The tragic life and death of a star pupil

2012-02-04 16:14

The first-year student who drowned at the Potchefstroom campus of North West University arrived at his residence without clothes, food or even a towel.

Thabang Makhoang’s mother, Sannah, told City Press this week she had expected to see her son the following evening.

Sannah said she was confused when Thabang did not return to his home in Tswelelang, Wolmaransstad, in North West.

“That day, the 17th of January, he told me that he was going to write a test at Potchefstroom and that he would then come back,” said Sannah.

It was the last time she ever saw her son. Thabang had been due to go into residence, but it appears neither he nor his family realised it would be that day.

At Thabang’s funeral in Tswelelang last week, Lizbeth Mogajane, a cleaner who worked in Thabang’s corridor at the university, said she had “cried” when she saw that Thabang had no bedding, clothes or food in his room.

“Thabang said, ‘Mom, I have problems,’” Mogajane told mourners at his funeral.

“I took my mop and I put it aside. I looked Thabang in the eye and asked what was wrong. He said, ‘Mom, can I just have a piece of towel? I just want to be able to dry myself’.”

Mogajane said that when she asked Thabang why he had not said anything, he told her: “I have been ashamed.”

Mogajane and another cleaner bought food for Thabang and also provided him with bedding and a towel. She said: “I did not want Thabang to feel like he was not at university.”

While he was in residence, Thabang wrote an undated letter to his mother. In it, he thanked her for everything she had done for him and promised that his studies would give him an opportunity to repay her.

Before leaving for university, Thabang told his mother, a domestic worker in Krugersdorp, that he would buy her a “beautiful house” once he had finished studying and found a job.

Thabang scored 98% for mathematics in matric and was the first student from his school to achieve an A symbol for physical science. He drowned mysteriously in the university’s swimming pool four days after arriving on campus.

This was after a “fruit festival”, which is part of the university’s orientation programme. During the “festival”, first-years rub fruit on each other and then swim in the pool to clean themselves.

According to the university’s official account, his drowning went unnoticed by at least 70 of his residence mates, and 47 emergency services personnel and “trained student marshals” responsible for safety at
the event.

Last week City Press reported that Thabang did not know how to swim. His mother said that when Thabang was contacted by a cousin the day after he left for university, he said: “The people here say I must not come home any more.”

Thabang’s family was not aware that first-years were already scheduled to move into residences on January 13.

The university says that a staff member phoned Thabang on January 18 and asked whether he would be taking up his place at residence, which he confirmed.

Serious questions are now being asked about the North West University’s orientation programme, which it describes as a means of preparing first-years for academic life.

Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande on Thursday ordered an independent investigation into Thabang’s death, saying the university’s description of the “fruit festival” at which Thabang drowned was “remarkably similar to former ‘initiation’ ceremonies”.

In an interview with City Press, Nzimande described Thabang’s death as “a loss for the country as a whole”.
“Overall, his matric perfor-mance was really excellent. He was actually intending to do engineering, which is one of the skills that we are short of in the country. There is particularly a shortage of black engineers,”
said Nzimande.

He said the investigation would examine both Thabang’s death and the orientation programme at the university.

Nzimande said the department was receiving reports that “there is still ill-treatment of first-year students in the name of orientation. Some of the methods are very barbaric and have no place in a democratic South Africa.”

Sannah Makhoang said she was glad Nzimande had ordered an inquiry.

“It will help us to feel a little better. Right now we don’t know why Thabang went swimming when he knows he can’t swim,” she said.

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