Asmal cracks down on Matie initiation rites
By Gustav Thiel
Students at the University of Stellenbosch insist that initiation practices, some involving violent and emotional attacks on students, are still widespread on campus in spite of Rector Andreas van Wyk's denials.
The situation has now prompted Education Minister Kader Asmal to ask the Human Rights Commission to investigate initiation ceremonies at the university.
The latest controversy over the outdated and sometimes barbaric initiation ceremonies erupted when a 19-year-old student, Charl Strydom, died on February 27 while walking with fellow Huis Visser residence first-year students along the highway between Franschhoek and Stellenbosch.
While university authorities have not confirmed that Strydom died as part of an initiation ceremony, fellow students said his death was a result of an old ritual at Huis Visser whereby students had to walk in their underwear along the same route every year.
Van Wyk reacted to Strydom's death by firing Huis Visser head Johan Retief and appointing an internal commission of inquiry, headed by law professor Marius de Waal.
De Waal is due to present his findings on Friday.
Van Wyk said in response to the latest controversy that, while finding a solution to all initiation practices was a complex issue, he was satisfied the university had done enough to satisfy parents, students and the community generally.
This week, the Cape Times visited the Matie campus and found that, while students were divided on the merits of initiation ceremonies, there was little doubt among them that age-old ceremonies, many of them involving physical beatings administered to students, were still commonplace.
Christopher Cameron from the South African Liberal Students Association (Salsa) said: "Initiations have been investigated at Stellenbosch since 1921 and Strydom's death was definitely not the first which happened as a result of it.
"Every year, we get reports of students with broken legs and arms as a result of accidents, but it is sometimes the emotional damage done to students which is the worst."
A first-year student from Wilgenhof residence told the Cape Times how senior students hit him with a cricket bat during this year's initiation week.
The student spoke out only on condition of anonymity: "I can't give you my name, because Wilgenhof's guys will get me. The first week here was tough and there is a habit here of seniors not taking a bath for weeks before we get here to freak us out.
"I was hit with a bat and I must say I did not expect things to go that far."
Marcus Swanepoel, a third-year accountancy student and resident of the Simonsberg residence, agreed.
"There is no doubt that initiation with physical stuff still takes place, but I think it is a good thing. It really bonds the guys and most of us agree with it," he said.
"You have to come from a really screwed-up family if you can't handle what happens here."
Helette Pieterse from the university's SRC said: "We have decided not to comment until all the investigations have been completed."
Publiclaw lecturer Lourens du Plessis said many of the initiation practices were not only against basic human rights, but were also illegal.
Asmal said Strydom's death finally convinced him to refer the continued occurrence of initiation at Stellenbosch University to the HRC for investigation.
Briefing the national assembly's education committee on Tuesday, Asmal said he had been considering this step for some time, but his decision was prompted after receiving a letter from the editors of the university's student newspaper, Die Matie.
The letter was signed by all former editors of the journal since 1980 and directly asked Asmal to take action.
Karl Sheffler, a member of the newspaper's editorial staff, said: "Everybody knows that initiation still takes place. It is no secret."
Asmal said his decision to refer the matter to the HRC in no way interfered with the university's autonomy.