South Africa

STELLENBOSCH UNIVERSITY SCANDAL OP-ED

Maties must root out toxic and exclusionary culture exposed at Wilgenhof, but is it brave enough?

Maties must root out toxic and exclusionary culture exposed at Wilgenhof, but is it brave enough?
Edwin Cameron. (Photo: Gallo Images/Netwerk24/Elizabeth Sejake) | Wilgenhof Men's Residence. (Photo: Facebook/Wilgenhof Men's Residence) | Pierre De Vos. (Photo: Supplied)

Despite assurances from the university that the initiation problem is being addressed, it has not managed to root out the toxic and exclusionary culture in some residences, with some white residents and alumni actively resisting efforts to do so.

I lived in Wilgenhof Men’s Residence (“Die Plek”) in 1984 and 1985 during the first two years of my undergraduate studies at Stellenbosch University. An authoritarian Afrikaner Nationalist ethos permeated the university (at the time State President PW Botha even served as Chancellor of the university).

First-year students in men’s residences were subjected to dehumanising initiation practices in the name of fostering a unique koshuis gees (residence spirit) as part of a larger project to ensure broad acceptance of the Afrikaner Nationalist culture, a culture steeped in violence, obedience to authority, and fear and hatred of the Other.

This usually ended with some kind of ritual aimed at “breaking in” first-year students to ensure their loyalty to their specific residence, and to the larger Afrikaner Nationalist ethos.

In Wilgenhof, the final initiation ritual happened on an evening about two weeks after the start of lectures. In my time, first-year students were all blindfolded and kept in a locked room where we were blasted with piercingly loud music and made to do various physical exercises, before — late into the night — each of us was brought to the “quad” individually, still blindfolded and very much disoriented, and told to hold onto a rope. We were made to believe that we were being hoisted two storeys into the air and told to sing a song of choice, told to hang onto the rope until we could no longer do so, only to discover when we fell that we were hanging only a metre or two from the ground.

This was — for me at least — not the most toxic part of the initiation. Throughout this period (and, to a lesser extent, for the rest of the year), first-year students were also subjected to bullying and humiliation by “seniors” in various other ways. Often students who kept a low profile or withdrew completely from residence activities (“sluipers”), rebelled against the authority of the seniors, or displayed insufficient enthusiasm for the juvenile pranks and bullying, were singled out for more extreme forms of harassment and humiliation.

Throughout the year, students were also arbitrarily “disciplined” for what often appeared to be fabricated infringements of a never clearly articulated set of rules by ”Die Nagligte”. On designated nights (“die loop”), the “Nagligte’ (meaning “night lights”), dressed in black hoods, would burst into one’s room, order one to undress and march one to a dark room where one would be given a concoction to drink, then daubed in black paint as punishment. This only happened to me once, and as far as I can remember, I was never told what the “crime” was for which I was punished.

Ironically, Wilgenhof prided itself as being a bastion of free thought, where first-year students were regularly told to think for themselves and not to parrot conventional wisdom (“moenie ‘n papegaai wees nie”) while, at the same time, rigorously socialised into a system that demanded absolute loyalty and obedience to the residence and its traditions.

All of this was widely known, even back in 1985. In my second year at Wilgenhof the student newspaper Die Matie published an exposé of many of these initiation practices (which the university had claimed – even then – to have abolished). Over the years several other accounts of these practices have been published (see for example here and here).

On the night in 1985 after Die Matie had published its exposé, the Wilgenhof huiskomitee (house committee) ordered first-year students to collect all copies of the newspaper it could find on campus. The copies were then burnt in a huge bonfire in the quad, watched over by a cheering crowd of Wilgenhoffers. As far as I can recall, no action was ever taken against the members of the house committee, the university authorities seemingly more upset with Die Matie for exposing the abuses.

The week after the bonfire, I joined the editorial team of Die Matie, at first serving as a news reporter and later as opinion page editor and deputy editor. In the year after I left Die Plek, my marks improved by about 10%. I joined Nusas and the End Conscription Campaign, and after I graduated, I instructed that my name and contact details be removed from the Wilgenhof old boys’ mailing list.

Corrupting influence of blind allegiance

It was during this time that I realised how corrupting the need to belong to an in-group could be, to be accepted by (and to have influence over) the institutions and people who wield social and political power.

At that time, the destructive effect of blind loyalty to a toxic institution or culture was evident to me not only in what I saw happening in Die Plek, but also in the way in which seemingly “verligte” Afrikaners continued to support and defend the National Party — despite having at least some understanding of the evil of the system overseen by the party to which they were blindly loyal.

Today, one only needs to point to the manner in which loyal ANC members and its leaders supported and defended Jacob Zuma until he finally stabbed them in the back to see why toxic loyalty corrupts and why blind toxic loyalty corrupts absolutely. The blind loyalty shown by some supporters of the EFF and the DA whenever these parties and their leaders are criticised also comes to mind.

I was genuinely shocked when News24 revealed last week that a version of “Die Nagligte” had continued to operate in Wilgenhof up until last year. While I had always doubted claims by the university that it had rooted out these practices, I assumed that it would have become impossible to keep the existence of these practices quiet as the residence became more diverse, as students became more aware of their rights, and as the management became less sympathetic.

Is it possible that other initiation practices such as those recounted above may also have continued at Wilgenhof in a different guise — despite the many assurances given over the years by senior leaders of Stellenbosch University that these had been rooted out?

It seems unfathomable. But because previous assurances to the contrary have turned out to be false, I would not be shocked to hear that some form of initiation may have continued at Wilgenhof.

Continuous patterns of abuse

The pivotal question to ask now is this: How could these abuses have continued at Wilgenhof for so many years without anything being done about it?

First, there is no doubt that powerful and influential people inside the university and among the university’s donors have shielded Wilgenhof over the years. I would, for example, not be surprised if it came to light that subsequent residence heads, the responsible staff member for a residence (themselves old boys of “Die Plek”), had shielded Wilgenhof by keeping its secrets. (It is telling that the current residence head of Wilgenhof, whose actions helped to uncover the ongoing abuses, is not an old Wilgenhoffer.) It is also possible that other old Wilgenhoffers at Stellenbosch University may have turned a blind eye to what was continuing to happen there.

Second, remarks made over the years by Justice Edwin Cameron, a former primarius (Head of the Residence Committee) of Wilgenhof (who currently serves as Chancellor of the University of Stellenbosch), may also inadvertently have given the impression to former and current Wilgenhoffers that there was nothing inherently wrong with the abusive practices. In an interview with Beeld newspaper in 2003, Cameron said that he experienced Wilgenhof initiation as disciplined, effective, non-humiliating, constructive, and above all, amusing.

In the same interview he is quoted as saying that when discussing these practices, one should remember that adults who know what their human rights are and who are mindful of their human dignity, may consent to participation in practices and traditions that may come across as strange to others. Such unique practices could, in fact, enrich an institution and its culture, he said.

In a 2020 interview, he also said that even “Die Nagligte” could continue as long as it happened with the necessary informed consent of those involved.

This cannot be correct.

The old initiation practices were indeed humiliating — at least to some of us who found them juvenile, arbitrary, and often vindictive. Never amusing. They were not constructive or disciplined either — at least not for the individuals who were targeted because they were not sufficiently subservient or not subservient in the desired way, or found the entire spectacle at best ridiculous and at worst oppressive and authoritarian.

But more importantly, it is at best naïve to think that first-year students could ever give informed consent to such practices, given the peer pressure they invariably face.

Echoes of apartheid 

Moreover, whether consent is given or not, these practices, with their roots in toxic apartheid authoritarianism, would continue to be arbitrary, inhumane (even barbaric), and lacking in respect for the inherent human dignity of all. They have no place in a constitutional democracy based on the values of human dignity, equality, and freedom.

These practices are by their very nature exclusionary. They foster, and are meant to foster,  a “residence identity” rooted in the particular (apartheid-tainted) history of each residence, an identity that may give some white Afrikaans students a “sense of belonging” but — as the 2022 report of the Khampepe Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of Racism at Stellenbosch pointed out — is experienced as toxic and exclusionary by many students whose parents and grandparents were prohibited from attending the university, let alone living in a residence like Wilgenhof.

Students from less privileged backgrounds, who often tend to be black students, perceive these traditions as hostile, intimidating and intolerable. The Khampepe Report points to evidence of students requesting re-placement in other accommodation shortly after arrival at Stellenbosch because they were unhappy and uncomfortable with the culture of their residence. Many of these students were black.

Despite assurances from the university that this problem is being addressed, it has not managed to root out the toxic and exclusionary culture in some residences, with some white residents and alumni actively resisting efforts to do so.

To understand why institutions like Wilgenhof have been so resistant to and so successful at resisting change, and why an eminent jurist like Justice Cameron would favour retention of some of the potentially harmful, alienating, and (inevitably) exclusionary practices rooted in its long (and for some current and old Wilgenhoffers, illustrious) history, one has to understand that some opposition to change is rooted in a belief that Stellenbosch University in general, and Wilgenhof in particular, belongs to white Afrikaners, or — at the very least — should provide a space where the culture and traditions rooted in Afrikaner culture can be upheld and such Afrikaners can feel they truly belong — as if nothing had changed.

For this group, the end of formal apartheid, the loss of Afrikaner political power, and the resultant decentring of Afrikaner culture is experienced as a profound and unbearable loss.

Instead of embracing these changes and seeing this as an exciting and beneficial opportunity to forge a newly invigorated, outward-looking identity as part of a larger South African identity, resisters cling to a version of their old exclusionary identity, one that is defined in opposition to a larger South African identity.

Instead of embracing a sense of belonging with others — with, in other words, the majority — united in diversity and rooted in Africa, a sense of belonging based on an identity that remains unique but embraces the larger diverse and vibrant South African society, they have turned inward and aloof, fighting to hold on to an exclusionary identity rooted in the traditions and practices of Afrikaner Nationalism, an identity that can only thrive apart from or in opposition to the broader South African identity.

While this is not necessarily racist in intent, it is inevitably racist in effect.

It is therefore not surprising that those who suffer from this affliction — an apartheid of the soul, so to speak — are fighting a rearguard action to retain harmful and exclusionary traditions and practices such as those exposed at Wilgenhof last week.

Decisive and radical steps are needed to root out this toxic and exclusionary culture that lingers on in some Stellenbosch residences. However, whether the university will be brave enough to tackle the resisters head-on remains to be seen. DM

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  • douglas wade says:

    Wilgenhof in the 1960’s was unique in its peculiar habits. Everyone else cheered when some anonymous brave soul contrived to paint BEKFLUITJIE in bold black letters right across the top of the front wall. Wilgenhoffers went mental for weeks until several coats of white paint managed to hide their embarrassment.
    In my res there was an initiation fortnight, but it was all pretty good natured. The one tokkelok even exerted himself to swear at me in English, until he noticed I was prompting him. We had to wear badges and caps outside the res, and were not allowed into bars; so our section head told us always to remove them both when going to Tollies.

    • Geoff Coles says:

      Why is this even published. I was at a college in UK in the late 1960’s, these things happen… though what went on apparently in Stellenbosch seems pretty primitive

      • Steve Davidson says:

        I was at a university in England in the late 60s and this sort of nonsense never happened so was your ‘college’ a Borstal? And coming to the Free State, one of our foreman’s DAUGHTERS was treated by a psychiatrist for the mental damage she suffered in her rest at the varsity. So your comments are not only crass, they’re definitely WRONG!

    • Random Comment says:

      To provide some context regarding the level of hysteria in the media surrounding this story, the DM story “Eastern Cape summer initiation season ends with 34 deaths”, published on 16 Jan, has ONE COMMENT.

      34 DEAD CHILDREN IN THE EC ALONE and barely anyone bats an eyelid, let alone the author. Something is seriously amiss with our collective moral compass.

      No cries of “toxic masculinity” or “toxic culture” or “relics of the past” but, rather, the following conclusion at the end of the article: “Overall, we could say the season has been successful”

  • Ag foeitog! Hell has no fury! In depth analysis of student sports!

    • J vN says:

      The lady protesteth too much indeed. Wonder what happened to Afriforum’s complaint against Peertjies concerning the latter’s possession of, ahem, inappropriate images of children?

    • Vincent L says:

      On the Edge of His Broken Heart
      The last bully was a seven point six two,
      His own,
      And on the edge of his broken heart,
      He lay there, on the precipice,
      Teetering between manhood and despair.
      His color, the color of the concrete below,
      A cold, unforgiving gray,
      Slowly leaking, like life slipping away.
      His sad blood filled the cracks,
      Each drop a testament to his pain,
      A plea etched into the unforgiving surface.
      He called out for Ma, for solace,
      Begged for her presence, her warmth,
      Yet still, no ear heard his desperate cries.
      As he drew the last trembling breath,
      The world remained indifferent,
      Unyielding to his silent suffering.

  • Bill Gild says:

    Hats off to Pierre de Vos for his courage in penning his experiences, and shame on the University of Stellenbosch for not having intervened decades ago.

    • Greg Kerr says:

      The trouble was – arguably still is – that the institution never actually addressed the issue. It made bromidal statements to the effect that initiation was no longer a part of the Stellenbosch culture, while ignoring blatant and destructive evidence to the contrary. Stellenbosch was an institution characterised by a dazzling mixture of incompatible parts – from brave, open-minded, tolerant lovers of knowledge, freedom and truth, to marvellously obscurant and close-minded relics from a by-gone and depressing age.

      • M Msimanga says:

        For some it might be the most fun they ever have in their lives. After graduation most people are confined to dreary open office settings with days filled with meaningless meetings.

  • Margi Jensen says:

    Thank you Pierre de Vos for this article. Well written and balanced as always.
    The extreme toxic Afrikaner behaviour is abhorrent: displaying cowardice and thus the need to be in control.

    • Petrus Kleinhans says:

      The concept of academic residences and initiation rites is as British as it gets in origin. As are other secret societies and their initiation rites and weird meetings. These were adopted by the Afrikaners just as eagerly as rugby and cricket. I have interested myself in any ‘cult’ural activities, feeling them to be foreign to my world view, but not so the rugby and cricket. For those latter things the British are to be most heartily thanked.

    • Denise Smit says:

      Spoken by a “non toxic” British German colonialist

    • J vN says:

      No bigotry and hatred towards Afrikaners in this repulsive comment, no, sirree!

  • Coen Gous says:

    Seeing the actual photo’s as published by News24 was horrifying enough. Reading about the horror stories just adds that extra info. But to me it seems that many whom attended this residence regard it as some kind of status symbol of manhood

    • td _a says:

      “some kind of status symbol of manhood”
      you hit the nail on the head with this. As a white afrikaner man, there is a part of our community that reveres the days of “die Grens” & “diensplig”, & believe this dehumanising conformity is what “makes you a man”.
      having lived in a residence like this myself, I can say what it does is impede critical thinking & result in raising insular, poorly adapted men who don’t understand modern south africa

  • Andrew 'Mugsy' Spiegel says:

    Fascinatingly horrible anecdotes about how a toxic identity was constructed. But begs the questions: why, and toward what end is “a sense of belonging based on an identity that remains unique but embraces the larger diverse and vibrant South African society” necessary? More generally, why, and to what end, is identity construction necessary amongst and for a set of individuals fortunate to find themselves in a situation that has the potential, later in life, to enable them to wield extensive socio-political power?

    • Ronel Steyn says:

      This is a great comment. The idea that we need identity construction as institutions (and “nations”) has always made me feel a bit claustrophobic. Such a need for creating a boundary around a group and calling it “us” seems to be based on an understanding that relations to other institutions and nations must necessarily be competitive, if not acrimonious, whereas there are other ways to relate to those who do not fall within your immediate circle, (especially if you do not close that circle so tightly around an identity). I don’t think it is a matter of simply broadening that circle to embrace diversity within it. It is also a matter of acknowledging that you are part of a broader society– there are so many in society who make possible the privilege of you being in that institution. Rather can encouraging students to creating a special, separate identity, they should be reminded that they are embedded in a society to whom they owe a duty of respect.

  • Brian Nkoane says:

    Prof Pierre de Vos is always sober in his analysis. What makes this piece compelling is his first hand experiences. It puzzles me that some individuals still continue to practice and perpetuate exclusion and worse try to justify it like Judge Cameron.

  • Alwyn van der Merwe says:

    The 1980s was 40 years ago and at this time these practices were at its peak. I don’t think its fair to compare what happened in the eighties to today. Obviously it was a lot worse, but I know you like shock factor and attention in your opinions so you will rely on it. I recently attended Stellenbosch University and honestly, the intitiation rituals is not that bad. If you get intimidated by it, I don’t have much hope for you in the future.

  • virginia crawford says:

    Abusive and psychologically sadistic practices went on at Rhenish, and I assume the other local boarding schools in Stellenbosch. That forcing 13 year old girls to perform embarrassing and degrading acts on stage in front of a howling audience and then made to drink a disgusting brew of sardines and peanut butter and other ingredients, was tolerated is beyond me decades later. The prefects were in charge and it was done in the school hall on a Saturday night, so not a secret.

    • td _a says:

      present in other boarding schools too, with prefects allowed to give harsh spankings to younger boys. its crazy that kids were given this level of “power” over other younger kids..thinking back on it, its like lord of the flies

  • Greg Kerr says:

    I was department head of Fine Arts in the mid-nineties and encountered the effects of the “doop” when excellent students, chosen from huge numbers of applications, would come to tell me that they were either dropping out of Stellenbosch or desperately seeking alternative accommodation owing to the infantile and vindictive traditions of initiation in various university residences – male and female. I had several meetings with the Dean of Students who told me directly that the University had no knowledge of such activities (they had been banned by the authorities) and indirectly to mind my own business. I regret not being more outspoken and deplore the loss of some splendid young students who chose to leave. It was this atmosphere of condescension, paternalism, sexism and intolerance that provoked my “retirement” at the age of 50. I had hoped, had believed, that in the 21st century, Maties had looked to itself and the young people in its care with more collegial respect since those old Broeder days. It seems I was mistaken.

  • Heinrich Holt says:

    Always be cautious when anything is institutionalised and organised. Religion, tradition, corporate culture, politics, the list goes on. It is not all bad. We need order in society, but we as a society we must know the red flags when certain boundaries are about to be crossed. Autocratic leadership styles, cult like behaviour, dictatorships looming, keeping up middle age traditions, rituals, suppression of free speech, political correctness, etc. I advised my children to be wary of university residences and organised religion. They are not all bad, but check it out first and then decide. Which they did. Today they are free thinking individuals, values driven and do not tolerate any form of racism. And they are pacifists who believe that the only thing that is right in war is what is left (sadly). (Bertrand Russell).

    • Colin K says:

      Your kids were lucky to have you as a father as I am lucky in having the man who is my dad. He wasn’t religious (thank goodness) but he did always stress the importance of integrity, respect and consideration for self and others, character and doing the right thing – ethics, essentially
      He used the norms of society as a guide but always encouraged us to think critically and chart our own course. For sons, a good, present father is of incalculable value. Thanks to my dad and all the good fathers out there.

  • John Cartwright says:

    Excellent thoughtful article>

  • Paul Van Uytrecht says:

    Points well made Pierre de Vos, especially with respect to Judge Cameron’s comments. I am aghast.

  • Ron Baatjes says:

    “The more things change……”

  • Ron Baatjes says:

    Our ” laatlammetjie” did her degree at Maties,an institution with a deservedly illustrious academic history.However,what I quickly noticed,was a radical cerebral alteration in her.

  • These practices are archaic and redundant, not to mention degrading and humiliating. I completed 12 months of officer training in the old SADF during my National Service, we were subject to some form of hazing, (it was never violent, demeaning or degrading). These initiation rituals are nothing other than the price for invitation to some elite club, where scared and emotionally stunted individuals get to mirror their own infantile and insecure views and beliefs on life. They have no interest in sharing, partaking or being part of an inclusive world. The sado masochistic practices definitely do not promote the development of a mature male psyche which is able to partake and healthily integrate with a changed world. This is not about woke or being politically correct, this is about being a well adjusted male member of the species. At University, you were always able to tell which males were members of the club, their unbridled arrogance and the way they treated their girlfriends. Let us be clear this is not only a South African University issue, it is a problem throughout the world where secret societies and a perpetuation of us versus them is actively fostered and encouraged.

  • Mahomed Latiff says:

    Thank you for sharing what is a very personal and what must have been a very difficult memory to resurrect. I also appreciate greatly the thoughts that you have put into words. Commentators like you are important in society as you give physical form to the feelings of so many who are not equipped to put the nuances of their feelings into print.

  • Terence Murphy says:

    I am sure most of us forced to do National Service can relate to this article is some way. There was always a sense of “we run the show, and don’t you forget it” that was perpetuated by the National Party through National Service.
    One only had to go through this to understand the danger of rogue regime and the loss of individual freedoms that is characteristic of this type of system. I hope Stellenbosch University can understand this dangerous practise they seem to be turning a blind eye to. There may be a few who claim they come out of it better people but for the majority I doubt that this would be the case.

  • Graeme Bird says:

    There is no excuse for any demeaning form of initiation let alone the type of sick and twisted stuff at Stellenbosch (and within many other institutions and groups from within both black and white communities). The fact that it is still being defended by some just shows how damaged they are by their experiences as a victim or perpetrator.

    • Kanu Sukha says:

      Without sounding like I am defending the judges utterances, I am sure that as a intelligent and respected jurist, he will review his utterances on this matter, in the light of this debate.

  • Taun Bewsher says:

    This whole store is a mountain out of a molehill. Surely somewhere out there, there is real news DM could be reporting on.

    • Greg Kerr says:

      But what if, Taun, you were a sensitive and intelligent 17 or 18-year old finding yourself naked and alone on the Helshoogte with the prospect of running back to your place of residence in Stellenbosch to be met by a 19 or 20-year old Neanderthal with a koporaal complex and a lot of equally ill-evolved maties to inflict more humiliation and fear on you? I’d say this was quite newsworthy.

      • Kanu Sukha says:

        Don’t worry … it is just Taun’s way of telling us what a MAN (MAN in afrikaans) he is ! Or maybe … that he is lot smarter than we who are participating in this debate ?

    • Mike Walwyn says:

      If it’s so insignificant and unimportant, why has it attracted the highest number of comments I’ve ever seen against any DM article?

  • Trevor Gray says:

    Erudite and pertinent piece that puts perspective on these types of practices.

  • Denise Huxham says:

    Thank you Pierre de Vos.
    Locking students into a tiny space for hours with standing room only, after forcing them to drink a toxic mix of alcohol, is unconscionable. Vomiting, weeing and shitting on each other and resulting in epileptic fits in some is dangerous. To build gees?
    You do not mention the deaths that have occurred over the years – perpetrators then being legally protected by elite advocates with funds from alumni.
    No Judge Cameron this is not ok. We all know the bullies and wealthy unscrupulous people this helped to produce.
    Entitled behavior that does not belong in a country and at a university in South Africa at this point in time.
    Do they have the insight and courage to change this? I doubt it.

    • Taun Bewsher says:

      Interesting thought, wonder what your feelings are regarding traditional initiation schools in the Eastern Cape and KZN? Young boys naked and afraid in the mountains, Exposure to extreme weather, ritual beatings, being forced to fight one another with knob kerries, permenant genital disfigurement, and a consistent string of deaths every single season. All in the name of cultural enlightenment and coming of age. Where is the outrage over that?

      • Johann Olivier says:

        Well….probably great prep for that distant koshuis at Maties! I bet there’d be no complaints from that group. Of course, I speak as a gloating ex-IKEY….(not that our resses weren’t ‘Lord of the Flies’ Land!)

  • robertcape says:

    Although I did not live in res in my time at Stellenbosch, I was an initiate and did so to join in the spirit of ‘Freshers week’ . After it was over I had nothing more to do with my “ koshuis’ . Not because I was unable to handle it but it was not what I had come to university for . The time spent being blindfolded , physically assailed and threatened seemed to serve no other function than to allow puerile man/boys – many of whom were former corporals or second lieutenants from the old SADF – the rather pathetic opportunity carry on as they had as conscripts, defending the ‘Die Vaderland’ . It was all a bit pathetic , unless of course one was one of those unfortunate enough to have suffered real physical or psychological harm. In the early 80’s ‘hazing’ was an extension of the toxic white Christian Nationalism that was all pervasive in education at that time. Surely it’s time to grow up and move beyond this outdated practice , if it is indeed still happening ? It would seem from a few of the comments on this feed, and the snide inferences about the writer , that some hanker after the ‘good old days’ when ‘manne’ were ‘manne’ and the ones calling the shots.

  • robin wilson says:

    Initiations at Universities, Colleges, and Boarding schools have always been a way for Seniors to humiliate New members. There is nothing constructive or bond-building in the practice These initiations are perpetuated by the Seniors every year because it is a way for them to forget their own humiliation when they had to go through it. These initiations have also become the “Norm”, as we see it happening in the US and elsewhere, as well as social media. It is beyond time that institutions crack down on this, let’s stop the “bullying”

    • Kanu Sukha says:

      If the owners of ‘social media’ were to ‘crack down’ on any ‘bullying’ … the likes of Zuckerberg and Musk et al would compromise their bottom lines … which is what it really is about ! Naturally … they would deploy ‘constitutional’ provisions such as ‘freedom of speech/expression’ as their moral saviour and defence .

  • elsaberetief6 says:

    Our first-year initiation in Minerva in 1966 was rather humiliating and unpleasant. However, our second-year initiation in Huis de Villiers was much more entertaining; we produced plays and discovered lots of talent among our peers. Of course there were bullies, but we got our own back by storming the seniors’ rooms one night, pouring flour and water on their hairdo’s – curlers were great in those years! We built a strong relationship with and loyalty towards Huis Div, even joining in a protest in our pyjamas at the Admin building in Victoria Street because of a lack of hot water! No Afrikaner Nationalist beliefs were forced upon us, we sang our folk songs … ‘and the seagull’s name was Nelson’ … and we as a koshuis voted out the Afrikaner Studentebond in a referendum in 1968! Seeing Douglas Wade’s comment reminds me of one afternoon during the first year’s initiation period, when he had to accompany me on a picnic with a huge suitcase containing a packet of peanuts – one of the irritating ‘items’ we had to undergo in our first year!

  • Roelf Pretorius says:

    I was never at Stellenbosch, but I was at the University of Pretoria. And during my time there, and also while I was in high school, I can’t recall any instance where involvement in the inisiation rituals/practices were voluntary. No, as far as I am concerned, we were all forced to take part. And much of the inisiation practices were illegal and even amounted to assault according to modern standards. Pierre’s assertion that it is rooted in Afrikaner Nasionalist authoritarianism is a very interesting viewpoint; because this kind of ethos was also asserted by the powers that be in other ways in society at the time. I was even at one stage in the cross-hairs of the CCB murder squads for no other reason than that I was willing to call practices out if I think that it was wrong; at the time I was not even involved in politics at all – but after I discovered that I am a candidate for an assasination, I had to get involved in politics to protect myself. So I now, after this article, view the politics of the government about what happens at Maties in a completely new light.

    • virginia crawford says:

      It happened at the boarding schools in Stellenbosch too; 13 year old boys and girls humiliated, vomiting to roars of laughter – very sick.

  • dewaldjoubertiom says:

    “… the Afrikaner Nationalist culture, a culture steeped in violence, obedience to authority, and fear and hatred of the Other”.

    What a crude, sanctimonious, self-serving and deceitful observation. I would have expected a much higher standard of moral compass for an ‘intellectual’ than to utter such a banal and provocative remark. You make no effort to distinguish between Afrikaner culture (which is admirable) and Afrikaner Nationalism as expressed in apartheid politics. In stead, you subtly equate them to each other.

    How, I wonder, would you describe German, Italian, Japanese, North Korean or Russian culture. How about British or Belgian culture? How about Zulu or Xhosa culture? Is culture the same as politics? Is anything that blights a nation’s or a people’s history a reflection of its culture? All these nations and peoples have at some point bathed themselves in the blood of others (or still are) under the spell or coercion of domineering leaders and politicians. Have they got despicable cultures like the Afrikaner culture you described? No. All these peoples have wonderful cultures that we can all admire and learn from. Wake up Pierre – you should apologise for being intellectually lazy and arrogant and bloody rude!

  • Roelf Pretorius says:

    Regarding the assertion that similar things also used to happen at western universities, as far as I know it also used to, and even still is, happening in traditional African communities also. The question that thus comes up is to what extent is it morally acceptable, and which of these practices can be seen as ethical and even belonging in civilised societies? Maybe a broader debate in South Africa must be engaged in, in order to debate this.

  • Alpha Sithole says:

    What historically started out as fairly harmless induction of new students into an independent tertiary environment has been allowed to evolve, completely uncontrolled, into a barbaric collection of rituals which humiliate and degrade vulnerable people who are trying to “fit in”.

  • Dewald Joubert says:

    “… the Afrikaner Nationalist culture, a culture steeped in violence, obedience to authority, and fear and hatred of the Other”.

    What a crude, sanctimonious, self-serving and incorrect observation. I would have expected a much higher standard of moral compass for an ‘intellectual’ than to utter such a provocative remark. You make no effort to distinguish between Afrikaner culture (which is admirable) and Afrikaner Nationalism as expressed in apartheid politics (which is abhorrent). Instead, you subtly equate them to each other.

    How, I wonder, would you describe German, Italian, Japanese or Russian culture. How about British or Belgian culture? How about Zulu or Xhosa culture? Is culture the same as politics? Is anything that blights a nation’s or a people’s history a reflection of its culture and definitive of its future? All these nations and peoples have at some point bathed themselves in the blood of others (or still are) under the spell or coercion of domineering leaders and politicians. Does this mean they have despicable cultures like you described for the Afrikaner? No. All these peoples have wonderful cultures that we can all admire and learn from. Just like Afrikaner culture. Wake up Pierre – you should apologise for being intellectually lazy and arrogant, and bloody rude!

    • Coen Gous says:

      Sir, your comment might be highly commendable to those of your culture, whatever Afrikaner culture is. In contrast to Pierre, I think you are not only intellectually arrogant, but regard yourself as some kind of super human-being, or if you prefer, Afrikanerdom

    • Denise Smit says:

      Dewald, I have an Afrikaans father (whose parents were ill treated by the Brits in the Anglo Boer war) and an English mother and grew up in both cultures. If you noticed most comment come from non=Afrikaans names. Commenters are arrogant to single out Afrikaners in this degrading way. Dankie Dewald

  • Coen Gous says:

    Good article Pierre. Studied at Tuks in early seventies and SC Wim Trengrove was house chairman of the residence, and a future Springbok captain, Wynand Claassen was a senior. Initiation lasted a year, but very mild in comparison. Neither Wim or Wynand ever got involved. The worse seniors were actually those that failed their first year. If any physical abuse took place, that resident was suspended from the residence

  • ST ST says:

    Thank you for this article and for sharing your experience. How revealing. It explains the treatment the others races reviewed and still receive today. The lack of focus on this aspect from many of those who commented is also telling about the minimisation and or denial of this apartheid legacy. I was in in boarding school. I was hazed. But I was never taught to hate another.

  • Jan Rabie says:

    It is clear that De Vos and many others are out to “destroy” Wilgenhof. Talk of abuse, toxic, humiliation, etc., are now the buzz words. The press and media is being used to prevent any balanced debate. Minority views are portrayed as gospel. Thousands of young men of all races passed through WH and are the better for it.

  • Is there hope South Africa? says:

    Let me start by saying that I am entirely opposed to the practices outlined in this article.

    However, this is not a problem peculiar to South Africa. Sadly, it occurs all over the world. It’s known as hazing in the UK, Australia and the US. 60 minutes has shown what occurs at some Australian universities and it is just as abhorrent as what you explain. It occurs all over Europe, Russia as well as the East. So this is not a problem only of Afrikaner Nationalism.

    The world over, it is a problem of having power over someone else and revelling in that power. Using that power to make someone else submit and conform in order to be accepted.

    As regards Judge Cameron, this could perhaps be a case of cognitive dissonance….an intelligent person trying to justify their submission to the hazing so as to make it seem “not so bad” and maybe even “acceptable”.

    • Kanu Sukha says:

      This sounds a bit like that “whatabout” take on things ? If it is practiced elsewhere … why condemn it here … or as one respondent had it … there are more ‘important’ issues to reflect upon ?

      • Ben Harper says:

        Yawn. Rally Redwood?

      • Ben Harper says:

        “really”

      • Is there hope South Africa? says:

        I stated in the first sentence that I am completely opposed to hazing. And yes, in South Africa, there are many, many issues to resolve (whether this is top of your list or makes it lower down depends on your priorities and/or your life experiences ….)
        I stated a fact which remains true: hazing occurs all over the world and is not peculiar to South Africa.
        How this is resolved is the challenge.

  • coenvanwyk says:

    My experience at Kollege Huis, University of Pretoria, was not as structured and ideological, but non the less allowed seniors to revel in brutalising and insulting first years. I found the concept of initiation as practised totally wasteful and unnecessary.

    As to the article, as usual Pierre de Vos is articulate and reasoned, although one can sense the rancour, suppressed over years. Regarding the comments by Justice Cameron, I find it almost incredible that he would have said that consent to injurious and demeaning parctises would be acceptable. Surely consent to injury is not acceptable as defence under our law?

    In summary, Stellenbosch has, in my mind, a significant place in the history of Afrikaner culture and scientific thought. This sort of justification for thuggery and bullying is a blot on this proud tradition.

  • Steven Burnett says:

    ’99 maties eerstejaar here. Going into the university after matric the fear of initiation or “doop” was real, and the running joke was that it didn’t exist because it had been banned since the ’50s. Our seniors found the right balance between being intimidating, making us suffer (mainly sleep deprivation) and teambuilding. As a large group of 120+ 18yr olds we bonded well in these two weeks.

    Many traditions keep going, only because they have inertia. It was widely known that the extent of the doop period varied greatly from res to res, but they all seem to have their origins from the military. The seniors at a koshuis in charge of a group of 18yr olds will now most likely not have been to the army, and for many it is will be the first and only opportunity for them to be in power over a group like this, even though they are just a year or two older. It is not always healthy scenario and prone to abuse.

    It shouldn’t go unmentioned that Wilgenhof is different to the rest of the koshuise, they were at my time. They believed that for some divine reason they were better than the rest. They still do, go watch the video pinned at the top of their instagram page from their 120 year celebration from last year. They are on their own figurative island on campus, and took this metaphor a bit far. They are one of the few koshuise that has a very active and strong old boys network, there will be pushback against this from some powerful characters. Who knows what is actually happening in this day and age, a lot more whistleblowers might come out of the woodwork (and from other koshuise too). It is quite amazing that 2 rooms that are supposed to be housing students can just escape audit for all these years. These rooms have now been painted white and are supposedly ready for students, a literal whitewash? Good luck if your son is offered a last minute opening at Wilgenhof, he might not sleep that well if his walls still smell like Plascon.

    My own 60 yr old koshuis was shutdown during my time there, the bare fact was that there was a massive undersupply of spaces for the growing female intake as the building of residences had not kept up. Maybe the answer really is to empty the building, give it a big makeover and it can be a new ladies residence for 2025. If Wilgenhof the institution really does mean so much to the old boys (and current students), they have the means to buy and build their own new facility from scratch. It could be a new start.

  • Coen Gous says:

    Justice Cameron announced in a great pre-prepared press statement that they (i.e. him and vice chancellor de Villiers) have appointed a panel consisting of an advocate and three academics to fully investigate this saga. How independent they are no-one knows, or even whom they are. So much for transparency. From the outside looking in, just another attempt from Chancellor Cameron to brust this under the table. And he was a Constitutional judge?!

  • 1alison.lonsdale says:

    What a brilliant article.
    Thank you

  • I’m still horrified by the fact that it’s still happening in 2024. Glad the residence has been exposed.

  • David Schalkwyk says:

    An intriguing set of responses to Pierre de Vos’s heart-felt and accurate account of “ontgroening” at Willgenhof and US in general. It doesn’t surprise me that it continues. I was in Huis Marais in the early seventies, where much the same perverted rituals were enforced and enacted in the name of group solidarity. Much the same things happened at my Anglican private school, so I was in part prepared for the brutality and humiliation, but not entirely. I believed I had escaped the barbarism of an English private school to experience the rigours and excitement and freedoms of university life. Not so. (What still puzzles me is that none of our lecturers, known for their humanity and liberal thought, objected to the first-years traipsing into their classes, clearly subjected to the most humiliating forms of attire, the least of which was a plastic mug tied around our waists with a belt over our suit jackets! (Perhaps that explains Judge Cameron’s insouciance. I knew him well. We were in Latin, English and Law classes together.) My point, however, other than to endorse De Vos’s account from my own experience, is to point out that this is a systematic, structural issue rather than a narrow, ideological one. So, yes, the Stellenbosch experience did endorse a particular kind of Afrikaner Nationalist ideology, but my similar experience at boarding school used the same structural violence to a different end, as did my time in the SADF. This seems to happen for all kinds of different idealogical causes in systems that hate individuality, freedom of thought, feeling and sexuality, and appears to attach itself especially firmly to a particular kind of toxic masculinity, which can find solace for its deep insecurities only in the forging of a companionship of cruelty, violence, threat and humiliation of others (the experiences of first-year students in female residences show that it is not confined to one sex). Nor to a single race. It happens all the time, all over our society. I don’t know how we rid ourselves of what in Afrikaans we call this ‘pes’, this infection, disease, plague. What I do know is that we have to call it out, everywhere–in schools, businesses, universities, hospitals, politics, churches–in the name of human decency and dignity. I recall being a second-year student in Huis Marais, having received my “koshuis wapen” (residence badge) from the “koshuis vader” (head of residence–literally father) at the end of initiation, encountering him in the corridors at the beginning of the following year (he was a lecturer in Theology at the Kweekskool (theological seminary)), when Huis Marais had been denied new first-year students, because a severe injury during initiation to a student in my year. We agreed that it was a good thing we didn’t have new first-year students (a fatal blow to the residence, which would have no fresh blood for the rugby team). Me because I felt we didn’t deserve them, and they were saved the tortures of initiation; he because, as he told me, if you couldn’t do initiation properly, it wasn’t worth doing at all. A man of the church. We have little hope as long as people with prominent, liberal, human rights positions in our society sweet-talk the process by saying that it wasn’t that bad, that it builds character, that it is “disciplined, effective, non-humiliating, constructive, and above all, amusing”. I didn’t find it amusing at all. Nor, I suspect did my severely injured fellow student.

  • Francoise Phillips says:

    The fear of speaking out despite the injustice of these ‘traditions’ sadly makes one wonder about this Wilgenhof Brotherhood of Secrecy through torture and trauma – is this not the Broederbond alive and well? The Chancellor and Vice Chancellor are old Wilgenhof boys – a Wilgenhof Brotherhood sworn to secrecy. The only solution is to close down the res, rename it and open it as a res for NSFAS students. This is a criminal matter that should be handed to the special investigating unit, all historic records should be handed over and all deaths of first year residents of Wilgenhof over the last 30 years should be reinvestigated. End this now.

  • Francoise Phillips says:

    I find those defending these inhumane ‘traditions’ as a bit of fun deeply disturbing. Once stoning women was a tradition. These ‘traditions’ are crimes in 2024. A little bit of rape, physical abuse and bullying cannot be considered ‘student sports’. No wonder we live in a country with the highest rate of gender based violence and sexual crimes and murders in the world. It is just a ‘bit of fun’.

  • Andre Louw says:

    Adding my two bits to the discussion, I as a 13 year old, in boarding school in Paarl in the early 60’s experienced the traumas of initiation/doop/hazing for the first time. A year later in a senior koshuis at the same school I had more of the same. This was followed up by more at Dagbreek and Simonsberg at Univ of Stellenbosch. I think it would be fair to say that I had lived experience.
    Is it all bad? Is there any good? I always looked at those torturing us and thought that they would also have experienced some of the same. The ” do unto others” intrigued me somewhat wondering how they had reacted to the same. At the same time I soon found out who were decent beings and who were bullies whom I would avoid. A quick learning curve I believe is also a positive.
    What we benefited from was quickly banding together as initiates getting to know each other within 2 weeks which was another positive. Class mates who did not have koshuis initiation took much longer to get to know each other than we did and I believe lost out on a lot. Koshuis “gees” a nebulous concept maybe, but fairly special
    I never witnessed the breakdown of fellow students as Pierre has, but understand that this does happen. The world of hard knocks. The sixties was a different era. What did not kill made one stronger while today I fear we believe that anyone who survives will only be left weaker. Toxic masculinity perhaps? I am assured by my dear wife that the fairer gender experiences a pretty similar toxicity.
    Times might have changed in the 80’s and Pierre’s Afrikaner Nationalism toxicity was not apparent in the 60’s. Christo Wiese coincidentally from Pierre’s maligned Wilgenhoff (Bekfluitjie) was head of the studenteraad and a pretty enlightened Afrikaner.
    We had effectively kicked out the Studentebond and had invited Robert Kennedy over to talk. A new verligte newspaper was started in opposition to the Matie.
    This was also the era of the dissident “Sestigers”, Afrikaner writers who opposed Apartheid and the National parties censorship. Sadly much must have regressed by the time Pierre got there.
    The jury might be out on the benefits or otherwise of initiation. As a tradition it is not peculiar to Afrikanerdom as Pierre would have us believe. Like the curates egg it might be good in parts.

  • Marnell Kirsten says:

    Good article, and great distinction here: “While this is not necessarily racist in intent, it is inevitably racist in effect”.

  • John Patson says:

    Initiation ceremonies in universities and all other places are now against the law in France.
    Over the years there were deaths, suicides, rapes and assaults during them — most of the rapes were male on male, you know the type, huge rugger buggers getting their rocks off.
    Just putting the law into place, ended most of them. Where they continue, when exposed, there is usually a suspended sentence (still used in France, for the participants) exclusion from all state universities for a couple of years, and the prosecution and sacking of staff. It is the last which makes a difference.
    From a nephew’s recent experience, not much has changed in SA. Like me he went to boarding school where you learn how to get on with people, and found “life in res” virtually impossible — kids away from parents getting drunk, forming bully groups, being stupid and being encouraged in their behaviour by “res culture.” Failure rate was high, as much as 50% in first year exams in res, which suited the university, as it was always under pressure to admit more….

  • All fine if efforts are made during initiation to keep a cohort of youngsters who just left the containment of their school and home environments in check. Also if the group culture created in the process serves as a structure to ensure their alignment to academic culture and young adulthood. Res made for the happiest years of my life! Initiation may be good fun -until some thick sculled sadistic 21 year old whose prefrontal lobes have also not matured (and whose dad was probably in the army) starts enjoying the dominance and whiff of authority. How are universities not regulating this properly? Where is the house father when these uncouth and psychologically damaging activities occur? How does he not know of this room at Wilgenhof ? Are House committee members trained or guided to follow a constructive initiation/orientation programme? Is this monitored?

  • Smacks of the Broederbond and the Free Masons.

  • Rudolf Coetzee says:

    Funny, Edwin Cameron was in Wilgenhof.

  • Rudolf Coetzee says:

    Funny, Edwin Cameron was in Wilgenhof.
    This mentality has a lot to do with students from klein playtelandse dorpies. City boys seldom took part.

  • Andrew Baigrie says:

    What a thoughtful serious article that one reads as a deeply felt, justifiably intolerant opinion of the author’s alma mater’s embracement of apartheid era behaviour that was the characteristic of the Afrikaner cultural Nationalism now reflected at Wilgenhof, being tolerated by a culturally ambitious university with an apartheid-embracing history. Shame on them. On the surface it is a ‘mixed’ campus with sports teams reflecting this too, so to let this out-dated violent form of initiation continue that the author describes with total credibility, is inexcusable. Suspension of the Wilgenhof and any would-be perpetrators should be the short simple response of the Vice-Chancellor. It will require whistle blowers to be given encouragement by anonymity protection, based on first hand experience and fact checking.
    I would propose that the residence applications include a university formal statement along these lines, and a notice(s) to this effect is prominently mounted in the residence’s main entrance area when the residences open to new students. The author’s last sentence will be easily answered. Please check this as part of DM’s ongoing investigative journalism.

  • James Webster says:

    How predictable of Mr de Vos to whine about Afrikaans culture at Stellenbosch. Why shouldn’t Afrikaners have Stellenbosch as “their” university, after all they built it, they have supported it and they have attended it over the years. Mr de Vos is typical of a self-oppressive anti-Afrikaner Afrikaner who broadcasts every negative trope he can about Afrikanerdom and Stellenbosch. Why should Afrikaans-first universities be forced to teach in English, why should Maties be forced to appeal to anyone other than Afrikaans speaking students ? If black South Africans feel so strongly about having black friendly and English medium tertiary institutions, why don’t they put their money where their mouths are and create a few from scratch instead of demanding that every South African university accede to their cultural imperialism ? What Mr de Vos does not grasp is that it is racist to demand that every Afrikaans institution be forced to de-Afrikanerise merely because it makes some black students feel uncomfortable, why are there no black created universities that can welcome black students ( and white students if they so wish ) rather than just ploughing over every single Afrikaans university to accommodate non-Afrikaners. People like de Vos won’t be happy until they have eliminated the Afrikaans character of every single Afrikaans tertiary institution in South Africa. Is it not enough that ANC stooges such as him have already raped Tukkies, RAU and Potch ?

  • James Webster says:

    As usual, de Vos’s rabid attack on Maties is based on the inbuilt hatred of whites and Afrikaners of a twisted little troll like him. It’s amazing how he has suddenly discovered his outrage now that he has a leftie publication like the DM to back him up, he is a coward, through and through. He has had decades to air his so-called grievances about such practices but has remained tjoepstil, now however, he perceives the opportunity to use this supposed scandal to advance his malicious agenda and so sings like a black canary. How rich that he speaks of oppressive and exclusionary Afrikaner culture when the black culture that he wants to replace it, is not only vastly less moral, but is firmly rooted in a savage, oppressive and exclusionary ethos. The black culture he espouses has little to offer a modern world, certainly not morality seeing as it completely lacks any. Initiation in black culture involves barbaric acts steeped in backward tribal practices but he doesn’t mention it at all, par for the course for an anti-white, anti-Afrikaner, pro-ANC propagandist like de Vos. Tell de Vos the troll, to get back underneath his self-loathing bridge.

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