Mandy Wiener18 April 2024 | 4:26

MANDY WIENER: How many more children need to drown while on school camps?

Is it perhaps time for an outright ban on water-related activities at school outings? Mandy Wiener argues for a reevaluation of the safety of such camps.

MANDY WIENER: How many more children need to drown while on school camps?

The Hennops River. Picture: Meraj Chhaya/Flickr

How many more children need to die from drowning on school excursions before education officials reevaluate the safety of such camps?

On Monday afternoon, in the most recent incident, two teenagers from Daveyton Skills School drowned in the Hennops River in Centurion. They were involved in a water activity as part of a school excursion at the time. 

It has subsequently emerged that the outing did not have the authorisation of the school and that 90 learners on the trip were under the supervision of one social worker. 

Gauteng Education MEC Matome Chiloane told a briefing that an independent law firm is investigating the circumstances.

“This is not supposed to have happened. It’s quite irresponsible for it to happen to an extent that no educators went. Clearly, something is amiss, but we don’t want to speculate what could’ve really happened. So, we want that report to guide us to say this is what happened.”

A similar investigation was conducted following the death of 12-year-old Latoya Temilton in January this year. The Laerskool Queenswood pupil died on a camp at the Wag ‘n Bietjie campsite in Olifantsfontein.

A parent of another child at the camp told EWN that two teenage boys were sent into the pool to recover Latoya’s body. 

The independent law firm appointed to probe her death found that there was a lack of supervision, no lifeguards on site, no proper demarcation, and a lack of immediate action when school officials were alerted. The firm recommended that the principal and teachers be charged. 

Four years ago, grade eight Parktown Boys pupil Enoch Mpianzi died at an orientation camp at the Nyati Bush and Riverbreak Lodge. He was on a raft with several other boys on the Crocodile River and it had capsized. A report by Peter Harris from Harris Nupen Molebatsi Attorneys concluded that the headmaster and five other officials were reckless and negligent.  

The repeated incidents of a similar nature have led to calls by some, such as my colleague Anele Mdoda, to put an end to swimming by children while on school camps. “I know you guys will say why don’t we ban cars because of car accidents but really this swimming at school camps needs to be ended. It’s enough,” she posted on X. 

But MEC Chiloane says there will be no end to water-related excursions as they are a fundamental part of the curriculum. He also says the Education Department is devising a plan to better approve such trips in the next two weeks. 

“It’s a process that won’t take long, in the next week or two we would’ve really finalised the granular details of approving trips that have water involved.”

The department does not have sufficient processes in place and there is an evident lack of accountability when such tragedies occur. 

There are regulations in place that govern water activities at schools, as set out in Section 61(a) of the South African Schools Act 84 of 1996

In short, these state that the principal must ensure that learners are informed about the dangers of water, the principal must ensure that learners are supervised during all swimming activities during visits to the sea, rivers and dams, and if a school has a swimming pool, the principal must ensure that notices regarding safety measures are displayed around the pool. 

These are nowhere near detailed enough to ensure proper safety and accountability by authorities. 

The alternate argument to a straight-up banning of water-related activities at school camps is a more nuanced approach which includes tightening regulations and putting proper processes and measures in place to ensure these activities are safe. 

This would require more detailed regulations and enforcement of these measures. 

But what would truly be effective, many argue, is teaching children to swim and how to be safe around water. 

This may not seem possible in impoverished areas where children do not have access to swimming pools and resources that are the privilege of those attending wealthier schools. 

The NSRI runs an incredible education program that teaches children in poor communities about water safety. 

On its website, the NSRI explains that drownings claim the lives of 360 000 people worldwide per annum, making it the world’s third leading cause of unintentional mortality. 

“There are approximately 2000 fatal drownings per year in South Africa, 600 of which are children. It is estimated that another 20 000 people per year experience a near-drowning incident, many of whom do not fully recover. The NSRI rescues over 1500 people from drowning each year and prevents many others through our education and training programs. Our goal is to prevent drowning through education, preventative measures and sea rescue. In 2018, 99.6% of NSRI's beneficiaries were historically marginalised people. These beneficiaries were taught water safety education or rescued from drowning,” says the Institute. 

The urgent and immediate solution to the far too frequent school trip drownings is perhaps a combination of all of these measures. Stricter controls around swimming on excursions, tightening of regulations to ensure more stringent accountability, better awareness of risks involved and an education program in which children are taught to swim and the dangers of water. 

We cannot allow one more child to die because of negligence, apathy or non-accountability. If the officials can’t get the nuanced approach right then the only option will be to ban water-related activities on school outings.