The University of the North West (NWU) has found the “suggestion” by Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande that an event where a student drowned a week ago was part of an initiation process “unfortunate”, the university’s spokesperson told the Mail & Guardian on Thursday.
Kiewiet Scheppel said it was “unfortunate that the minister mentions in his press release that it was an initiation process” that led to Thabang Makhoang’s drowning at its Potchefstroom campus.
The 19-year-old Makhoang drowned more than a week ago under circumstances individuals outside and inside the university have described as “suspicious”. He drowned in a swimming pool that police said had more than 70 other students in it during an event the university calls a “fruit festival”.
“We said it in the beginning that it wasn’t an initiation ritual, but a social event. Initiation is totally banned in this university. The minister can investigate if this was an initiation, but we categorically deny that it was an initiation,” Scheppel said. “The fruit festival had nothing to do with initiation.”
Now the higher education department’s independent investigation, which Nzimande announced on Wednesday, into the incident will put under scrutiny NWU’s approach to orientation.
The department said its investigation will “look into the organisation and implementation of orientation programmes at the university”. It comes a week after the university and police started their own investigations, both yet to be completed.
Nzimande appears not to be satisfied by the university’s explanation of events that led to the incident. A media release from the department gave a strong indication that there are suspicions that something went wrong in the “fruit festival”.
“The description of the event and what had actually taken place is remarkably similar to former ‘initiation ceremonies’ which were often undignified, inhumane and discriminatory,” the department said.
The Higher Education Transformation Network, which closely monitors the former Afrikaans universities, threw its weight behind Nzimande’s “discriminatory” insinuation. “Initiation practices at formerly Afrikaans institutions have served as an avenue for racists to ply their trade [against] black first year students free from official sanction due to the tolerance of these undesirable practices by university authorities,” its chairperson Lucky Thekisho said.
“The suspicious circumstances behind the drowning of the student during the “fruit festival” at the university is part of an authoritarian traditional culture of “initiation” of first year students in former Afrikaans-only institutions of higher learning.
Thekisho added that North West University’s management must “accept responsibility for the student’s death for allowing such initiation practices” to continue in its campuses.
Speaking on anonymity, a professor in the university told the M&G this week NWU’s orientation is used as an initiation ritual to welcome first year students.
Orientation comprises initiation events that first year students “basically have no choice but to attend and do whatever is done there”, she said. Even after the incident, efforts to transform activities done during initiation ceremonies will “get lot of resistance from the dominant Afrikaans speakers”, she added.