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Enock Mpianzi: making boys into men

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Enock Mpianzi: making boys into men

Photo by Madelene Cronje/New Frame
Professor Raymond Suttner

4th February 2020

By: Raymond Suttner


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The death of Enock Mpianzi, while on a Parktown Boys High School camp in the North-West Province has aroused considerable concern, not only from those who empathise with the Mpianzi's family but from parents who fear for their own children's safety while on some such activity, not only with Parktown High but with a range of schools that have the resources to arrange such outings. 

Mpianzi is one of a number of deaths that have not been adequately explained, some of these at the same venue, the Nyati Bush and River Breakaway, near Brits in the North-West Province, which on its own, is known to have seen the deaths of some five children in water activities.


The boys were accompanied by teachers and the camp had its own facilitators, trained "in house." What kind and level of training this entailed has not been specified. There is conflicting evidence over whether students were initially asked to bring life jackets, though it is now conceded that none wore these on the waters. Enock's family were reported to have been requested to provide a life jacket but could not afford it. That Enock and others did not wear life jackets, meant they were all put in danger, and Enock was denied what could have saved his life.  Life jackets were available at the camp but were not made available because of the claim that the waters were safe.

In allowing them to embark, without life jackets on a "training" adventure on a fragile raft- without close monitoring, there was clear negligence and breach of rules for water activities.


There was minimal supervision. At the time of Enock's drowning teachers were allegedly playing a game out of sight of the waters where he drowned and other students struggled to come back to the surface. The teachers and facilitators reportedly refused to listen to a student reporting that Enock had been swept away.

When Enock and others fell off the disintegrating raft, there was no monitoring by teachers or facilitators from the camp that enabled them to note this and take steps to save him or to assist those who ultimately survived.  It was only later that a search began and some days later that his being missing and dead was confirmed to his family. Before searching, the school had phoned his parents to ask whether he had in fact been on the trip-ignoring what they had been told by Enock's companion in the water.

The school is supposed to seek permission from the Gauteng Education Department for such water activities but did not apply timeously and went ahead without permission to undertake the "team-building”.

There was no roll call taken before or after the water activity, feeding into the myth that Enock may not have been on the camp. It took some days before the school confirmed that he had died, partly because they had no records of who was and was not on the camp.   The teacher with the records is reported to have left the list (and indemnity forms with vital information, such as chronic medication needs) on the bus. 

Without personally having expertise on "team-building" camps there seem to have been a range of ways of reconstructing the list.  A new list could have been developed at the lodge before embarking on any activities where some students could go missing.  No attempt was made to create a new list at the lodge.  It or something similar ought to have been a standby method of dealing with the situation, where a roll call is a standard method of keeping a check on whether anyone was missing.  There was no attempt to gather every student together and make a new list. There was, instead, a sense that they needed to speed things up due to arriving late, even if it meant there was no record of who was there.

The parents of boys were made to sign indemnity forms.  These forms have no effect on liability for unlawful conduct.  Indemnity forms do not prevent liability for criminal or civil activity. Should it be shown that steps were necessary to explain to parents the nature of the danger that their son would encounter, and were not taken, that is a failure of their legal duty of care.  If steps could have been taken to ensure safety, as with providing life jackets and adequately monitoring water activities and these were not done, that could also lead to criminal charges and/ or civil liability, through the school or individuals and/or the camp or camp officials being charged or sued.

If it was known that some five people have died at this camp, MEC for Education Panyaza Lesufi asked why it was still used by Parktown Boys High.

Steps taken by government

The Gauteng Education MEC has moved swiftly to meet with the bereaved family and with the School Governing Body. He has also suspended the school principal, Malcolm Williams, who is ultimately responsible for the safety of the children.

In the aftermath of Enock's death, other deaths and misdemeanours at the school have been recalled ( See Robyn Wolfson Vorster  and her earlier work  That such recklessness is more widespread was evident a few days later, with the rape and murder of a schoolgirl Laticia Princes Jansen who had been left behind by school transport near Germiston.  Again, there was a delay in announcing the death and also in police reactions.  How can someone simply be left behind by the school transport, intended to ensure their safety? ( ).

Character of these activities -building teams, building masculinity

These "team-building" activities are a variant of initiation activities that have been carried out at schools and universities, especially male-only ones -for very long, going back to the colonial period and ultimately in many cases, to the UK.  Risk-taking, being willing to show one's courage in rough sports, even entailing danger, is a part of the ethos, not only of Parktown but very many South African schools for boys.  It may well be that there have been similar activities and risks taken at other schools, with or without deaths, that have not yet been publicised. Risks are taken, and this is negligent, but it is also part of conceptions of how boys grow up to be men.

The exact format and naming of the activity may vary, orientation, team building, life skills, character building, initiation and a range of other terms may be used.  But in essence, it relates to boys preparing to be men who are patriarchal – "gentlemanly" in the words of the Parktown school mission statement, and who are ready to relate to other boys/men not primarily through reason or ethics but through physical prowess.  But this specific type of activity -camping -applies to schools with resources. It is unlikely that schools in Thembisa and Mamelodi or Galeshewe have the resources to organise such camps and they cannot draw on the resources of "Old Boys".  That is not to say that these other schools do not perform rites of passage or orientation, within the constraints of their environments.

These activities relate to the making of men and implicitly codes of relationships with girls and women. For Africans, of course, it coexists with initiation practices, while not identical also tend to emphasise physical toughness.

Inter-generational traditions of "team-building", processes of initiation

Parktown is one of a series of schools old enough to have "traditions", to have school mottoes, songs and war cries.  A person who comes to the school is inducted into these traditions -both formally and informally.

The past that envelops the new student in ways of which he is or may not be aware, for the early years and possibly the whole of his school career.

Although I never went on a water activity, there is much from the culture surrounding what is called the “Parktonian way” that revives memories of my school experience. I was at the South African College School (SACS), the oldest school in South Africa, founded in 1829.  I never saw direct abuse or risking of people's lives, but the way the school's ethos was communicated, bears on the story of Enock.  It is recorded that from early days there were physically painful ways of inducting "new boys", pelting them with acorns in government avenue outside SACS of the time.  Those who lived in the suburbs would bring larger acorns than were available outside the school, to cause greater pain.  (Neil Veitch, SACS 175. A Celebration. 2003). There was also the "fag" system, a feudal arrangement where younger boys would have to do chores for seniors.


As a boy, I had a strong desire to conform, to be like other boys, and to conform to the model of boyhood-leading to manhood that was advanced in school activities.  Others comment on this in their boyhood.  I had a leg injury that prevented me from playing rugby, and this made me feel very inadequate, and I longed to be like all other boys, and when I went with my parents to the doctor every year, and he said I could not play, I used to cry.

Those who could not play rugby played hockey, not really considered a man's game, something for "moffies".  The word moffie was in frequent use, not specifically for gay people as I recall, for I did not know of anyone who was identified or specifically represented themselves as gay. It was a general word that could be applied to anyone who was a sissy, effeminate, weak or homosexual. The word may be a shortened version of hermaphrodite (a person bearing both male and female characteristics).  Its continued use as a term distinguishing men from sissies is evident in a report of scuffles involving Martin Fransman and Donovan Cloete. Cloete is reported to have said: "If you are attacked, obviously you respond. We moer each other like men, not m***s. He came up a bit short." (  ). 

Hegemonic masculinities

When Basil Bey the UCT rugby captain in the late 1950s, early 1960s spoke at SACS he said to uproarious applause (with me being amongst the most enthusiastic): "your studies are important, but rugby is the main thing".  In other words, the role models invited to address the assembly exemplified the notion that how one fared in a rough, tough game was the most important thing in the boy's world.  I do not feel enmity towards Bey -even now with the memory receding into the background, I remember him with some fondness, (although we never met). He had no doubt about priorities, and he communicated these.

There were also cadet parades, with powerful students barking out commands and marching very smartly in a way that I admired greatly. Again, it was something that I was not good at, but I would have wanted to be a leading cadet.  Although I came from a liberal political background, I was not aware of the connection between cadets and the military.  It should also be recalled that the omnipresent militarisation of the country was only beginning when I matriculated in 1962.

Now I refer to these elements of my background because the traditions and ethos of Parktown and SACS, are replicated in very many schools and also in initiation practices, happening de facto in many schools and universities despite often being outlawed.

The "teamwork" that is referred to in the Parktown Boys High mission statement is a sense of belonging with other boys, through participating in rough, tough activities.

Building character is not an isolated activity of the individual on his own, but in relationships with other boys in a school that expects the student to be unafraid, and not to shrink from danger and adversity. This is what builds "character".

Some of these traditions derive from the colonial era and from the UK, in our case. They are often reinforced by strong old boys' networks that send their sons to the same school as they attended.   It was said that the moment a boy was born, Old Boys used to book them into SACS.

During the wars of dispossession of the 19th century and the South Africa War and World War 1 "old boys" left school and then became part of colonial expeditions. They wrote back to the "old school" and said that it was very pleasurable to receive the "school mag", and they often reminisced about the school and -on the frontier- shouted the war cry "Yay SACS!"

Pressures to conform

There were pressures to conform to a specific model of boyhood-en route to manhood, that I felt at school, and others have told me they felt. Some were better able to conform than those of us who could not make the first rugby team or display physical valour.  My friend Chris Ballantine, an emeritus professor of Music at UKZN told me how when he was at school, his love of music was his deepest secret. He told no one except some very close friend who he felt he could trust with this terrible, shameful secret.

Now, this may seem amusing, but it is one of the ways that boys are made into men and how we come to have this enduring pattern of South African boys and men seeing the only way of solving problems being through fists or knives or guns. Right now, we witness this in plenty of situations running throughout our society.

The school orientation/initiation system is just one site where boys are made men and, as indicated, the resources for camps are not available to people from poorer schools. What is said about Parktown, applies to schools that were originally for whites only.  The culture of violence that is also present in predominantly black, township schools needs a separate study, though few would deny that stabbings, beatings and killings have become a regular feature of school life.

When we study Parktown in recent times, with the sentencing of a water polo coach for abusing young boys and now the death of Enock Mpianzi, it is an important examination in its own right. (See Wolfson Vorster articles, above).  But unless we tackle the norms of transition of boys into men, we will continue to be beset by toxic masculinities, where acts of violence are committed at the drop of a hat.  It needs serious efforts since it is wreaking havoc with the lives of boys, girls, men and women. 

This is one of the issues that cannot be left to government alone.  We, as citizens, need to enter the terrain and take steps to understand patriarchy and macho masculinities and communicate that understanding to all. With that understanding, we need to start a process of reconstructing how we should all understand masculinities to be and what is unacceptable in a society where we all respect one another's dignity and physical wellbeing.

Raymond Suttner is a visiting professor in the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg, a senior research associate at the Centre for Change and emeritus professor at UNISA. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, gender and sexualities.  He blogs at and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner


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