, when he was in Grade 9, Tom had an opportunity to spend a night at home, a rare treat for termly boarders. He gave it up to attend “fitness practice”, which Tom explained was a movie night for the water polo boys hosted by Mackenzie in his flat.

Kruger says that code words and names were part of Mackenzie’s relationship with the boys and that the boys in his inner circle all had nicknames.

During the independent review convened by Judge Dayalin Chetty in November 2021 after Tom’s death, Mackenzie described activities at the flat captured in photos on his phone as “harmless fun over a couple of beers”, and while “decrying any notion of sexual impropriety, candidly admitted to multitudinous instances of him and the boys cavorting, drinking and smoking in his flatlet”.

But Chetty remarked that the photos “evoke deep disquiet.”

According to Kruger, Mackenzie also appeared to use selection for the top water polo teams and tours as leverage over the boys. When Tom — who had represented his province with Mackenzie as his coach at the under-14 level and had been chosen in a first and second-team development squad which toured Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro in Grade 9 — was not selected for the first-team squad at the end of that year, his family say that he was uncharacteristically distressed.

Kruger explains that it wasn’t because Tom felt entitled to play for the team, but because he felt personally let down by Mackenzie.

The family, who knew Mackenzie well, followed up with him. Kruger says Mackenzie responded that if it was “entirely up to him Tom would have made the team, but the decision was not his alone”. Nonetheless, to his delight, Tom was included in the water polo camp before the start of his Grade 10 year after all.

Thomas Kruger

Thomas Kruger became distant and withdrawn. (Photo: Supplied)

Signs of depression

Shortly after that, things began to unravel. In March, Tom showed signs of depression and told the family that he no longer wanted to be at boarding school.

In the same month, on Tom’s 16th birthday, he showed his family Pride Rock. It was about 6km outside of St Andrew’s, in a remote place off a dirt road accessed by an isolated parking lot. Describing it as a breathtakingly beautiful place, a rock overhanging a mountain and overlooking a lovely valley, Kruger says that Tom told him, “It’s mine and Mr Mackenzie’s rock this, Dad”.

Months later, after Mackenzie had abruptly resigned from the school, Kruger found his son on Pride Rock on a bitterly cold July night. Tom had cycled along the N1 highway to Pride Rock at 3.30am in the pitch dark.

Kruger’s frantic search brought him to the rock where he says he found his son shivering and crying. He hugged Tom and they cried together for about an hour.

The Kruger family did everything they could to intervene. They’d moved to Makhanda so Tom could be a day pupil at the school. But after Tom’s night visit to Pride Rock, they took him back to Gqeberha. He received psychiatric and psychological care for depression and then, when he felt up to returning to school, he chose not to go back to St Andrew’s but to attend Grey High School instead.

Kruger says that when Mackenzie left St Andrew’s, Espin House parents received a letter from the school stating that it had initiated disciplinary proceedings against Mackenzie after he had “allegedly facilitated the bunking out of a boy from the sanatorium” and “was allegedly complicit in assisting a boy to break College and Espin House rules”.

According to Kruger, Mackenzie, who emphasised how many alternative job offers he had received, told the Krugers that he thought St Andrew’s had too many rules.

After Mackenzie accepted a job at Grey College in Bloemfontein, Tom asked if he could move to Grey Bloemfontein because Mackenzie wanted him there to play water polo and would organise a full scholarship for him. Tom’s parents said no to the move.

Tom was happier after leaving St Andrew’s. But, despite no longer being Tom’s teacher, Mackenzie seems to have remained a part of his life. He organised surprise visits to Tom’s home and took him to play tennis (a sport which Tom’s dad says he didn’t normally play), or to a gym.

And, when the Krugers visited Grey College in Bloemfontein where Tom’s younger brother was playing a water polo tournament, Kruger describes his dismay when Mackenzie whisked Tom off for hours.

Shortly thereafter Tom asked to return to St Andrew’s which he did in time for the school’s annual Grade 10 Journey, a hiking, kayaking and swimming adventure from the source to the mouth of the Fish River. Tom was welcomed back with joy, but within two days of starting the journey he handed in some contraband (nicotine and vaping equipment) to a master in charge. It earned him a trip back to the school.

Because all the Grade 10 boys were on the journey, the Grade 10 dorm was empty, so Tom stayed the night in the school’s sanatorium. He spent the evening watching the Springboks play rugby, chatting to another boy in the sanatorium and then fell asleep on the couch.

He was scheduled to have a disciplinary hearing in the morning and then, when the hearing was complete and the sanction agreed upon, he would probably have rejoined the hike.

But Tom didn’t return to the journey. Early on Sunday morning, 18 November 2018, at the age of 16, Tom, who had never been placed on suicide watch by his healthcare professionals, squeezed out of a tiny unbarred window of the school sanatorium and hanged himself.

Evident in Kruger’s story is that Tom was let down by those in authority. Five years after Tom’s death the family are yet to get an official report on his death. In its absence, they have had to piece together information from an initial briefing and eyewitness accounts.

Headmaster’s response

In his written response to Daily Maverick, Ian Thompson, the then headmaster of St Andrew’s said that a report had been compiled but that the family may not have received it because they had declined contact with the school after Tom’s death.

Further, in October 2017, a year before Tom’s death, St Andrew’s had commissioned a review of Mackenzie’s behaviour by an HR consultant after receiving complaints about him from parents of other St Andrew’s pupils, and the resultant report found no evidence of wrongdoing by Mackenzie. The consultant instead asserted that the complaints “served only to muddy the waters”.

Judge Chetty’s review, in November 2021, concluded, however, that the findings of that investigation had been “predetermined”.

Judge Chetty’s report concluded that Thompson had failed to respond to multiple complaints laid against Mackenzie by St Andrew’s parents and teachers over 18 months, including the assault of a pupil, “inappropriate familiarity with the boys” and concerns about boys being alone in Mackenzie’s flat at night.

In his written responses, Thompson emphasised that none of the complaints he received against Mackenzie were related to sexual abuse or grooming. Thompson’s testimony during the review was that he ascribed Mackenzie’s behaviour to the inexperience of a young teacher “finding his way in the first years of being a teacher”, and “having to come to terms with a narrow gap” between himself “and the boys he was teaching”.

He further stated that while he was familiar with the concept of grooming, he saw Mackenzie’s behaviour “not as a flag for grooming” but as “a learning and developmental moment”.

Judge Chetty however said he found this testimony “incomprehensible”.

When disciplinary proceedings were finally brought against Mackenzie after he signed a boy out of the sanatorium so he could spend the night in his flat, Thompson says that the legal advice received by the school was that the matter was not reportable.

Mackenzie was allowed to resign rather than face disciplinary action.

The panel’s report includes a WhatsApp conversation conducted from 9pm to 10.30pm between Mackenzie and one of the pupils.

In the conversation, which formed part of the disciplinary process, Mackenzie says: “I loved the last 24 hours [redacted name of pupil] but this is impacting my job. I want to talk to you every day and see you every day. We just have to be clever now nothing changes between us I promise.”

While Mackenzie insisted that there was an innocent explanation for the exchange, this was rejected by Judge Chetty, who said Mackenzie’s explanation was “contrived and falls to be rejected”.

Despite the seriousness of the allegations that led to Mackenzie leaving St Andrew’s College, his conduct was not reported to the SA Police Service or the South African Council for Educators (SACE) and he continued to teach at other schools until he was dismissed from Reddam House Bedfordview in Johannesburg for “gross misconduct and misrepresentation” following the publication of the My Only Story podcast.

The independent review report states that Thompson failed in his duty of care because he had inadequately responded to the complaints brought against Mackenzie. Judge Chetty concluded that evidence reported to Thompson “showed quite unequivocally that Mackenzie was guilty of grooming boys”.

Thompson stepped down from leading the school and has since taken senior posts at other schools.

Although Judge Chetty’s report asserts that “the evidence establishes that the youths who frequented Mackenzie’s flatlet during the review period in all probability suffered psychological harm”, it makes no ruling about why Tom died. To date, Mackenzie has not been charged with any criminal offence either related to Tom or any other boy at St Andrew’s. And, in the absence of a suicide note, it is hard to know what led to Tom’s suicide.

Grave questions

Experts list the leading reasons for teenage suicides as depression, exposure to violence, feelings of hopelessness and acute loss or rejection. Grooming or sexual abuse is just one possibility. But the presence of an adult in a position of authority against whom serious complaints of boundary violations have been laid raises grave questions.

Far more should have been required from those entrusted with Tom’s care.

According to Luke Lamprecht, the head of advocacy at Women and Men Against Child Abuse, to prevent grooming and potential abuse, and to ensure that educators who are abusing children are reported, educators, caregivers and children need to recognise violations of professional boundaries.

Schools should use training and performance management to manage boundary violations. Failing that, any boundary violation by a teacher or coach should be dealt with through the disciplinary process.

Lamprecht says that schools need to pay particular attention to the possibility of grooming, which includes secrets and taboos. This can be part of testing the victim and a gateway to contact sexual abuse.

Dr Joan van Niekerk, a veteran child protection and child rights consultant, explains that grooming is outlined in section 18 of the Sexual Offences Act and that, as such, it is a reportable offence in terms of section 110 of the Children’s Act and section 54 of the Sexual Offences Act.

Schools, therefore, need to understand acceptable professional boundaries because they are obligated to report a teacher to the SAPS or the provincial Department of Social Development, and Sace, if they have reasonable suspicion of grooming. Experts also urge schools not to conflate the disciplinary process with reporting. Regardless of internal processes, schools still need to report.

Lamprecht says the standard for reporting in the Sexual Offences Act is “reasonable belief or suspicion”, and that requesting an investigation is not akin to an accusation. The person reported is still innocent until proven guilty. Because of the difficulty schools experience proving grooming, reporting is often the key to stopping the abuse and preventing further harm.

Edith Kriel, the executive director of Jelly Beanz, which provides mental health services to children affected by sexual abuse and trauma, emphasises that sexual abuse does not have to include contact. While acknowledging the complexities of dealing with sexual abuse where there’s no immediate evidence of contact sexual abuse, Kriel explains that this is why schools need the police to investigate these crimes.

Although there are differences between Tom and Julio’s stories, both involve adults using secrecy, loyalty and blame to manipulate, isolate and seemingly disincentivise sharing.

The behaviour of both boys also provided warning signs that pointed to the possibility of grooming. These include sudden changes of behaviour, becoming secretive, receiving gifts from adults, substance abuse, becoming withdrawn or upset and mental health problems.

Kriel explains that grooming often takes place within a relationship which the child may treasure because they are made to feel special by the offender. The child does not understand that the grooming is in service of the ensuing abuse, but is led to believe that the relationship with the child is paramount to the offender.

Experts confirm that children who have been victimised and experienced grooming are likely to “suffer from serious long-term mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress and suicidal thoughts”.

Kruger believes that, had the school exposed its investigations, Tom’s family could have treated him as a potential victim of abuse, and sought appropriate help. He might be alive today.

Mackenzie questions Judge’s findings

According to David Mackenzie’s attorneys, Gouws Attorneys, who define sexual abuse as “unwanted sexual behaviour by a perpetrator upon another”, Judge Chetty’s investigation was not tested as it would have been before a court of law. Further, they state, Mackenzie was investigated following Tom’s death, but the National Prosecuting Authority declined to prosecute, and he has been incorrectly linked to Operation Nemo which is investigating alleged grooming and sexual abuse in elite schools and the water polo community.

In November 2022, the Krugers filed civil charges against Mackenzie, along with St Andrew’s College, Alan Thompson, the Minister of Education and the South African Council of Educators. A year later, in November 2023, Mackenzie responded by counter-suing the Krugers and other parties for reputational risk. Both cases are still in process.

Despite providing comprehensive written responses for this article, both St Andrew’s College and former headmaster Thompson noted that they were constrained in their replies by pending legal action.

Thompson, who when he stepped down from St Andrew’s stated that he had been “misled and deceived by Mackenzie”, conveyed his desire for justice to be served for Tom and his family.

Tom Hamilton, who replaced Thompson as headmaster of St Andrew’s, expressed the hope that Tom Kruger could be memorialised at the school. He stressed that following the review board’s report on the failure in duty of care surrounding Mackenzie, St Andrew’s College had instituted significant changes to the school’s safeguarding policies and practices, and underlined the school’s commitment to exemplary duty of care.

Like Julio, Tom would have turned 22 this year. But five years after his death, Tom’s family still don’t know why he died. Kruger says that he felt that Tom, who used to tell him everything, must have been carrying a burden too great to share, even with his dad. He clearly saw no other way out except to end his life.

If Kruger is correct, Tom took that burden to the grave and if anyone who shared his life at St Andrew’s knows what it was, they are not telling.

Until they do, justice for Tom seems a long way off.

Julio, Ben*, Bradley and Tom, all boys with promising futures and loving families whose lives were forever defined, and for all but one, cut short after their experiences at some of South Africa’s leading boys’ schools. As seen in Ben’s story, seeing justice served against their alleged abusers is a welcome first step, but even that won’t suffice. Meaningful change requires elite schools to publicly acknowledge their failures in safeguarding their learners and to actively transform school culture and how they care for their learners.

We owe that much to them, and every other boy that will come after them. 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 24/7 on 116 (free from all networks) or visit their Online Counselling chatrooms. Alternatively, email [email protected] to report abuse.

These articles were written in loving memory of:

Julio Mordoh: 8/1/2002 to 5/11/2022

Thomas Kruger: 20/3/2002 to 18/11/2018

Bradley Skipper: 18/12/1989 to 30/12/2017

*Name changed to protect the identity of the victim


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Wade de Jager de Jager says:

    I have no desire to comment on the details of this sad story which has been covered at length over the years on News24. I do however have a question for Daily Maverick and the journalist of this piece. Why do you feel the need to “narrow” your focus on “elite boys schools”? Are you sincerely concerned about the risk of sexual abuse of boys or are you seeking to bash a certain socio economic community? Do you honestly think this is only a problem for boys that attend “elite boys schools”. And I thought Daily Maverick prides itself on unbiased and well researched journalism. Imagine how the victims of sexual abuse feel in all the other schools that do not meet your definition of “elite boys schools”. Do they not deserve your attention and empathy?

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