IT'S February 1992. I'm standing with about 60 other first-years in a square in the Wilgenhof men's residence courtyard.
It's “welcoming week" — the well-known euphemism for doop or initiation. The welcoming committee is deliberating in the middle. The lead buck is a famous actor today, and I'm sure this experience prepared him for other, bigger roles.
In retrospect, I have to say he was excellent. He was not scary but hilarious. He was over-the-top dirty because I suspect their preparations meant they hadn't bathed for a week or so.
But here we stand. First years. In the oldest men's residence in the country. Most of us have deep family ties to Die Plek, so there is no way any of us will decide to hit the road at this stage.
This invitation has been extended to us regularly: please excuse yourself if this is not for you or if you think you should be elsewhere. Other accommodations and placement will be organised via admin.
If I remember correctly (it was 32 years ago), at least two students decided a day or so later that it wasn't for them. Nothing was made of it.
The difference between me and most of the other first-years was that I was 23. Two years of conscription and a few other adventures in East Africa, among other things, made this doop feel like a Sunday school picnic.
With the focus on initiation in the media and the increasing culture of human rights (rightly so), I thought it was impossible that wrongdoing could occur here. They wouldn't be so naive, would they?
And that's how it was for me. The “initiation" was more like an extra subject. To learn the history of Die Plek in consultation with the archivist, the house committee and the doop committee. Who were the great Oumanne but also the shit makers. There was plenty of both…
In my time as a first year, there was only one incident. A “senior", a child in standard 8 when I was in matric at Paul Roos Gymnasium, wanted to make some point. Then a second year in Wilgenhof, he came to stand in front of me and gave me a proper PK that made my ears ring.
I looked at my roommate next to me and was about to take the man-child to the ground when three other seniors intervened.
That's the type of physical contact that shouldn't happen. The offender was quickly sorted out, particularly by the Nagligte (more on them later). There is always one idiot who thinks the rules don't apply to him.
But Wilgenhof wasn't just a residence for me; it was my home for five years. I arrived there with a letter from my older brother, Jurian, a dentist in England, and was stuck in Willows' common room for the first month.
Prof Johan de Villiers, then resident principal (and conductor of the university choir and later the Libertas Choir), took me and other orphans under his wing. We found an unlikely home in a place that, for other people, was a very strange, perhaps “toxic" environment.
About a month later — the night after the Vleisfees, a big braai with guests from outside on the grass in front of the annex, Bachelors — first years are usually introduced to the Nagligte: the internal disciplinary body.
Despite seniors' great secrecy, neither my roommate nor I was particularly surprised or shocked by the men in black gowns and pointed caps.
How was it, then, that we knew of their existence and that I was under the impression that the Kremlin (Willows' designation for Stellenbosch University's management and administration) was aware of their existence at the time?
Our immediate seniors, guys doing MAs in law and actuarial and agricultural science, people we knew and respected, assured us that the disciplinary body is a formality.
The Nagligte have existed for decades. It's one of those inherited customs over which you can only shake your head that it survived for so long.
But that the Nighties were effective in the application and observance of rules in the house was undeniable. You knew your “shit was booked" when you fucked up.
Our first-year students' encounter with the Nagligte was just an introduction. As with the house committee, there were usually 10 Nagligte, all senior house members appointed through an election process for a year. The last thing you want on a disciplinary body is an asshole who gives you a PK…
Like the house committee, the Nagligte are elected. You stand for duty as Naglig or are nominated by other house members. There is a vote; if the house approves you, you serve for a year.
The first-years are chased out of their “holes" (the term for rooms in Wilgenhof) in the early morning after the Vleisfees. You run out of there stark naked, covering your balls.
The Nagligte, who often refer to each other as “Gotlieb", speak in falsetto voices. One early morning, I unfortunately appropriated someone's voice and laughed myself into a state. The Nightie just told me to cut my shit … they have work to do.
Then you are herded into a corner like sheep, sometimes watered down; then led, group by group, into Hool 88; introduced to the chief (the “onderprim"); you got a brush of paint on your back (if you caused some shit); and linseed oil and crystals were for the severe or habitual offenders.
We were each given a sip of Old Brown Sherry on the particular night of our introduction. I could live with that.
Typical “violations" in the house for which one could be “crimed"?
Breaking a glass or a bottle in the quad (residents walk barefoot across the quad to the shower and a bloody foot in the communal showers is not a pleasant affair); taking a shortcut through the passage past Hool 88 to zip out to one of the ladies' residences (Monica or Harmonie); saying “poes" during a house meeting (a frequent and widespread offence).
Crime letters were handed to the onderprim for consideration. He and the rest of the Nighties then considered all the grievances on Mondays or Tuesdays to see if there weren't maybe just a few malicious troublemakers (accusing someone of a crime for something trivial).
After consideration, each offender's punishment was determined. “The punishment must fit the crime." I've had a lot more Old Brown Sherry than raw linseed oil in my time, and I can't say it caused me any trauma.
In the years that followed, from 1994 to 1996, I served on Wilgenhof's house committee and as Naglig. I was nominated for the latter and applied for the former.
As a house committee member, you get a monthly payment (pocket money) from the university, and my portfolio was that of an archivist.
This meant I could move from my hool in Die Plek to a single room in the Bachelors, the annex for seniors. I stayed opposite the archive.
Some nights (I sleep like a rock when I sleep, but get by with very little sleep), I stayed in the archive and slept right next to Gotlieb in his glass case (the offending photo that News24 “revealed").
There was about a hundred years of history for me to make something of. I was overwhelmed and the challenge was to make something meaningful out of the portfolio: to be more than just the caretaker of a pile of dusty books.
At that time, at the insistence of a good friend and primarius, Julian du Toit, I started reading Terry Pratchett. In his Discworld series, Pratchett created the fictional city of Ankh-Morpork, with the “Unseen University" where magicians studied.
After an accident, a magician in the university's library turned into an orangutan. They tried to change him back but he kept running away. As one of the great apes, he suddenly had four hands to file books with.
Evening and night, I was Pratchett's “librarian" in Wilgenhof's archive, the guardian of a past that would make no sense to many people if presented out of context.
People such as Frederik van Zyl Slabbert and Beyers Naudé sat and watched me when I woke up, in black-framed photos from the Cor Langenberg studio.
And my time as Naglig?
In this year, from mid-1995 to mid-1996, there is not one incident that we, and the chief of that year, cannot defend. Every “run" of the Nighties was meticulously planned.
No one was exposed to any “strange rituals"; no one had to “masturbate as punishment" (as a reporter from Die Burger mentioned to me). Imagine: Oom Bey and Van Zyl Slabbert … hand in hand, masturbating in Hool 88. Seriously?
News24's headline, “House of Horrors", is right up there with the Netflix series The Fall of the House of Usher. Fantastic clickbait from the hand of a young editor who, at the time, did not hesitate to shout “Nazi salute" in the daily Beeld's coverage of initiation at North-West University's Potchefstroom campus.
Years later, as a rookie journalist at Beeld, in 2003 — the year of Wilgenhof's centenary celebration — I decided it would be a good idea to discuss some ideas with famous Oumanne.
The tide was turning for good. With initiation and doop malpractice more and more in the news, not only on the Matie campus but nationwide, I wanted to hear how there was still room for this type of old, traditional men's residence within a human rights culture.
My impression was, and is, that things must change. The doop and the Nagligte installation can no longer continue as before. Although the Naglite were a total oddity to me, they were no secret cult with dark ties. They were archaic and studentish, for sure. But a “torture machine”?
The three Oumanne I approached were my heroes. Van Zyl Slabbert's office was around the corner from me in Melville, Johannesburg. Oom Bey (Beyers Naudé) and his wife were in a home in Fairland. And I emailed Judge Edwin Cameron.
To my surprise, none of them damned or disapproved of initiation; they were even positive. Although I spoke to Van Zyl Slabbert only about the Nagligte and to Oom Bey only in passing, our conversations were explicitly about doop. Cameron's input for the article was from his notes for a speech when he was a guest speaker at the house the previous year.
About the Nagligte, which I did not include in the article for Beeld at the time, Slabbert said, “of course, it has to change”. But he was particularly optimistic about the rest of the culture of the house and initiation.
Van Zyl Slabbert, a freshman in 1960, said Wilgenhof's doop instilled a healthy suspicion and a critical spirit. His year group was among the first to rebel against overly physical aspects of initiation. It was then adjusted.
“I will tell you honestly that I would not hesitate to tell anyone, if possible, to send your children to Wilgenhof. Elements of the doop made a lasting impression on me. The whole issue of playing parrot, of talking to someone thoughtlessly … that one never accepts that things are only as they seem."
At the time, Van Zyl Slabbert placed the “taboo of initiation" or doop next to that of drug abuse. “The stronger you act against it, the more attractive you make it. If you act too strongly against doop, you create more problems for yourself as an authority than solutions.
“You must appoint doop police or observers who sneak around in the bushes. I prefer a more open attitude, like saying, ‘What are you doing? Write it down so we have more or less an idea (of what will happen) and find a place where you can formally complain'.”
According to Slabbert, in his time they gave first-year students the choice of whether they wanted to participate in doop. “What is it ultimately about? To create solidarity as quickly as possible on an annual basis that runs through your entire life. You could argue there are elements of barbarism, but not really.
“When I became resident head of Simonsberg [another men's residence at Stellenbosch], I told them: ‘Guys, I know you doop, I am also a first-year. Everything you do to these first-years, you must also do to me." Slabbert conceded that “of course" you get sadists who sometimes abuse their position.
In his “remarks" to the house on March 10, 2002, Cameron, a freshman in 1972, also advocated voluntary and informed participation in traditional practices.
“My experience of the Wilgenhof doop was that it was disciplined, effective, purposeful, non-humiliating, uplifting and above all funny. But that was 30 years ago, the year after a student in Huis Marais broke his neck in a ditch ceremony."
Cameron said he knew that not all Wilgenhoffers experienced the doop as uplifting or inclusive. “One sent me an email in which he described how doop was a negative experience for him that made him vulnerable and lowered his self-esteem."
According to Cameron, the underlying question is whether a practice can ever be valuable if it is based on coercion and relies on the ignorance of those subjected to it.
“In continuing this debate, however, we can rightly emphasise that adults who are fully aware of their human rights and preserve their human dignity may agree to participate in practices and habits that may appear strange to others.
“Such unique practices can enrich an institution and a culture."
Over the years, I didn't exactly have formal contact with the house.
Every year during the Woordfees, I would make a point of popping in there late at night and sitting in the common room, where the Kraaie of Wilgenhof (the house singing group) practised. Then I played a couple of chords on the piano and went to the pub for a beer with familiar strangers.
Last year, I attended a reunion for the first time (yes, we drank too much), and quite recently I got involved with a group of ex-Wilgenhoffers who meet once a term at the Wanderers club in Johannesburg to talk, catch up and drink a beer. Also to hear if Die Plek is still in its moer.
Our year group, the first-year students of 1992, are also quite active on a WhatsApp group where there are often quite a few sensible conversations and, of course, considerably less sensible ones. So it goes.
After this, we can rightfully no longer say, “they don't know what we know", but what I do know is that I made some of my best friends there. Lifelong bonds that stretch to this day … people I would lay down my life for. Like my holie, the Karoo farmer who, as I write, is going through a tough time.
What do they say about hindsight? Hindsight is 20/20. The time of the Naglite is long over. Van Zyl Slabbert knew it then, and Oumanne in the Kremlin at Stellenbosch University also knew it.
And the “dorm culture" on the Matie campus turned into a housing crisis. There is no longer talk of “seniors" with an institutional memory who can serve in an internal disciplinary committee because there are no more seniors. After two years of your three-year degree, you have to get out.
I suggest people give Stellenbosch University time to complete its internal investigation without the screaming headlines in the media. Let it do what it must and take action if there is evidence of irregularities or wrongdoing.
And, as a former archivist of Die Plek, I ask that you please return our artefacts so Gotlieb can rest forever in his glass case as a relic of the way things were but never will be again.
♦ VWB ♦
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