The discovery of a locked room in the Wilgenhof residence at the prestigious Stellenbosch University, where boys have been humiliated and assaulted in the name of tradition, has torn a veil off age-old rituals of manhood and identity.
The building is more than 60 years old and on land previously used as slave quarters, a distillery and stables on the farm Wilgenhof, the namesake of the infamous single-sex male hostel, finished in 1964. The previous lodgings were established in 1903.
Stellenbosch University stands as a beacon in the minds of many young men who submitted themselves through the years to the discipline and codes of first budding, then muscular, Afrikaner nationalism, which thrived at the institution.
It is the tap root of the Boere or Stellenbosch Mafia, the birthplace of many intellectuals, religious leaders, politicians and men (for they were all men) who built media empires and became tycoons in service to the apartheid regime and its economy.
The exposure, then, by News24 this month of a gloomy and filthy “torture chamber” with Ku Klux Klan paraphernalia, veiled references to Adolf Hitler, used condoms and photographic and written evidence of years of torture and humiliation is a huge deal.
Letting in the light resulted in the crude graffiti and names of those who swore what went down in Wilgenhof, stayed in Wilgenhof, being swiftly whitewashed, or rather obliterated with paint.
The loss of political power in 1994 led to Stellenbosch University committing itself to stormy spasms of transformation.
Established initiation rites that may have seemed “harmless” at the height of power appear to have since morphed into a sadistic enactment of violence, coercion and shame in the name of belonging.
With the introduction of English as a dual learning and teaching language at Stellenbosch, the need for belonging and identity appears to have been pushed to the extreme, seemingly “in the dark”. However, this is not the first time in its long history that the initiation rites of Wilgenhof have made headlines.
Pieter du Toit, assistant editor of News24, in his 2019 exposé The Stellenbosch Mafia: Inside the Billionaires’ Club, dissected codes and customs that enabled graduates to gain control “over cultural life, including pulling the strings in South African rugby”.
The university shaped the minds and hearts of men such as Jan Smuts, DF Malan, Hendrik Verwoerd, BJ Vorster, Andries Treurnicht, Johann Rupert, Christo Wiese, Whitey Basson, GT Ferreira, Koos Bekker, Danie Craven and Markus Jooste. To be a Wilgenhoffer, however, was a special badge of honour.
But it is from the same fountainhead that men (and some women) such as Beyers Naudé, Van Zyl Slabbert, Edwin Cameron, Billy Downer, Pierre de Vos, Max du Preez, Koos Kombuis, Johannes Kerkorrel, Hennie Aucamp and many others vehemently pushed back against this establishment.
Although Wiese, the Shoprite founder, like many others who found a home at Wilgenhof and encountered the disciplinary Nagligte (the Night Lights or Torches), has played down its initiation practices as “horseplay” and essentially team-building exercises – nothing peculiar – it cannot be minimised.
Wiese, in response to the News24 investigation, said that during his time in the mid-1960s boys were indeed stripped naked and forced to do “silly things”.
“Things we used to view as sports and silliness today are deadly sins,” he opined.
He did, however, admit to Netwerk24 that sometimes “things got out of hand”.
The only explanation for what has been reenacted in Wilgenhof is that it is a form of trauma bonding, defined as a deep emotional attachment an individual can form with a person who causes them harm.
This bonding develops from a repeated cycle of abuse followed by positive reinforcement. It is a method expertly used by many cults across the world.
The women, the mothers, the sisters, the wives, the daughters and the partners of young men who have passed naked through the fiery portals of Wilgenhof speak often of the omertà, the vow of silence taken. Even Wiese maintains it to this day.
A better way
As the late, great Johnny Clegg observed in his autobiography, Scatterling of Africa, men have a deep yearning to belong – whether it is as a football or rugby supporter, one of the “squad” or as part of an ibutho regiment.
Clegg wrote that his engagement with Zulu male culture from a young age provided him with a warrior code that offered “a reservoir of wisdom and strength, of how to flow with the water, but also stand your ground when you must”.
Boys were taught by men how to live with themselves within a hostile system that viewed them as cheap labour and backward or tribal.
The culture, language, music and dance that Clegg encountered on the rooftops of the Joburg flatlands and bleak hostels gave birth to him as a man.
“In many ways, the dance and its brotherhood was a male parent to me,” he recalled.
Canadian author Michael Ignatieff noted in 1999 that codes of male belonging “seemed to exist in all cultures and their common features are among the oldest artefacts of human morality; from the Christian code of chivalry to Japanese Bushido, or ‘way of the warrior’, the strict code of the samurai, developed in feudal Japan and codified in the sixteenth century”.
These codes are concerned with setting the rules of combat between men and defining the system of “moral etiquette by which warriors judged themselves to be worthy of mutual respect”.
At best, within rigid boundaries of hierarchy, ritual and respect, boys and men could safely explore and learn to deal with the shadows within. The shadow without is patriarchy, good and solid.
The damage control currently being exercised at Stellenbosch University has to be more than cosmetic. What was done to young men, then and now, has deeply affected the country’s politics, culture, psyche, social and private lives for so long, it was in danger of emotionally calcifying generations to come.
RIP Wilgenhof 1964–2024. DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.