Defend Truth


Secrecy, initiation, grooming and the ‘Parktown Boys way’


Robyn Wolfson Vorster is a dedicated wordsmith with a background in social sciences, learning and strategic consulting who opted out of corporate life ten years ago to work as a children’s rights activist. As an adoptive mom to a beautiful daughter, she has a special interest in adoption advocacy and the needs of vulnerable children. Runner up in the 2021 Isu Elihle competition for child-focused journalism, and winner of the Mandy Rossouw award for government accountability, she uses her many words to give children a voice, educate around issues affecting them, and motivate for changes in policy. You can find her at For the Voiceless.

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.

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 gaslighting, which 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


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