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School polo coach in hot water for calling schoolgirls ‘strippers’

An elite Johannesburg private school has launched an independent legal investigation into the conduct of one of its staff members, top South African water polo star Pierre le Roux, over a three-year-old incident in which he likened female learners to strippers.

The investigation by legal firm Cheadle, Thompson and Haysom (CTH) was instituted by the school after the learners, who matriculated in 2018, raised the issue on social media.

A Mail & Guardian investigation has revealed that Le Roux, who has coached girls water polo at provincial level, has been accused of bullying, body shaming and being racist towards learners.

Schools and sporting authorities have been accused of glossing over the unsavoury incidents, and allowing him to get off without any consequences.

In response to queries by the M&G late last month, Le Roux denied the allegations, saying he was “hard but fair”. He also said that, last year, he had “coached 75 girls” in Gauteng and “there were no complaints from any girls I actually coached”.

In 2017 Le Roux, a maths teacher at St Stithians Girls’ College, allegedly told a group of grade 11 girl learners that they were behaving like “strippers” and distracting one of his colleagues.

The girls insist their only crime was to dance on the school grounds. After his comment, they followed Le Roux and confronted him. One of the girls, Sanda Nyoka, alleges that the school mishandled the matter in an internal process that forced them to apologise to Le Roux, while giving him no more than a quiet warning.

She recently resuscitated the incident on social media under the hashtags “#racisminSAschools” and #BeingBlackAtSaintsMeans, which were created to expose negative experiences of black learners at private and former Model C schools.

Not the first time

It is not the first time elite schools have come under scrutiny for their staff. In late 2018 Collan Rex, a former assistant water polo coach at Parktown Boys High School in Johannesburg, was sentenced to 23 years’ imprisonment after pleading guilty to 144 counts of sexual assault and 12 counts of common assault against young boys at the school between 2015 and 2016.

In the case of Le Roux, St Stithians reacted by engaging with the girls and asking Cheadle Thompson and Haysom to investigate in the interests of “greater transparency”. Principal Sally James said the law firm had found grounds for further investigation, but declined to comment in more detail.

“CTH has determined that the allegations warrant further investigation. As the investigation is currently ongoing, we unfortunately cannot provide any further comment on the matter at this stage,” she said.

Le Roux has a brilliant record as a water polo star. The youngest player to represent South Africa, when he was 17, he holds the record for the most Springbok caps, with 128 appearances.

However, an investigation by the M&G has uncovered several incidents where his behaviour, particularly towards female learners, has sparked outrage.

The latest complaints are detailed in a letter by Rui Morais, the principal of St Peter’s school in Sandton, to the Gauteng Schools Water Polo Association, complaining about Le Roux’s alleged bullying and body shaming of girl pupils undergoing trials for the Gauteng schools’ U-15 water polo team.

The letter accuses Le Roux of intimidating aspirant provincial players at the beginning of this year’s season by telling them they were not good enough to make the team, which he had already picked.

In the letter, Morais says that “the players are petrified of Pierre; they hate going to training because of the harsh, abrupt and extremely rude manner in which he treats the girls”.

He adds that on one occasion, Le Roux asked one of the girls whether she was “the fat Karyn (not her real name) or the thin Karyn”.

“This is inexcusable language to use with a 15-year-old girl,” he adds. “Girls are so conscious of their bodies, especially at this young age, hence a comment of this nature can have lasting negative impact.”

Gauteng Water Polo responded by speaking to all coaches about their conduct, and
not addressing the complaints specifically with Le Roux.

Le Roux resigned from coaching the team a month later, citing a busy schedule.

Disturbed by inaction

A parent of one of the girls participating in U-15 trials, whose identity is known to the M&G, forwarded the complaints to gender equality nonprofit organisation Flair South Africa. The organisation’s founder, advocate Ronel de Jager, said Flair was disturbed by the inaction of the authorities, particularly the school swimming fraternity, over complaints of body shaming and bullying.

De Jager said: “We must remember that these children are going through puberty and, worse than that, being in swimming costumes [they] are in a … vulnerable position”.

“The long-lasting mental effects on victims of abuse are well known and documented. Also there is great risk that young athletes may lose motivation for the sport, and will fear putting themselves in this vulnerable position. [Such behaviour by coaches] is not only to the detriment of the victims, but also ultimately to the detriment of the sport.”

Nyoka, who is now a student at the University of Cape Town, said she posted about the incident on social media because it continued to bother her. “Back then we were scared to raise these issues. I think the world is changing and we need to speak out about such incidents,” Nyoka said. “It makes me angry to think he’s still there and gets to be in an environment with young women.”

Le Roux is also the subject of a complaint of racism on social media from a former learner at St John’s College in Johannesburg, where he was a water polo coach and maths teacher between 2009 and 2014.

‘Yellow man’

Former pupil Li Zen Pan accused Le Roux of calling him “yellow man” and “Chinaman” in a Facebook comment. When contacted by the M&G, Pan, who is of Taiwanese descent, confirmed the post, but did not want to comment.

In another incident in 2013, Le Roux allegedly punched a 13-year-old learner in the face after he arrived late for water polo practice. The former learner, who asked not to be named, confirmed the incident and said Le Roux was simply asked to apologise to him in a letter.

“I can’t recall his exact words, but I remember feeling as though the apology was half-hearted and inadequate,” he said.

St John’s executive headmaster, Stuart West, would only confirm that Le Roux had been an employee at the school, and that there had been an incident that was investigated and resulted in the school sending a letter of apology to the family of a learner.

Asked whether Le Roux’s behaviour towards students had any bearing on him leaving the school, West said school policy prevented him from disclosing the circumstances around his departure.

Le Roux denied all Pan’s allegations, as well as other allegations that Le Roux’s use of racist language in another incident at St Johns resulted in him being told to resign. He said there was no evidence to back these claims and that, if they were true, his contract would have been terminated.

Gauteng Schools Water Polo Association chairperson Andrew Ridley confirmed the association had received complaints late last year about Le Roux from one of its affiliated schools.

“The issues highlighted were dealt with by members of the executive committee at a meeting with all our coaches and managers on Monday November 4, at which the affiliate school was represented.” He did not elaborate.

“At the end of 2019 Mr Le Roux made himself unavailable as a coach for 2020 due to time constraints. I cannot comment on the further allegations that you level against him,” he said.

Keep identity secret

Le Roux’s attorneys, Thomson Wilks, demanded that Le Roux’s identity be kept secret in respect of the St Stithians incident because the school had reopened the matter and referred it to a legal firm for advice.

This was after “unjustified allegations” appeared on social media earlier this year, the firm said.

“The matter is sub judicae [sic] and our client does not give permission to have his identity divulged or the circumstances dealt with in the media or your article.”

The M&G has decided to name Le Roux, because it is in the public interest given his public role in society, and the authority he is entrusted with as an educator and coach.

The attorneys also denied Pan’s allegations of racism, saying: “No such incident happened, and any publication thereof will result in our client suffering damages. Should you report on such allegations, we reserve the right of our client to claim for defamation.

“No report, criminal or other charges were brought against our client and he believes that these actions intend to defame his reputation and dignity. We are in the process to deal with the allegations and individuals involved.”

Denying the allegations of bullying and body shaming, Le Roux told the M&G that Gauteng Water Polo had “mentioned” coaches’ conduct to all coaches and managers and said there was only one complaint about him “from a player not selected for the A team. I coached 75 girls in 2019 for Gauteng. There were no complaints from any girls I actually coached, namely the girls in the U-15 A team.

“I coached the team in 2019 to a gold medal at the interprovincial tournament. I opted out of coaching again in 2020, as I do not believe I will be in a position to give the role the time and effort required,” he said.

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Sabelo Skiti

Sabelo Skiti is an investigative journalist.

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