Potch student death splits management

2012-02-11 15:02

The management of North West University’s Potchefstroom campus has been thrown into turmoil in the wake of first-year student Thabang Makhoang’s death three weeks ago.

An extraordinary meeting of the university’s council on Wednesday agreed that an “independent body” would conduct an investigation into the circumstances surrounding his death.

Makhoang drowned in the university’s swimming pool during an event billed as a “fruit festival”.Makhoang, who received an A for Maths and Science in matric and was registered to study mechanical engineering, did not know how to swim.

His drowning went unnoticed by at least 70 residence mates and 40 “trained student marshals”.The talented student’s death has thrown the issue of initiation at the university into the spotlight.

The university’s investigation will run parallel to one ordered by Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande a week ago.Sources told City Press that during a highly charged and dramatic meeting on Wednesday, the council also decided that university management would have to build Makhoang’s mother a house.

Management will also be told to establish a bursary programme in Makhoang’s hometown – Tswelelang in Wolmaransstad.The university will also have to promise to provide free tuition for any of Makhoang’s siblings who wish to study there.

The newest resolutions represent an about-turn by the university’s management, which had previously said that it was only “cooperating” with a police probe.

City Press has learned that a number of staff members who support Nzimande’s investigation have written to members of the university council saying they are concerned management will try to duck the minister’s probe.

This, the aggrieved staffers said, was based on previous investigations into other initiation-related and allegedly racist incidents, which they claimed had been swept under the rug.Three university staff members have independently confirmed to City Press that two white house committee members urinated on a coloured first-year student’s bed after she complained about initiation in their residence.

The primarius (chairperson) and deputy primarius of another house committee were last year forced to resign and asked to leave their residence after abusing first-years during an initiation ceremony. Both were readmitted to the residence after a process of “introspection”.

In his independent submission to a ministerial committee set up to investigate transformation and discrimination in higher education in 2008, former lecturer Dr Rouaan Maarman cited two official complaints by students that had been lodged that year:

» Three coloured students complained to the university’s Human Rights Commission that the deputy primarius told a social gathering of the residence’s students: “Ek wil nie netnou sien dat julle soos ‘n klomp dronk hotnots hier rondlê nie (I don’t want to see you lying around like a bunch of drunk hotnots).” 

The same students also complained that first-years must “receive and carry out orders from senior students”, including cleaning their rooms, making their beds and serving them. They also said they were referred to as the “kwotas” (quotas) or the “previously disadvantaged”.

» Another complaint by two coloured girls said that one had her rights to privacy violated by a house mother, a “Tannie Martie”, who opened the shower door while she was in the shower. The same girls also claimed they had previously been informed that “white and brown students are not allowed to share rooms”.

The rector of the campus at the time of these incidents, Professor Annette Combrink, has subsequently resigned and has been replaced by Herman van Schalkwyk.A detailed list of questions containing these allegations were sent to the university, which chose not to deal with them specifically.

The university said “due process was followed in all instances and, where applicable, disciplinary sanctions were meted out”. It also stood by its contention that “all activities or practices related to any form of initiation is prohibited and condemned by this university as confirmed in various statements made by the North West University Council and management on many platforms”.

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