Sainthood: Abused boys and how we got there

Tiisetso Mashifane wa Noni’s play goes behind the veil of secrecy at all-boys schools to interrogate the way masculinity is cultivated.

All-boys schools in South Africa have roots in the British public school system popularised in the early 19th century. These institutions were perfect for preparing boys to become officers in the colonial military.

Singing the school song was a rehearsal for the pledge of fealty they would later take to their country. They produced young men who were neat, duty-bound and athletic. Graduates from these schools were accustomed to rank in the form of badges and decorated blazers.

Funded privately, these institutions have traditionally allowed little to no public scrutiny. But Tiisetso Mashifane wa Noni’s Sainthood is a piece of theatre that takes a look at the recent, not-so-secret lives of South Africa’s private-school boys.

St John’s College, Rondebosch Boys and, most notably, Parktown Boys’ High School have been in the news recently for allegations of racism and sexual misconduct.

In November last year, the courts sentenced Collan Rex, the 23-year-old former Parktown Boys assistant water polo coach who had been charged with 144 counts of sexual assault, to 23 years in prison. Child protection and development specialist Luke Lamprecht’s report on the case highlights a culture within the school that is predicated on subjugation and secrecy.

Grade 8 pupils and new boys were frequently inducted into the school through rituals meant to humiliate and torment, described by Rex as “the Parktown way”.

It was not this case but another school sexual assault case that prompted Mashifane to create what would later become the play Sainthood.

Two years of interviews

In 2015, while still a student at the university currently known as Rhodes University, Mashifane came across a story in Pumla Gqola’s book Rape: A South African Nightmare in which four boys from Jan Kempdorp in the Northern Cape assaulted one of their classmates with a broomstick.

In response, Mashifane wrote a violent two-hander called Wednesday. Although it was well received she felt it needed more research.

After two years of interviewing former all-boys school students, and a move to the University of Cape Town, Mashifane was ready to tell the story again. The two-hander had grown into an ensemble piece that followed the lives of five matric students at St Gabriel School for Boys.

Written and directed by Mashifane, the play provides an intimate portrayal of life behind the veil of secrecy in such schools and interrogates the masculine culture they encourage.

Mashifane was aware of her limitations. She explained that “from an artistic point of view, I don’t know if I was ready to depict that particular [incident] – an assault with a broomstick. I wasn’t ready to do that. I wasn’t ready to portray it that way … it was too specific.”

In Rape, Gqola writes that “rape is not a moment but a language”. By viewing rape not as an event but a coded structure, she hoped “to surface its structure, underline its histories, understand its rules, pore over its syntax, page through its dictionaries, vocabularies and what it communicates”.

This is what Mashifane is interested in exploring, the common language spoken by the boys at such schools.

For Mashifane, the incidents at these schools are not moments but part of a larger lexicon of masculine physical intimacies and surveillance. A distinct physical language is threaded throughout the piece.

Paranoia in movement

The play opens with a movement sequence filled with an overwhelming sense of paranoia and being watched. The cast members – Simphiwe Shabalala, Mphumzi Nontshinga, Adam Lennox, Tevin Musara and Cullum McCormack – twitch nervously onstage. They are all on edge.

Periodically, they turn to face the audience, wide-eyed and terrified.

Suddenly, the boys switch to frenzied movement. In the opening sequence, they yearn for physical contact but it is not reciprocated. They oscillate between holding on to each other and violently resisting each other. This is repeated again and again. The five boys are stuck in a collective nightmare that the audience is unable to see.

Whoever is watching does not allow the reprieve of a human embrace.

When the boys shoot a public relations video for the school, they are acutely aware of touch and the intimacy it suggests.

While the head boy, deputy head boy and first team rugby captain speak of a united brotherhood of diverse bodies, the rest of the boys play to the camera. The boys greet each other with high fives and fierce embraces. They sling their arms around the necks of their schoolmates and smile into the camera. When one boy swings his arms over the lap of another it causes a small uproar. It is clear that a particular kind of image needs to be maintained, one that does not include effeminate or suggestive poses.

Dancing, rugby and relationships

In another scene, effeminate deputy head boy Zwelakhe “Zwi” Nkedama (Nontshinga) teaches the boys ballroom dancing. They clasp each other’s hands, one hand placed firmly at the small of the back, their legs intertwined. Zwi leaps into the arms of his classmates. They catch him gracefully and continue to dance across the room. He partners with them as proxy.

Here, the intended audience is the girls. The rehearsal is a space created for the boys to practice gendered roles and receive critique and encouragement from their peers. The physical closeness is condoned because ballroom dancing is seen as a way to court teenage girls and it is only the effeminate Zwi who is used as a proxy for the girls.

And then there is the rugby match. The boys shout. Backs bend and chests push forward as they howl. Palms journey from hand to hand before resounding loudly on another boy’s backside. Sometimes the slap is accompanied by a squeeze. These forms of touch are incredibly intimate and often reserved by men for women. On the sports field, this kind of physical contact is condoned under the guise of team camaraderie and competition.

But what happens when two boys are found kissing in a corner, their legs entwined?

The culprits are George Harris (Lennox) – white, tall, tumblr-boy pretty with floppy hair and a blasé attitude – and Siya (Musara) – a black, skinny, doe-eyed athletic boy. Their private moment is rendered public, their intimacy policed in ways that the encounters of their heterosexual classmates is not.

The taunting field

Since the sexual assault case against Rex became public, and the extent of his crimes public knowledge, the rugby field has become grounds for taunting. During matches, boys from other schools would call the Parktown Boys gay or use homophobic slurs. It is disturbing that these boys would equate sexual orientation with pathology.

Parktown Boys in particular has a long history of older boys enacting perverse and degrading sexual acts on younger boys as a form of initiation. The last public scandal broke in 2009. For boys who are aware of these practices, it is plausible that fear and intimidation are associated with sexual intimacy between boys. The safety of homosexual boys in these schools is threatened as there is little room to imagine a healthy, consensual, sexually intimate relationship between boys.

But George and Siya are more than just queer. Rather than having the boys champion one identity, Mashifane chooses to amplify the different intersections that these boys occupy. Siya is pulled to the side by Zwi and head boy Tebza (Shabalala).

They tell him that although he and George make a cute couple, white boys are dangerous. Later, Siya and George are called to the principal’s office but it is Siya who is asked to account for their relationship. In this world, there is no room for Siya and George to have a healthy, romantic relationship.

Position of privilege

Of the five boys who make up the cast, the only boy who is not questioned by the institution or the boys in it is Will (McCormack), the first team rugby captain. He is strong, athletic and dating a girl named Claudia. Throughout the play, the other boys are called into the office for various disciplinary infractions – Siya for his relationship with George, George for his relationship with Siya, and Tebza and Zwi for inciting a racial incident in the classroom.

Will, although present for all these incidents, remains untouched. When we do hear from Will, his story is shared voluntarily. His relationship with Claudia is a private concern, not worthy of intervention. Will lies at the heart of Sainthood, but it is precisely because of his white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, rugby captain identity that his masculinity goes unpoliced.

What Mashifane does beautifully is create language in movement that is just as integral to the understanding of the world as the text. For Mashifane, the story is not the event.

“I wanted to explore the values and the behaviours learnt that got to that point. I didn’t want to make a play about that point. We had already arrived there.”

The thing about language is that it is transferred. It is a social currency.

As the audience walk into the theatre, the voices of young men spill through the speakers just above the chatter. These are the interviews Mashifane conducted with friends and acquaintances, former students at all-boys schools. They say:

“You’re too smart for a black person.”

“Who are you going to get angry at? You’re in grade 8.”

“The boy said, ‘Do you want me to cry?’ And we were like, shame. Ja, that day he shouldn’t have cried.”

“In this, rugby and 1600 viking rhetoric are the perfect ingredients to create the South African gentleman.”

“All-boys school taught me how to keep secrets.”

“It’s not individual to that school. It happens everywhere.”

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