Potch student ‘couldn’t swim’

2012-01-28 19:22

The first-year student who drowned at North West University’s Potchefstroom campus did not know how to swim and was only warned that he did not have to take part in the activity in Afrikaans – a language he did not understand “very well”.

Thabang Makhoang had never even stepped into a lecture hall to begin his studies towards an engineering degree when he mysteriously drowned in the university’s pool last Saturday, surrounded by 77 of his residence mates.

Makhoang was the first student from his high school to achieve an A in mathematics.

A shining light to many in the Tswelelang community in North West, Makhoang lost his life when he drowned in the university’s swimming pool after a “fruit festival” in which first-years “rub” fruit on each other.

He was buried in Tswelelang, Wolmaransstad, yesterday.

The fruit festival was one of the events on the university’s yearly introduction and reception programme, which sees first-year students at residences and day houses having food fights with each other and then washing off in the university’s olympic-size swimming pool.

Makhoang’s residence, Ratau, was the 23rd residence to go through the swimming pool at about 4.30pm, but not a single one of the 47 safety staff allegedly present noticed that Makhoang had drowned.

Two other residences also swam in the pool after Ratau left before Makhoang’s body was eventually discovered by two senior students more than two hours later.

It is understood that the postmortem inquiry revealed the cause of death was drowning.

On Thursday, City Press was granted an interview with two first-years, during which university officials, the head of the Student Council and the heads of Ratau’s house committee were also present.

De Wet Oosthuizen, head of the Ratau house committee, said the students had entered the swimming pool area on Saturday. He told them that those who wanted to swim should line up alongside the pool and link arms.

They would then fall backwards into the pool in a chain, starting from one end of the line and ending at the other.

“The guys started lining up, then I told them twice that those who could not swim should go and sit on the steps alongside the swimming pool”, said Oosthuizen.

He said a small group elected not to swim, but they had not been counted. Kiewiet Scheppel, the university’s spokesperson, subsequently confirmed that these instructions, like most given to first-years, had been given in Afrikaans.

Carel Venter, a first-year who had lived on the same floor as Makhoang, said that in the weeks before the incident, “we had to help him because he didn’t understand Afrikaans so well. So we always explained to him we have to do this now or that now.”

The university’s Potchefstroom campus consists predominantly of white, Afrikaans-speaking students, and its language policy dictates that classes are given in Afrikaans, except for certain courses in which translations are available.

Scheppel said the three-week introduction programme was not an initiation, but was instead intended to prepare first-years for varsity life.

Chrisna Kraaij, chairperson of the university’s Student Council, said the programme consisted largely of academic preparedness testing, getting to know the university, registering for classes and administrative tasks such as acquiring student cards.

Kraaij pointed out systems had been put in place to prevent hazing or initiation, but one of the first-years interviewed by City Press mentioned that the introduction took a “bit of adjustment” because they had been “drilled a little in the beginning, which made us come together as a group”.

Scheppel said this was a “vague statement” and declined to comment on what “drilling” entailed. But a family member of a first-year currently in residence at the Potchefstroom campus said they were very concerned about him.

The woman, who asked not to be named for fear that her nephew would be victimised, said “just after we dropped him off, they started shouting at them”.

“The second day they were all locked in a room with hair clippers and told that they all had to look the same when the door was unlocked.”

The woman said that the boy in question refused to tell his family anything further about what was happening and would only communicate briefly, saying: “I am fine.”

The student also told his parents that the initiation “was far worse than he expected”.

Asked if the university had launched an investigation into Makhoang’s death, Scheppel said the campus’ protection services were “assisting police”.

Police have opened an inquest, but there is currently no criminal investigation.

Grief-stricken teachers, family members, friends and representatives of the university yesterday gathered at Makhoang’s mother’s house in Tsweleleng in Wolmaransstad for his funeral.

His mother, Sannah, said: “He was very happy to be admitted to university. He told me that when he was finished studying, he would buy me a nice house. Now he’s gone and I’m living in this RDP house, which
is my mom’s.”

Sannah Makhoang said she wasn’t happy with the university’s explanations.

“Why would Thabang go and swim if he knew himself that he could not swim?”

Dr Ingrid Tufvesson, the executive adviser for transformation to the council of the North West University, said: “We must believe the truth will come out. . . Surely transformation can’t be happening if we are too afraid to speak up,” she said.

Makhoang’s cousin Pogisho Makhoang (24) said Makhoang was a great man.

“Each and every thing he did, he did with a pure heart. He didn’t hurt anyone.”

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