If you're a parent of boys, you really need to read this book

Photo: ER Lombard

Brutal School Ties

By Sam Cowen

Melinda Ferguson Books

I didn’t really have any desire to read anything more about the Parktown Boys saga but when this book landed on my desk I picked it up, only meaning to read the first chapter to see what the writing was like – but before I knew it I was so hooked that I ended up finishing it in a day.

In November 2016 some waterpolo caps went missing at the Johannesburg boys’ high school. In an attempt to figure out who’d taken them, a teacher and one of the boys viewed video surveillance footage and while doing this stumbled across a grotesque scene of one of the housemasters, Collan Rex, sexually molesting a boy in the common area of the hostel while other boarders sat around playing on their phones and behaving as though nothing strange was happening. That’s how normalised the abuse had become – the boys were so accustomed to it that they just accepted it.

How could a sick situation like this ever happen? TV and radio presenter Sam Cowen spent months interviewing scores of the victims, their parents and other boys at the school to lift the lid on the saga. In this book in their own words they tell a tragic story, not just of one staff member who abused his position but of a whole school that went rogue. From initiation ceremonies that left boys with permanent scars to bullying and teachers who turned a blind eye, she shows how the school’s long-standing tradition of encouraging a code of silence among its learners and staff allowed countless acts of abuse to go unchecked.

In his defence Rex, himself a Parktown Boys alumni, claimed that he’d simply been doing what had been done to him. Now even with him having been found guilty of more than 150 charges of assault for which he’s serving 23 years in prison, the scars remain.If you’re a parent, particularly of boys who attend a single-sex school, you will find this book a real eye-opener. Hopefully it will kickstart some really important conversations in South African households.

Sam Cowen on why she felt a driving need to write this book

The turning point for her was seeing the video that had led to Collan Rex’s arrest.

“I managed about five minutes, maybe 10,” she explains in the book. “It felt like a lifetime. Luke [Lamprecht, a child protection specialist who worked on the Rex case] was right. I would never, ever be able to unsee it. I drove away from that knowing that I would never be the same again.What seeing it did do, however, was fuel a mighty rage, a rage at a monster who preyed on young boys. Rage at a school system that allowed it to happen, and rage that these boys who had come forward so bravely were now broken and suicidal and sad and shamed.  At that point I thought I’d be writing a book about a group of heroes and a villain. Before I was halfway through, I realised that most of the monsters still walked free. Their victims less so.”

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