Shrouded in silence: The death of a schoolboy in South Africa

Loss of 13-year-old Enock Mpianzi casts light on flaws in the education system, decades after schools were desegregated.

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    Shrouded in silence: The death of a schoolboy in South Africa
    Enock Mpianzi, centre, with his mother and brother at Parktown Boys' High School the day he left for camp [Photo courtesy of Mpianzi family]

    Johannesburg, South Africa - Thirteen-year-old Enock Mpianzi lay in bed, restless with excitement. The next day - Wednesday, January 15 - would be his first as a high school student.

    It would also be his first time attending a sleepaway camp - two nights in the bush with his classmates as part of orientation into Parktown Boys' High School, a prestigious school in the formerly white-only northern suburbs of Johannesburg.

    "Tomorrow is going to be a great day," he told his parents, Congolese immigrants who had arrived in South Africa in 2001, and his three older brothers.

    The next day, Enock, 197 other pupils and seven teachers headed to the Nyati Bush and River Break lodge, a nature lodge and campground some 70 kilometres (44 miles) northwest of Johannesburg.

    By sunset, Enock was dead.

    He had reportedly drowned during a rafting activity. But it took until Thursday for the school to realise he was missing and until Friday for his swollen, lifeless body to emerge from the Crocodile River.

    A nation in shock

    On February 1, as Enock's burgundy coffin was lowered into the ground at Johannesburg's West Park Cemetery, there were still questions about the circumstances surrounding his death.

    After a preliminary investigation, the results of which were released at the end of January, the department of education said the trip was "an unauthorised activity" that had not been approved by district authorities. The provincial Education Minister Panyaza Lesufi suspended the principal of Parktown Boys', and a forensic investigation was launched to look into Enock's death. The results of the forensic investigation were due to be released last week but have been delayed, reportedly to allow for consultation with the Mpianzi family.

    Feature - South Africa Enock Mpianzi drowning
    Enock Mpianzi's funeral [Monako Dibetle/Al Jazeera] 

    Enock's funeral service that day was attended by his family, friends, a government representative and a member of the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party. It was also streamed live by South Africa's state broadcaster to a nation shocked by the schoolboy's death.

    Although Parktown Boys' held a separate memorial service for Enock earlier that week, Enock's mother, Anto Mpianzi, told Al Jazeera the school "did not even bother to attend his funeral".

    "We are shocked and still looking for answers because nobody from the school is talking to us," she said, speaking in French, her words translated by Enock's oldest brother, Yves, at her brother-in-law's house in the suburb of Malvern a day after the funeral.

    On February 20, Ian Levitt, a lawyer for the family, told local media the school had not reached out to the Mpianzis "in any meaningful manner" since the loss of their son.

    Desegregated, but not equal

    Founded in 1923, Parktown Boys' is one of the oldest schools in Johannesburg, and among the best-performing high schools on the continent.

    Although not as elite as the country's private schools - fees for which can range from 130,000 rands ($8,500) to 300,000 rands ($19,400) a year - Parktown Boys' is a former "Model-C" school. These partially government-funded schools were reserved for white children under apartheid and, nearly 30 years after South African schools were desegregated, they continue to enjoy the legacy of their past privilege.

    Feature - South Africa Enock Mpianzi drowning - Parktown Boy's High
    Parktown Boys' was a white-only school until the early 1990s [Screengrab/YouTube] 

    Under apartheid, schools for white children were better-equipped and funded than those for non-white children, with schools for black children being particularly disadvantaged. Today, historically black schools and those in historically black areas continue to be under-resourced.

    Parktown Boys' - the main building of which is a heritage site - has a 4.6 million rands ($300,000) sport centre, facilities for water polo, hockey, rugby, and golf, a broad range of extracurricular activities, and funding from its alumni.

    The fees are 55,000 rands (about $3,580) a year in a country where the average worker reportedly earns less than 7,000 rands ($450) a month.

    For Enock's family, that is a significant sum. His father, Guy-Itamba Mpianzi, does not have a regular job, although he has occasionally worked selling cars, and Anto is unemployed. They scraped together the money to send him to school and often have to rely on extended family and friends for financial support. They borrowed 870 rands ($58) to cover the cost of sending Enock to the camp.

    But, Enock's brother, Yves, told the mourners at his funeral: "To us, sending someone like Enock to school was not a wild card."

    As his other brothers - Mordecai and Shadrack - stood, eyes downcast, by his side with Enock's coffin in front of them, Yves continued: "Neither was it a game that we were playing with his life, for him to be later packed and shown back to us as a body that had no more life in it."

    Enock was, Yves told the crowd, the sheltered "egg that we were very protective of".

    "We sent Enock to that particular school, Parktown Boys', so that he could be a better person in society. But why are the people that we entrusted his life with betraying us, showing us that they are unable to do exactly that?" 

    Enock went to this school because they believed it is a better school. Because we still live in a country where there are better schools. And these schools are found in white communities.

    Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, EFF

    Commodifying opportunity

    Enock, who dreamed of matriculating at Parktown Boys' High School and of becoming a lawyer one day, had many hopes for his future.

    In December, he had listed them in a letter to God. 

    A little over a month later, his cousin, Debora Kodiemoka, read that letter aloud at his funeral:

    "Things I don't want to happen: I don't want to get shot. I don't want to be stabbed. I don't want to be robbed. I don't want to get killed. I don't want to be defeated by peer pressure, such as killing, stealing, smoking and drinking. What I want for God to do for me: I would like for God to help me pay for my school fees. To help me in both my academics and sports. To help me make good friends next year. To help me pass grade 8 to grade 12. To help me become good at subjects that I'm struggling with. I want for God to give my mother a job. For God to give us a safe place to live in Jo'burg. For God to bless my mom to be there on my wedding day. For my mother to be there to hold her grandchildren. And please God, buy me a Playstation 4."

    Feature - South Africa Enock Mpianzi drowning - Parktown Boy's High School [Photo courtesy of Mpianzi family]
    Enock Mpianzi when he was younger [Photo courtesy of Mpianzi family] 

    Mbuyiseni Ndlozi from the opposition EFF party - which has offered the family free legal assistance as they seek answers about Enock's death - also addressed mourners at the funeral.

    "[Enock] went to this school because they believed it is a better school. Because we still live in a country where there are better schools," Ndlozi said. "And these schools are found in white communities. These schools are under white management. These schools are expensive to enter. They are commodified." 

    Decades after apartheid ended, racial and economic realities still impact access to education, as the majority of low-income earners who live in the vicinity of ill-equipped schools are black, while the best schools tend to be in expensive suburbs which remain largely white. 

    'A life worth less than a life jacket'

    At the house in Malvern the day after the funeral, Anto told Al Jazeera that the family wanted the best for Enock. 

    "He was really excited," she explained, "because he had never been to a camp before and we were so certain that the school would take care of him." 

    "What has happened now is very painful." 

    Feature - South Africa Enock Mpianzi drowning
    Enock's uncle's house in Malvern, Johannesburg, has become a home for the family [Monako Dibetle/Al Jazeera] 

    Initial reports in South African media suggested that Enock had died because his parents could not afford a life jacket for him. What these reports did not mention was that the school had not requested that parents pay for or provide life jackets, as a letter the school sent to parents before the trip later revealed.

    The news of Enock's death spawned a public outcry against Parktown Boys', with many accusing it of negligence. In the week after the drowning, some protesters gathered outside the school, carrying placards with slogans like "A black child's life is worth less than the price of a life jacket".

    In the month since the funeral, the school has maintained its silence while Lesufi, the minister of education for the Gauteng province, of which Johannesburg is a part, said the findings of the still unreleased forensic report revealed "lots and lots of wrongdoing by those that have been given the mandate to take care of our children".

    The Mpainzi family, meanwhile, has largely stopped talking to the media and has called for criminal charges to be filed against those responsible.

    'All we want is the truth'

    The Mpianzis have a flat in Yeoville, an inner-city area that is home to many migrant families - mostly from across sub-Saharan Africa - who moved to South Africa after apartheid ended in search of a better life.

    It is barely 4km (2.5 miles) east of the leafy, historically white, middle-class suburb of Parktown. But, while Parktown hosts a number of historic mansions and heritage sites, Yeoville - once a hub for art and entertainment - has seen better days.

    Feature - South Africa Enock Mpianzi drowning
    A street in Yeoville, where the Mpianzi family have a flat [Oupa Nkosi/Al Jazeera] 

    Since Enock's death, his family has spent more time at the home of his uncle, Sebastian Kodiemoka, in Malvern, a working-to-middle-class suburb 6km (3.8 miles) east of Yeoville. 

    The Malvern house was a hub of activity in the days after Enock's funeral, with mourners, neighbours, family and friends going in and out. 

    "This is home for all," Sebastian told Al Jazeera, sitting on a garden chair inside a sparsely furnished room. "I asked [Enock's family] to come and stay with me here because it is bigger and more comfortable than the flat in Yeoville." 

    Sebastian expressed the family's need for closure and for justice. "All we want is the truth from the school and the government," he said. 

    'Negligence'

    For Anto, the last day she saw her son alive started with joy and anticipation. 

    Although the details of what happened that day remain sketchy, media reports - including an anonymous testimony from a pupil who was on the trip - paint a picture that many believe points to negligence.

    Among the details that have emerged - trickling out in statements from the school and camp, addresses by the provincial minister of education, media reports, and rare student testimonies - are some of the following: that Enock and fellow grade eight pupils were instructed to build a makeshift raft and use it to cross the Crocodile River; that the raft (sometimes called a "stretcher") had to be built using thin bamboo sticks and shoelaces; that while making their way across the river, the raft capsized; that when the boys screamed for help, there were no teachers nearby; that the pupils were not wearing life jackets; and that after the other boys made it to safety and informed teachers that Enock was missing, the teachers dismissed their concerns.

    Enock was reportedly carried away by the river's strong current. The pupil, who spoke anonymously to a local radio station, said the raft capsized soon after they got into the water, that the boys struggled to grip onto the bamboo sticks as they came loose, and that he saw Enock struggling to swim.

    Feature - South Africa Enock Mpianzi drowning
    Enock Mpianzi's mother Anto and father Guy-Itamba with mourners at their son's funeral [Monako Dibetle/Al Jazeera]

    The school and the camp each made statements in the wake of the accident. The school provided a basic timeline and some details about what happened, while Nyati lodge said it had not received a list of pupils' names from Parktown Boys' before the camp started, and that no roll call was done on the day Enock died, which is why it took hours to realise he was missing.

    Al Jazeera attempted to contact Parktown Boys' and Nyati lodge several times during the reporting for this article. No one at the school was available to comment, while calls to the camp went unanswered.

    'Culture of silence'

    Speaking at the memorial service that was held at Parktown Boys' on January 28, provincial Education Minister Lesufi urged pupils to speak out and to not feel pressured into silence.

    "No child under our leadership ... will be attacked, traumatised and not be allowed to speak purely because there is a code of conduct that says 'boys are boys' and 'boys are men, and they must not cry'," he said.

    "I urge you, where you see wrong, say it; I will protect you."

    Days before, the pupil who spoke to the media anonymously said the school's principal had instructed students who were at the camp not to talk to anyone about the incident.

    The culture of silence surrounding incidents such as the Mpianzi case further exacerbates the wrongs inherent in the classist and unequal atmosphere at the formerly white schools, and alienates pupils.

    Faranaaz Veriava, Section 27

    It is not the first time there have been suggestions that there is an entrenched "culture of silence" at Parktown Boys'. In 2018, the school's assistant water polo coach Collan Rex was convicted of 144 charges of sexual abuse and 14 counts of assault involving 23 pupils in a trial that shone a light on an unofficial code of silence at the school.

    "The Mpianzi incident raises questions on the continued use of initiation and of toxic masculinity inherent in many schools," Faranaaz Veriava, head of education at Section 27, a South African NGO, told Al Jazeera.

    "The culture of silence surrounding incidents such as the Mpianzi case further exacerbates the wrongs inherent in the classist and unequal atmosphere at the formerly white schools, and alienates pupils," she said.

    A dream lost

    For many, Enock's story has served to highlight that while, in theory, all South Africans now have access to all schools, poorer black pupils may face a less direct - but still potentially deadly - form of discrimination.

    Explaining the opening up of former Model-C schools in a newspaper column in January, columnist Eusebius McKaiser wrote that black people "were so excited by the aesthetic of black and white kids going to former Model-C schools in the 1990s, the image of and yearning for an integrated post-racial middle-class to come, that [they] didn't want to or refused to [depending on how kind you want to be in your self-examination] ask tough questions about the institutional values, cultural norms and practices of these schools".

    Pierre de Vos, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Cape Town, believes schools can do much more to create an educational climate that does not turn difference into discrimination.

    "Indirect racial discrimination occurs when measures that seem to have nothing to do with race disproportionately impact on people of a specific race," de Vos explained.

    Enock's dream was ended on 15 January 2020 by a system that failed to make sure that safety was crucial.

    Jean Bwasa, family friend

    "A failure to understand that not all pupils are the same and not all come from the same economic circumstances inevitably leads to unfairness. If schools do not respect difference and diversity and do not take pro-active steps to deal with difference, unfair discrimination inevitably arises."

    Author Malaika Wa Azania - referencing her 2015 book, Memoirs of a Born Free: Reflections on the Rainbow Nation - has publicly stated: "The reality is that attending these [former white] schools puts black children at a better position to access institutions of higher learning of quality. Had I never gone to a former Model C school, I was never going to walk the corridors of Rhodes University."

    But attending a prestigious school did not save Enock, the EFF's Ndlozi told mourners.

    "Many kids wake up every day to cross dangerous rivers just to go and ask for education ... But in proper schools, these things don't happen. In proper schools in suburban areas of the country, there is better care. So how did Enock, in a school declared to be better, have to be a casualty in a river," he asked.

    Feature - South Africa Enock Mpianzi drowning - Parktown Boy's High School [Photo courtesy of Mpianzi family]
    Enock dreamed of becoming a lawyer [Photo courtesy of Mpianzi family]

    For those in Enock's family and community, the loss is palpable.

    "His parents had a dream for their son," Jean Bwasa, a Mpianzi family friend and educator, said at Enock's funeral. "His father said Enock desired to study in a good school, a 'good school'," Bwasa gestured to emphasise the words. "He lived up to his promise to give his boy the opportunity to be the best ... the opportunity to be among the best, the opportunity - if only to give him the chance - to be the best he could be. And Parktown was his dream school."

    Enock - Bwasa said - is now "a dream lost for his family".

    "His own dream was ended on 15 January, 2020, by a system that failed to make sure that safety was crucial - not only for Enock but for any of the children on that trip, any of the children in South Africa, any of the children on the continent."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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