STELLENBOSCH UNIVERSITY SCANDAL OP-ED
Maties must root out toxic and exclusionary culture exposed at Wilgenhof, but is it brave enough?
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