Orientation week normally involves drinking copious amounts of alcohol and passing out in the middle of nowhere. Picture: Pixabay

The first year of university can be a daunting one, and then comes those dreaded initiations. 

From the downright crazy to the totally obscene, campus initiation is a culture long indoctrinated into a university life.
Remember 2015’s #piggate? The British public lost their marbles when it was alleged that ex-prime minister David Cameron once “put a private part of his anatomy in a dead pig's mouth” as part of an initiation ceremony when he was studying at Oxford.

In 1990 Mad Men star Jon Hamm was reportedly involved in a hazing gone wrong at the University of Texas when one initiate was set on fire.

Apparently, a favourite pastime of campuses across the country is to subject newbies to a concoction of beer and urine - the first one to vomit or choke becomes the butt of insidious jokes for the rest of the year.

Yes, many may argue that it's an out-of-date practice that doesn't belong in the 21st century, but for many first-year students it's a right of passage; a way of forging their identity in a world where independence and confusion go hand in hand.

A University of Stellenbosch student, who asked not to be named, totally immersed himself into campus life while studying social work. Because it was his first year living on campus, he wasn't immune to the “informal” hazing that some residences still practice today.

Even though Maties has done away with initiations years ago, he says this still hasn't stopped his former res and others from still playing into the culture.

“It's also part of the tradition of the university,” he says. “And it lasts the whole year”, much to the embarrassment of first-year students.

Most of it was fun and games, but he does recall one incident when he felt that things went too far, even by his standards.

“It was the middle of the night. We were all cold and we were told to crawl naked into a small channel in the ground.

“The third-years tried fooling us into thinking there was an underground passageway beneath it. We just had to lie there and hold on to a stick, and the worst part is, it was full of water.”

Even after refusing to strip in the cold or falling three storeys on to a mattress, he laughs, saying “it creates inclusiveness so that first-years can feel like they are part of a greater community”.

Former Wits SRC member Zamayirha Peter recalls having a totally different experience.

“We were challenged to sing and dance while walking around campus. The only frustrating part was waking up as early as 4am to sing or jog, but your attitude determined your experience,” says Peter.

She does say that she's heard of incidents in the male res, which included objectifying women. “But there has been a shift. Students are now encouraged to come forward if they feel victimised. Secondly, the university has since been frank with student leaders to not overstep their boundaries.”

Across the country, other varsities seem to be on the same page. Tuks FM’s Tony Graham says that the University of Pretoria has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to campus initiations.

“Previously it involved lots of alcohol which is typical of varsity initiations. There was lots of abuse but we've not had any recent accounts of it happening,” he notes.

Graham also mentions that Tuks has a culture that is steeped in tradition, something that shouldn't be confused with hazing.

“Some students wear bowler hats and shirts, which is more tradition for different residences,” he adds.

First year on campus can be a daunting experience for many students. Graham has a few tips to make the transition more bearable: “Don't be shy and get involved.

“It's scary coming from a small town but just put your head down and get on with things.”

The Student Survival Guide, written by two former college students, Lucy Clarke and Jenny Hawkins, lists all the know-hows of surviving the first week of varsity. The only requirements are getting drunk, joining a sports club or society and having fun.

Theblacksheeponline.com takes a more proactive approach, listing all the prep work you should be doing before hazing.

For example, train your liver by drinking every night for a week in the run-up to the initiation, clear breakables from the area and use smelling salts to stay awake because you never know what might be coming your way.

The Maties student points out an unsettling observation, saying that if students refused to take part in any of the initiations, they were treated differently and ostracised by the rest of their residence buddies.

The pressure to perform, coupled with the willingness to belong to a certain group, can place immense stress on students.

In 2017 Wits made headlines when a 19-year-old fell to her death after jumping from the 6th floor of a building. The incident, and many like it, highlighted the need for tertiary institutions to take teen depression seriously and be more proactive when dealing with mental illness among the student population.

“You don't have to be a mental health professional to reach out to people who may be thinking about suicide. Encouraging a teen who may be thinking of taking their life to share what is going on inside of them, and then truly listening with compassion and genuine concern, can be incredibly helpful for those who've lost hope,” said Cassey Chambers of the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG).

Most universities start mid-February and, as yet, the advocacy group has not received calls on initiations.

“We have, however, received calls from students struggling with placements, failed admissions and stress.

“While we know that there is campus bullying that may happen, we haven't received calls on it. But it doesn't mean that university initiation doesn't happen,” Kayla Phillips of SADAG said.

* Teen Suicide Prevention Week runs from February 11 to 18. SADAG runs a 24-hour Suicide Crisis Helpline. Call 0800567567.