Cape Town - Stellenbosch University, struggling to rid itself of perceived racism, bullying and archaic initiation practices, has once again hit the headlines for the wrong reasons with fresh revelations of an initiation ‘chamber of horrors’ at its Wilgenhof male residence.
Wilgenhof has housed many elite Afrikaner leaders in its 120 years. A recent raid led to the discovery of two secret rooms and has lifted the lid on the scandal of ongoing concerns about what has been described as a “toxic culture” at the residence for years.
Constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos, an alumnus and former resident at Wilgenhof, spoke out about the “dehumanising initiation practices” there.
De Vos, who lived in Wilgenhof men’s residence “Die Plek” between 1984 and 1985, recalled the harsh treatment that first-year students at the men’s residences were subjected to.
“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, made to believe that we were being hoisted two storeys into the air, told to sing a song of choice and hang onto the rope until you could no longer do so; only to discover, when you fell, that you 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 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 a designated night (‘die loop’), the ‘Nagligte’ (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,” he said.
De Vos also recalled how the student newspaper, Die Matie, published an exposé in 1985 on the horrific initiation practices.
He said on the night the newspaper was published, 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,” he said.
De Vos said he believed these type of practices could be eradicated, but it would require radical and decisive action against those involved.
The latest exposé on what goes on at Wilgenhof was prompted after a raid by university officials, and the discovery of two secret rooms, following a 23-page report from a former Wilgenhof resident who detailed the punishment he endured in 2022, including being forced to drink a toxic mixture of linseed oil and aloe crystals, and having a liquid with a “urine-like odour” poured over his body.
It was described as a ritual aimed at “breaking-in” first-year students to ensure their loyalty to their specific residence.
Disturbing items were found in the rooms, including Ku Klux Klan-like hoods, and drawings of men involved in violent sexual acts.
In 2020, years after Die Matie’s failed exposé hit the corridors of the university, Stellenbosch Masters in Philosophy student Paul Joubert also tried to raise the alarm on the practices at Wilgenhof.
Writing accounts from his friends’ experiences at the residence, Joubert described similar practices as De Vos.
“These included punishment by the Nagligte, to keep the discipline.
“The members who formed part of an extra-judicial ‘disciplinary committee’ would dress up in black Ku Klux Klan uniforms and dole out punishment as they saw fit, to any resident who they felt transgressed the official or unofficial code of the residence.
“This punishment reportedly always took place past 1am, in the form of dragging residents out of their beds, beatings with broken glass bottles, being forced to give humiliating speeches admitting ‘guilt’ while naked, and performing extremely punishing physical activities for hours on end,” he said.
Joubert said when he wrote the piece, the initial reaction from people outside Wilgenhof was outrage and shock.
“The reaction from Wilgenhof and Wilgenhoffers themselves was anger, but they didn't deny the overall allegations, although they disputed some interpretations and the context.”
He said just like De Vos, he would wait and see what the outcome of the report would be.
“The university does not have a good track record, because they always in a process of forming a panel but its very rare that something gets done in decisive way; yet I wouldn't want to be in their shoes because you are always going to upset one party while the other will be left satisfied,” he said.
A past student who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that he was relieved that certain things had come to light.
“I closed that chapter when I left, so I would rather not go back there. It was upsetting to know that it wasn't being taken seriously then and it is frustrating now to think that it took so long, but I am relieved.”
The university has also set up a panel consisting of the Deputy Registrar: Governance, Ethics and Compliance; an experienced independent Advocate from the Cape Bar; and a former university executive in higher education to review the items found, and advise on the appropriate next steps.
The panel will be asked to submit their report by the end of February.
Vice-Chancellor Professor Wim de Villiers, assured that the university was attending to the matter with the seriousness it deserved.
"Let us allow the panel to do its work and in the process to help us to shape the welcoming and inclusive centre of excellence that we are all striving for,“ he said.
In the meantime Maties welcomed the new batch of students on Thursday without any hassle, after the university assured parents and students that it would be done in the safest manner.
Student Representative Council (SRC) president Phiwokuhle Qabaka said that monitors were deployed to ensure the residence welcomed new students in a manner that was in line with the university's values.
Qabaka said while the Council had requested that members of Wilgenhof's house committee be suspended in the welcoming activities for first-year students, the request was not granted.