Angelo Abrahams* smiles shyly as he walks into the tiny, cramped lounge of his parents’ home, a lone two-roomed structure on a farm approximately 25km outside of Ceres.
Dressed in a striped vest and blue shorts, the barefoot 10-year-old smiles as he introduces us to his new kitten.
“’n Maatjie het dit vir my gister gegee. Hy’t nog nie ’n naam nie. [A friend gave it to me yesterday. He doesn’t have a name yet],” he says as he steps out again, smiling at the nameless bundle of joy nestled in his arms.
But Angelo’s mother, Dawn*, knows that behind his smile lurks a deep trauma: “My kind is nie die kind wat ek ken nie. Hy wil nie op sy eie bed slaap nie, want hy sê hy kry aanmekaar die nagmerries oor en oor [van] wat gebeur het [My child is not the child I know. He doesn’t want to sleep in his bed because he says he gets recurring nightmares about what happened],” she says.
In November last year at the farm school he attended, Angelo was one of four boys, aged between 10 and 12, who were raped by four fellow pupils, aged between 14 and 16.
Angelo’s father Heinrich* explains that when his son refused to go to school one day, he asked him: “Boeta, wat het gebeur? [What happened?]”
It was then that his son told him that he and three other boys had been called into a classroom by the older schoolboys. There they were raped. After that, the young boys were taken to another room “waar hulle daardie seuns moes afskommel [where they were forced to masturbate the older boys]”.
Dawn adds that, the day after the attack, she noticed “hy loop nie reg nie [he was not walking properly]”.
“Ek het vir hom gevra of sy been seer is, wat hy toe afgemaak het as niks nie. Ek het dit toe gelos [I asked him if his leg was sore, which he dismissed as nothing. So I left it],” she says.
Three days after they were informed, however, hospital tests revealed that their son and the three others had indeed been raped.
“Ek kan nou vir u sê ek het seer gevoel [I felt hurt],” Heinrich, a soft-spoken man, says. “Dit het vir my so gevoel dat ek het nie genoeg gedoen om hom te beskerm nie. En dit het my gebreek. Ek dink net hoe swaar moet sy hart gevoel het na dit gebeur het. Dit breek my. Want ek vat dit so, hy’s ’n kind. Hy kan homself nie beskerm nie. Hy voel bang. Hy slaap nie alleen nie. Hy slaap by sy ma. Hy’s ook so skrikkerig. Ons moet hom mooi hanteer. Verstaan u? [It felt as though I didn’t do enough to protect him. It broke me. I keep thinking how heavy his heart must have felt after it happened. It breaks me. The way I see it, he is a child. He can’t defend himself. He feels scared. He doesn’t sleep on his own anymore. He sleeps next to his mother. He’s easily scared. We have to treat him gently. You understand?]”
The matter is currently under investigation by the department of education.
Rees Mann is the executive director of South African Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse. According to him, the sexual assault of young boys by boys only slightly older than them is “one sexual crime that is on a drastic increase”. Despite this, it is also under reported. The reasons for this are numerous.
“Adults are not having the conversations with boys that they are with girls. So the boy child who is a victim is caught in a very difficult place because he doesn’t know about this and also doesn’t have the vocabulary to talk about it. And quite often, parents, whether of the abuser or the abused, tend to downplay this whole phenomenon; that it is experimerimental, just play, or ‘boys will be boys’.”
Miranda Jordan-Friedmann is the founder and director of Women and Men Against Child Abuse.
“I can safely say that, over the past four years, we have seen a few more cases involving young boys [abused] by older teenage boys,” she says.
Jordan-Friedmann adds that, in addition to some of the perpetrators coming from abusive or violent homes, research has found, “in many cases, young offenders copy what adults around them are doing. They may also be seeking control in response to the cruelty, neglect and loneliness of their own lives, while spoiling the life of a ‘luckier’ or ‘happier’ child.”
Mann adds that, as with many other sexual crimes, “it is about power and control”.
Naomi Betana is a paralegal at the Witzenburg Rural Development Centre, which has been assisting the families of the four young rape survivors.
According to her, the four and their families have received no trauma counselling, despite the fact that one of the perpetrators “still walks freely” on the farm both he and Angelo live on.
Although Betana agrees with Mann that this crime is about exercising power and control, she adds: “When you’re 13 or 14 years old, you’re not supposed to be part of a power struggle. You’re supposed to be a child. It is about power, yes, maar watter mag wil ’n 14-jarige kind hê? Watter mag? [But what power does a 14-year-old want? What power?”] If these boys [the perpetrators] don’t get help, they will more than likely become rapists in future.”
Jordan-Freidmann adds that “about a third of all convicted sex offenders carried out their first assault before the age of 18”.
But Mann counters that research has shown that boys who have been sexually abused or raped by other boys are “probably less likely” to become abusers than if they were abused by an adult.
“It’s a myth that people who were abused become abusers in waiting,” he says.
The effects on survivors range from “total confusion” to “distrust of people”.
“Also, if they are teenagers and are highly aroused — possibly having had an erection if there was oral sex performed on them — they would start questioning their sexuality,” says Mann.
“They would also become frightened of any emotional connections and isolate themselves. [There is]confusion between affection and sex, which could lead to indiscriminate sexual encounters and sexual addiction.”
Mann adds that, for young male rape survivors, “an important factor” is the betrayal of trust.
“Young boys speak to each other about a lot of things. There is a lot more that they share — how they feel about their parents, about girls, about anything — so there is a total feeling a betrayal or being let down by somebody they thought was their peer. These young boys become very distrustful,” he says.
“If they knew the perpetrator and it was in a school environment, they probably looked up to the perpetrator if they were older than them. They become distrustful of all people; consider all people to be dishonest.”
Leaving his kitten behind, Angelo accompanies his father, who agrees to take me to the school where the incident took place. There, with a disarming willingness, Angelo points out the room where his abuse took place.
“Dit was in hierdie kamer [It was in this room],” he says matter-of-factly, as we step into the school’s disorganised, worse-for-wear library.
Leaving the school, we say our goodbyes and I smilingly pat him on the head. His brief smile, however, makes way for a suspicious, if still polite, stare. It was a look that made me recall his mother’s words back in the family’s cramped little lounge.
“U weet, ek dink aan my kind wat moet groot raak. En ek weet nie hoe hierdie pad voorentoe gaan lê nie. Dis net ’n gebed saak. Ek weet nie watter uitwerking dit later op my kind sal hê nie [You know, I keep thinking about my child when he grows up. I don’t know what lies ahead for him. It’s now a matter for prayer. I don’t know what effect this will have on my child].”
* Not their real names
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian