South Africa

BOOK EXTRACT: Of “Grey Gentlemen” and School Secrets: An excerpt from Deon Wiggett’s new book, My Only Story

'My Only Story' Image: Ravi Gajjar / composite The Reading List

In November 2019, Deon Wiggett’s sensational weekly podcasts held South Africa in thrall as he hunted down the paedophile who raped him as a schoolboy. Now, in his new book, he completes his exposé of the once brilliant teacher and later media luminary who led a predatory life.

In this excerpt from My Only Story, Wiggett sketches an ominous picture of what life is like at the exclusive Grey College in Bloemfontein. He interviews Jean Craven, headboy of Grey in 1990, the same year that the perpetrator resigned from the school.

***

In his house fit for a banker, athletic head boy Jean is schooling me in Grey directives. You must become a Grey Gentleman. You must follow the Grey Way.

Both of these, he says, have to do with “the way you conduct yourself in front of your peers, as well as outside people that enter the school. It’s the way you dress – your blazer, your tie. Standing up for adults walking by … the word ‘gentleman’ is a large aspect of that way of life that is brought across to you from early days.”

In Grey hostels, they call seniors “Old Boys”, as in: “Certainly the Old Boys and the prefects try to instil this gentlemanship, this way of life, on [sic] you.”

In Grey’s code of conduct for 2019, the most recent one on the school’s website, there is a “Profile of a Grey Gentleman”. In the course of thirty-one bullet points, we learn that a Grey Gentleman “stands up and greets when an adult approaches”, “does not litter, but picks up litter” and “takes pride in his appearance”. He also “does not visit the tuck shop or coffee shop during class time”, “respects the Creator, teachers, adults, his fellow Grey boys and others”, and “pays his school fees and meets other financial obligations”.

But, to me, bullet points 23 through 26 really jump out. In this order, a Grey Gentleman “does not fight or bully others; stands up to those who intimidate others; does not protect wrongdoers; [and] never brings the school’s name into disrepute”.

Jean remembers the first time he realised he was turning into a Grey Gentleman. It was a few months into 1986, late summer, and after a period of initiation, the year’s new intake was allowed their first afternoon out in Bloem. Quite quickly, says Jean, you realise “that what you’ve been taught at Grey has not necessarily been taught at other schools. You know, just the way you dress. One would maybe say I’m a bit biased, but I would always argue that the Grey boys are dressed better; their manners: how they treat girls from girls’ schools; or standing up when parents or, you know, when senior people walk by.”

On that first afternoon out, says Jean, “it was visible for me that what we were taught was a more gentlemanly approach and way of living than some of our peers. Some of the other schools in Bloemfontein, but not only in Bloemfontein – you pick it up when you go play interschools against schools in the rest of the country – you certainly do see visibly that the Grey boys’ manners are better, for lack of a better word, than our peers’.”

Then he tells me about initiation: “When you come to Grey as a [Grade 8] pupil, like any school there’s a form of initiation, which is a good experience.”

I am supposed to be a journalist, or something, but in Jean’s modern house, I am growing appalled. Maybe noticing, Jean says: “I mean, it’s a tough few days in any young boy’s life. But, looking back, certainly in my view it is necessary. I know there’s a lot of different opinions in terms of, you know, initiation and the need for it, but my experience is very positive and I’m glad I went through that. It’s during that initiation that a lot of these principles are [instilled].”

There is initiation when you enter the school, I hear, but you also get initiated every time you go to a new residence (or hostel, or dormitory, depending on where you are in the world). You will live in three different dorms during your five years at Grey, and you will go through some kind of initiation at each.

“So what exactly happens?” I ask.

I don’t think Jean tells me the whole story. “It involves a lot of running in the sun with your blazer,” he says, and “some privileges that we didn’t have; maybe you have to eat fast; but nothing life-altering. Well, I guess for most of us.”

“What do you mean?”

“I would say most of us came through better people. At least you got a good sense of what the school is about. Yeah, there is a little bit of pride once you finish, but nothing untoward. I mean, I’ve been, post-school, to residences in Stellenbosch where everyone went through the same. Certainly, for me, it makes the institution a bit more worthy. Initiation has got its place, as long as it’s within boundaries; as long as it doesn’t change the make-up or the personality of the individual negatively. I think, if it’s there to make you feel you are part of the team now, or, you know, you’ve kind of gone through this process and welcoming, that’s good; I think it’s definitely got its place. But if it’s going to affect someone’s psyche, then obviously it’s not right.”

It seems really toxic, I say. “It sounds to me like Grey is a really hard place to be different from that mainstream crowd. I have no doubt that I would have hated being at Grey. I mean, I’m a gay guy; I wasn’t out at school, but the Grey boys would not have liked me. It must be a hard place if you’re not, like, one of the boys?”

“Mhh-hh-hmmm,” Jean slightly whimpers. “Perhaps so. I think, I mean we do cater for, I mean, we had, call it ‘very clever nerds’, to call it that, that were left alone to go their … you know, to do their thing. We had, I mean I can recall also that we had a few, call it ‘potential’”, that, well, I can say, post-Grey, that came out of, call it ‘the closet’; gay. Gay friends who are still friends of mine too. I mean, per se I don’t have an issue with someone wanting to be gay at all.

“So one can argue that it’s certainly a school that would cater better for the sport-loving, typical boy, but I don’t think … I can’t recall that anyone of a … call it ‘more softer nature’ – potentially gay – was ever picked on. Maybe, you know, maybe I missed it, but I can’t recall that anyone was singled out.”

I know that Jean is presenting a one-sided account of Grey. Later, in my loft, I look for other sides, and almost immediately I stumble upon a boy who was singled out for walking on the wrong lawn. In October 2018, a sixteen-year-old pupil arrived at Grey College with a bodyguard. According to Rapport, an Afrikaans Sunday paper, “his troubles started in March already, when two Grade 11 boys hit him, according to the boy’s classmates, because he walked across a lawn that is apparently only meant for pupils in Grades 11 and 12. His head was knocked against the wall and he was hit on his ear. His eardrum was damaged.”

I grant that walking across a piece of banned lawn is maybe not the most mature way to rebel against authority. At Paul Roos, there was also a random piece of lawn, next to the tennis courts, over which only matrics were allowed to walk. I waited until my matric year to walk there, and then found the stroll between classes quite invigorating.

But that is hardly the point. Later, the same boy was kicked and pelted with rugby balls, his mother told Rapport, and so she decided to get him a bodyguard out of “fear for her child’s safety”. Half an hour after the boy and his bodyguard arrived at the school, both of them were sent away. The boy got permission to stay at home for the rest of the year. “The teachers will send his schoolwork to his house and, where necessary, he can make appointments for help in the afternoon,” writes Rapport.

And the two boys who so mangled their junior back in March? Grey College put seven legal experts on the case. According to Ian Small-Smith, an eminent Johannesburg lawyer who chaired the disciplinary panel, “two positive reports’ from an ‘impartial social worker’ found the two offending boys ‘showed remorse over the incident and the possibility of re-offending is extremely remote’. Grey sentenced the two boys to “community service” of twenty-five and fifteen hours respectively, said Small-Smith. “They must perform tasks on the Grey school grounds as required by the terrain committee.”

But more interesting than the Rapport piece is an anonymous letter to Volksblad by one of the boy’s classmates. “The reason he was hit in March, is because he disregards the school’s traditions,” writes the anonymous boy. “At Grey we never bully each other, but we do sort each other out. We can’t just do what we want at school. We respect the traditions and rules, even if we disagree sometimes, because we came to Grey, not the other way around.”

The greatest lessons you get taught at Grey, the gentleman writes, “are seniority and authority. It is wrong that the [assaulted boy’s] eardrum burst, but he should have seen it coming. How can he just decide to ignore 163 years of tradition?

“Nobody suffers at Grey, except for those who have no discipline. They get taught discipline. Most of them come out stronger and love the school just as much as me and thousands of others. The rest usually leave.

“We do not assault each other at Grey. We are a team. And you have to be part of the team by the time you leave the school; have helped to make it a better place.

“You must not break down the school [or] give it a bad name.”

At the bottom of the missive, Volksblad’s letters editor has thought to write a response: “It would have been best if the problem was solved months ago in private.”

This was not the first time in 2018 that violence at Grey made the news. I read all about it on Netwerk24. Earlier in March, a prefect beat a thirteen-year-old boy with a hockey stick. According to Rapport, the boy left Grey “after he allegedly broke a hostel rule that determines that new pupils in the residence should walk next to a wall in a specific way”.

In response, Grey College “expresses its regret over the incident and will continue educating the boys, based on the school’s value system and ethos where respect for each other and others plays a central part”.

The assaulted boy sent his father a picture of his welted butt, because access to one’s parents is an important element of a child’s safety. But if he had been beaten in his first two weeks at Grey, he would have had no recourse.

According to a letter sent to parents ahead of the 2020 school year, it is noted (“NB!!!”) that all Grade 8 boarders must hand in their phones to be kept “in safety” for their first two weeks in residence.

“We rely on your cooperation NOT to supply your son with an additional cell phone,” parents are admonished. “Boys who “cheat’ often lose the respect of the other boarders. Do not put your son in this position and please respect our rules. If all the boys are without their cell phones, they quickly learn to depend on one another, become part of the team and part of the extended Murray House family. They are taught camaraderie. Please allow your son this opportunity by not giving him an extra cell phone. You will not have any direct telephonic communication with your son during the first week, but rest assured that you will be notified if your son feels ill or is experiencing any problems.”

It is all for the boys’ good, the school writes. “It has also been our experience that boys who have frequent contact with their parents during the first two weeks often struggle the most to adapt to the hostel and their new circumstances. Boys would make use of a ‘backdoor’ rather than try to adapt. Thus, we urge you to trust us and rest assured that we only have your son’s best interests at heart. Nothing would please us more than seeing your son adapting to his new circumstances as soon as possible.”

Over and over, it is the same message: Trust the school. Trust the system. We’ve got this.

“Please encourage your son to talk to us if he feels ill, needs comfort, feels uncertain about school work, or experiences any other difficulties during this time,” the letter’s English version continues.

But the Afrikaans version is even more revealing. It translates back into English as: “Encourage him to report to us immediately if he gets sick, gets hurt, feels bad, misses home, becomes weepy, is uncertain about school work, or experiences any other problems.”

If your son goes to Grey College in 2020 and anything happens that makes him uncomfortable, he is not allowed to tell you about it. He may only tell the school, and they will deal with it. It is like Volksblad’s letters editor advised: “Best if the problem was solved […] in private.”

It is odd for a newspaper to encourage a powerful institution to cover up serious allegations of violent assault. (Volksblad and Rapport, for the record, both belong to Naspers.) But even before the reports of assault, there was Grey’s sex scandal, presented locally as no scandal at all. It is 2016 and boys will be boys, Volksblad’s folksy tone makes clear. The story by Mike van Rooyen is worth translating and citing in full:

The sexy young teacher from Grey College in Bloemfontein, whose fervent kissing of a school prefect came out via a WhatsApp message, has resigned from the school.

Her resignation was tendered shortly after the kissing was reported to the school’s authorities. She is still teaching there until the end of the year.

Apparently she also learned a hard lesson: to think twice about what she sends and to whom, Volksblad understands.

In the message early in the year, she told friends about the kissing.

Months later, after an alleged row, the message appeared in printed form and was brought to the attention of the school’s authorities. Then the investigations started.

The matric boy, who is described as a brilliant pupil and good sports-man, had to sign a confidential settlement in which he agreed to resign as prefect, which he then also did.

The school’s authorities are believed to consider the matter resolved.

Someone close to the teacher told Volksblad that she had decided, even before the kissing surfaced, to only teach at Grey until the end of the year.

She will apparently not be leaving education and will be teaching at another school. “She is going to broaden her horizons.”

Upon enquiry, Deon Scheepers, principal of Grey College, confirmed the teacher’s resignation.

But will a cosy, local boys’ club give anybody justice or dignity? In 2019 in the Grey museum, I am looking for what it hid, and then I will tell everyone. DM/ ML

My Only Story: The Hunt for a Serial Paedophile (ook beskikbaar in Afrikaans as ‘n Enkele Verhaal – Die Jag Op ‘n Reeksverkragter) is published by Penguin Random House (R280). Visit The Reading List for South African book news – including excerpts! – daily.

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