Quote of the week

Remedial or restitutionary equality are not in themselves a deviation from, or invasive of, the right to equality guaranteed by the Constitution. They are not “reverse discrimination” or “positive discrimination” … They are integral to the reach of our equality protection… Equality before the law protection in section 9(1) and measures to promote equality in section 9(2) are both necessary and mutually reinforcing but may sometimes serve distinguishable purposes.. However, what is clear is that our Constitution and in particular section 9 thereof, read as a whole, embraces for good reason a substantive conception of equality inclusive of measures to redress existing inequality. Absent a positive commitment progressively to eradicate socially constructed barriers to equality and to root out systematic or institutionalised under-privilege, the constitutional promise of equality before the law and its equal protection and benefit must, in the context of our country, ring hollow.

Moseneke DCJ
Minister of Finance and Other v Van Heerden (CCT 63/03) [2004] ZACC 3
31 January 2024

Apartheid of the soul: On Wilgenhof abuses and those who justify or defend them

Staunch defenders of abusive practices at Stellenbosch University residences like Wilgenhof resist change, and cling to a version of their old exclusionary identity, one that is defined in opposition to a larger South African identity. Maties must root out toxic and exclusionary culture exposed at Wilgenhof, but is it brave enough? 

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. At that time, 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 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 were brought to the “quad” individually – still blindfolded, and very much disoriented – and told to hold onto a rope and made to believe that we were being hoisted a two stories into the air and told to sing a song of choice, and told to hang onto the rope until you could no longer do so, only to discover, when you fell, that you were hanging only a meter 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 papagaai 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 expose 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 expose, 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 Willgenhoffers. 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.

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

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 they were blindly loyal to.

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.

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 the 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.

Moreover, whether consent is given or not, these practices, with its 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-placements 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 students. Despite assurances from the University that this problem is being addressed, the University has not managed to root out the toxic and exclusionary culture in some residences, with some white residence and alumnae 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 rear-guard 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. Whether the University will be brave enough to take on the resisters head-on remains to be seen.

(Addendum: After publication n of this piece, and after an old Wilgenhoffer disputed my claim that the Wilgenhof  “residence identity” were rooted in the particular (apartheid-tainted) history, I recalled an incident in 1985, when a large group of Wilgenhoffers gathered outside the residence threatened marchers in a Nusas protest march and hurled insults at us for daring to protest against the apartheid state.)

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