Nzimande calls on Hawks to investigate NWU drowning

First-year student Thabang Makhoang drowned at the North West University’s (NWU) Potchefstroom campus last year.

The higher education and training minister's call on Wednesday follows the concerted effort by the lobby group Higher Education Transformation Network (HETN) to have Makhoang’s death probed thoroughly. The HETN rejected a 2012 investigation by advocates Lourens de Koning and Vusi Pikoli that ruled out foul play.

The group alleges NWU management hid some key evidence about how Makhoang died in a 4m-deep pool at Potchefstroom campus in January 2012. In a letter to Nzimande last week, HETN claimed the university has thus far successfully concealed a video footage its surveillance system captured the night Makhoang’s body was found.

HETN reiterated the claims in a press briefing in Pretoria on Wednesday. The organisation called on Nzimande to set up a commission of inquiry to investigate the “alleged complicity of the NWU management in the concealment of information”.

The Hawks should investigate if such evidence exists, said Nzimande in a statement. “These are still allegations but to put them to rest, there is now a need to hand over this investigation to the Hawks.”

“The allegations contained in this new information from the HETN are quite serious and cannot be ignored. We have to get to the root of this, a young life was lost here and unless these are thoroughly investigated, this will remain a dark blot on the institution and the sector generally,” said Nzimande.

Interests of justice
Nzimande said he would also get the university on board, “so that we can all cooperate in the interests of justice, getting to the truth and putting the matter to rest so that the family of this young man can also find peace and closure on this sad and tragic incident”.

The investigation by De Koning and Pikoli concluded that the drowning “was an unfortunate accident for which no blame could be levelled against any individual or entity. The circumstances surrounding the death of the deceased were, in our view, free of any foul play and/or negligence on the part of any individual and/or entity.”

But the investigation “could not explain how [Makhoang] drowned in the presence of many other participants without the incident being noticed by anyone”, said Nzimande.

NWU’s media office declined to comment to the Mail & Guardian’s specific queries about the alleged video footage, but referred it to a statement vice-chancellor Theuns Eloff released in response to Nzimande’s call.

In the statement Eloff said the university would cooperate with Nzimande and the Hawks. But he urged Nzimande to take cognisance of the findings by De Koning and Pikoli.

'Public viewing'
“The outcome of this independent investigation and the subsequent report was given to the deputy director general at the department of higher education and training, who acknowledged the receipt thereof,” Eloff said in a statement.

“The university also published the findings of the investigation on its website, which is open for public viewing and is still available.”

Eloff said NWU is not “aware of any new, concrete evidence or information” related to Makhoang’s death. “If there is, the university will greatly appreciate it if such information is made available to us.”

HETN said Makhoang’s death was never investigated properly. Police investigations have not yielded anything a year later, Lucky Thekisho, HETN’s president, said at Wednesday’s press briefing.

“All we’re saying is there should be an investigation into this matter. We will not rest until justice is done. A lot of evidence was concealed,” said Thekisho. “We commend Nzimande for heeding to our letter.”

The organisation also wrote to the presidency, public protector Thuli Madonsela, the South African Human Rights Commission and the Independent Police Investigations Directorate over the matter.

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Bongani Nkosi
Bongani is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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