WHAT can an ouman say? It's a big fucking disaster.
It’s not so much even that 88 and the Toe-argief have been put on the newspaper front pages. It’s more that everything feels so … wrong. How many of us knew before last week that 88 was a neo-Nazi code? Probably not zero. But probably not most of us. How many Nagligte among you donned those pointy hats thinking: “The South will rise again! Yee-haa!” But all we’re bloody talking about is Nazis and the KKK.
I think it’s important to acknowledge that everything wasn’t perfect. We are, after all, a male residence in South Africa in the year 2024. And Wilgenhoffers aren’t created anew out of thin air in their first year, unaffected by a South African upbringing. Racial and gender undertones come with the territory. Over five years living in Die Plek, I saw many promising black and coloured Wilgenhoffers becoming disaffected, losing interest, maybe even despising it.
We can have many serious conversations about how that can be and whether more could have been done to change the trend. But this is by no means a challenge unique to Wilgenhof. From the JSE to the Springboks to the DA’s list of parliamentarians, it is a quintessentially South African question: why are more of your top people not black? You may find this a ridiculous question or an important one (as I do), but it is not a uniquely Wilgenhof question.
To suspect us of Nazism is to fall fully for the optics. I guess it isn’t impossible that the initial intent of some of these symbols was malevolent. But those pointy-hatted guys now being gawked at all across the media actually told us, as a first-year group, fully in secret without any push or pressure from the university management or anyone: “Racism doesn't belong in Wilgenhof.” You might question if they meant it and whether it achieved anything, but who would they have been trying to impress? No one was watching. I even distinctly remember the residence having the conversation on whether the pointy hats should go the way of the dodo, just in case they came out. Here we are. Fat lot of good it did us.
In a way, I get that the media and the university management have their hands tied. How could you not report on this? It is, after all, a big news story. There are so many angles: racism, Nazism, sexism, the Stellenbosch mafia. Jackpot, if you’re Adriaan Basson. And if you try to be an internationally respected institution like Stellenbosch University, then would you really endanger your reputation for the benefit of one residence’s very dodgy-looking traditions? I would not, for instance, want the place where I got my degree to be associated with a Huis Russel Botman where people wear swastikas on their chests, no matter the explanation.
But for me, as for many Wilgenhoffers, this is a disaster. Because my identity, my friends, my personal history — these are all intimately tied to that bekfluitjie and those two rooms on the front page of Die Burger. Will my friends from Wilgenhof disappear? No. Will my degree suddenly become invalid? No. But to look for something tangible when thinking about a culture — an identity — is to miss the point.
The Nagligte, the secrecy, the M Night Shyamalan aesthetic that pervaded every day on the Wilgenhof calendar is what tied us together. Because it was so jarring. There is a difference between being told that you are welcome and included, like the university does, and showing it, like Wilgenhof did for me: putting its money where its mouth is, telling me its secrets and thereby giving me the self-destruct button, risking serious reputational damage to show that it cared about me. There was something … spiritual about it. The humour. The imagery. The omertà.
Wherever groups of men get together, they end up establishing initiation rituals. In the modern world, this is often at university. A while ago, an Indian friend invited me to watch a Bollywood comedy with him: 3 Idiots. In one scene, lead actor Aamir Khan’s character arrives at his home in a hostel. A group of boys stand in their underwear, being berated by the seniors. “Take off your clothes, or he’ll piss on you,” another character, Chatur, warns a fully dressed Aamir Khan. The senior student turns to him and says something in Hindi. He responds: “Sorry sir, I was born in Uganda, studied in Pondicherry, so little slow in Hindi” (watch it at 1:25 here). “Then Hindi you must learn," say the subtitles as the senior glares at Chatur.
“This is very common in hostels in India,” my Indian friend told me, as if I had never witnessed such a thing. Of course, these things often get out of hand. In the Netherlands, the student society Vindicat has repeatedly been in trouble for bullying first-years during initiation: “We had to eat dirty things, and sometimes clothes were taken off. One time, someone took off their pants, and then beer was thrown over their back. Someone else had to sit underneath and drink it, while the beer went through their buttocks."
In Belgium, a recent high-profile court case was about the student organisation Reuzegom in Leuven, where a first-year died during initiation: “Dia had to drink litres of gin, after which the taps in his room were turned off. Drinking a sip of water was no longer possible. Once Dia was lying flat in the corner, the Giant Gommers urinated on him."
Closer to home, in an isiXhosa class, our teacher taught us that young amaXhosa men start counting their ages again after ulwaluko, or initiation. Because it usually takes place in June, called “iSilimela”, their age resets from how many years old they are to how many Silimelas have passed since initiation. Its importance as a rite of passage is so great that it changes your age.
In a News24 article from 2017, the author describes this initiation as a “process of socio-spiritual orientation”. Year after year, deaths from the initiation period are announced on the news like cricket scores. Yet people go.
Would it be crazy to say that the initiation I went through at Wilgenhof was a “process of socio-spiritual orientation”? To many, it might smack of hyperbole. I don’t expect everyone to have my sense of tribalism. But to me, as to many others, it was a significant experience of bonding and an introduction to a new phase of life. How many of us went in shy and passive and emerged ambitious and confident? If the Wilgenhof tradition was merely one where big tough rugby players punched first-years, I would have hated it.
I suspect Stellenbosch will not be able to ignore this storm. For a long time, it has been no secret that many people in the university management are uneasy with the culture in residences. With the fact that there are male-only residences. With the fact that familial ties play a strong role in residence culture. For an institution bent on transforming itself to look less like the home of DF Malan and more like the home of Thuli and Tulio, this makes a lot of sense. I suspect that no amount of horsetrading or discrediting of critics on Twitter, no amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth can change this fact. We are and have been, rightly or wrongly, an inconvenient anachronism to them for far too long. Time will tell if anything will remain. I, at least, hope that something of an ethos, something of a spiritual home, will remain standing on the corner of Victoria and Van Ryneveld.
But let me, at this salacious end of an era, remember a place that was by no means perfect but most certainly wasn’t a neo-Nazi cult. I know some people will have had bad experiences at Wilgenhof. And that breaks my heart. We should acknowledge and lament that. But for now, let me, memory by memory, just try to retrace what makes it so painful to see my home as the target of this type of public ridicule.
Let me remember the initial weirdness of going to the toilet with the door open, slowly evolving into the intimacy of extended philosophical discussions which leave small piles of cigarette ash next to the toilets. Let me remember the humour: Robo Courtney, a plastic robot that bravely took the place of the eponymous first-year who got sick just before welcoming, until flesh-and-blood Courtney could join us. The jocular motions at huisvergadering, suggesting, over a 45-minute presentation, that 200 Wilgenhoffers are in need of a fishing club with an extended bureaucracy of 20 people, including a “president and vice-president of freshwater fishing” as well as various secretaries of lines, reels and bait.
Let me remember that the big revelation of our scariest and most secretive event, Toenaweek, was that Wilgenhof accepted me just as I am and that I didn’t have to do anything to belong. Nothing to swallow and no physical pain. Just the secret that I was now a part of. I still have a letter and a photo to prove it.
Let me remember my first Sunday, expecting that conformity would mandate us all to go to church together, and then the prim announcing that anyone who does not want to go to church can meet him in the common room to talk about atheism, Islam, Nietzsche or whatever.
Let me remember Josef de Wit’s commendable, albeit slightly hopeless, weekly invitation that we all go and support the table tennis. Because everyone’s hobbies mattered. Because we were told so on day one. Let me remember my first and only punishment by the Nagligte, standing next to Tendai doing a wall sit, hearing him laugh: “Hey, Vetjie! What are you doing here?”
Let me remember the fact that not one, not two, but three guys who served with me on the house committee are openly gay. Let me remember that one of them is now married to a Wilgenhof doopkaptein.
Let me remember that, much more than any other place I’ve been before or since, my residence made me feel like I could be a little weird and still be part of the gang.
Let me remember that we were not Nazis or white supremacists or the KKK or the AWB or the Broederbond. Let me remember that we were — at least in my eyes — just some young men trying, in our imperfect way, to build lasting relationships and to have some fun along the way.
It pains me that none of this is important in public any more. Only Nazis and the KKK matter now.
Victim of the Nagligte and heartbroken old man
First-year 2012, primarius 2015-16.
♦ VWB ♦
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