Gripped in agony our country mourns the tragic death of Enoch Mpianzi, who drowned at the annual Grade 8 camp of Parktown Boys’ High School.
The story gripped a nation that too often deals with the consequences of ignorance or negligence at schools and campuses – a sense so real of pervasive risks to their safety when new pupils join schools that Panyaza Lesufi, MEC for Gauteng Education, said, “It’s becoming normal to issue death certificates rather than report cards”. As the investigations continue into the events leading to Enoch’s death, a story unfolds about the raw aspirations of a family to realise the promise of a bright future.
An immigrant family who borrows the amount required to join the camp, but unable to afford a life jacket for their son; trusting in their son’s ability to swim and find his own way, bears witness to a family prepared to sacrifice much for their dreams.
It is in the intimate picture of a family’s authentic struggle to change their future that a society sees its most fragile and innocent moments reflected – the story of this family reflects the intimate hopes and dreams that families, and so also the worst nightmares, with which communities struggle.
To have the life of their son and through him their hopes and dreams torn down, is to see our hopes and dreams trampled on; to sense in this family’s story the deep injustice that some matter less that others in our society, is to see the injustices of our past revisiting us without end.
Their story is our story. Few other moments in South Africa bear witness to family aspirations than the transition of children from primary to high school, and then to campus.
However, families do not only make sacrifices to achieve such moments, but also are prepared to tolerate strange, and often hidden ways of doing and being of the school and campus communities they join – the traditions and cultures that academic communities continue to uphold.
The most prominent of these are initiatives to induct new students as members of the school. At its worst known as “hazing” and at its best as “orientation”.
Programmes and practices of orientation continue based on arguments for the critical importance of belonging and familiarity with academic, social and everyday ways of doing and being that ensure student success. However, at the same time, illegal activities that represent hazing often continue, although mostly as hidden traditions with strict rules of secrecy.
In a similar fashion, albeit more crudely, proponents of hazing argue the same purposes for hazing as for orientation, by claiming that such practices ensure all students start their career on equal footing with others, and through struggle will build a brotherhood to carry them through.
The social questions that underlie both orientation and hazing are the need for people to realise their aspirations through belonging, and the methodology communities of people hold on to, to the realise that aspiration for one another.
Whether for orientation or hazing, “sameness” is the goal for programmes to make new members part of an established community. At its worst, sameness demands breaking individuals down to have them become like others.
At its best, the goal teaches singular pathways to success. All this while the only sameness that matters is the unique voice of each student. In Enoch’s story we not only discover his voice, but also the unique story of ours.
- Rev Dr Rudi Buys is the Executive Dean at Cornerstone Institute.
- Originally published in the Cape Argus on Thursday, 30 January 2020.