It’s not that easy to judge


Amid renewed revelations about shameless initiation practices at the men’s dormitory Wilgenhof at Stellenbosch University, a panel was set up by the authorities to investigate the horrific events. Such investigations have taken place in the past, but rumors still circulate of abuses against first-year students.

When I look back at my journalistic career of about 45 years and the various phases of political upheaval, one thing remains: The worst thing a person can do to another is to despise his humanity, to treat him like a non-human being, to to trample him like a cockroach. Then your conscience is dulled, your judgment is hindered, the line between good and bad becomes more and more grey.

Dr. Louis Awerback, clinical psychologist from Stellenbosch, conducted a study of rituals and says it is not so easy to judge. Multiple rituals are practiced internationally. Some quite innocent – like say a university’s graduation ceremony to the initiation of young Xhosa boys whose circumcision often leads to death. You can’t just say what is right or wrong. In fact, most rituals were passed. This achieved the goal of group association or incorporation – even if the newcomers were humiliated in the process.

Let me tell my own story about initiation (largely taken from my book: Down to the man).

I was in the residence Boekenhout at Tukkies. It was actually engineering students’ preferred residence, but I studied in the humanities with the initial aim of becoming a minister. There were only a few other BA first-years in the residence. The seniors did make us thoroughly understand that our courses were inferior, that we were by implication less intelligent and that we had more free time to do all kinds of jobs for them.

When I started at Boekenhout, I got stuck in the initiation practices. Some of the practices would probably be punishable in court today. We “Ienks”, as we freshmen were called, were treated like second-class creatures. The initiation was at its worst in the first two weeks and then again in September.

Initially, it was mainly members of the house committee (HK) who handled the initiation until the other seniors arrived. We got the kind of initiation that would make today’s commissioners of the Human Rights Commission shudder.

We were constantly scolded and cursed. Then we also had to do “PT” – fierce exercises of any kind. This while you were often dressed in just training pants and were sprayed with water. We are also forced to swallow the “pill”. It was a ball of dough that was knitted tightly and filled with all kinds of funny things, like mustard powder. One struggled to swallow it and there was a risk that you could choke badly.

Some of the initiation sessions lasted all night. If you did not carry out assignments as desired, you got a “sneaker parade”. All the seniors, more than a hundred, lined up in the courtyard. The first-years then had to walk past them on all fours while each senior hit you on the butt with a shoe. You can only imagine how a first year’s stern felt after such a “parade”.

Another practice was to teach the first-years all kinds of songs – riddled with swear words and suggestive themes. As a theology student, this was where I drew the line. I didn’t sing along and was soon caught out. A bunch of seniors then shouted at me that I was a hard ass and that they would teach me a lesson.

However, first I had to sing the songs along, but I refused again. The seniors became increasingly angrier and I insisted on seeing the house chairman, Pedro Maritz. Pedro was a strong leader. He came from what was then South-West Africa (now Namibia) and was a big old man, fresh built – but more: he imposed authority with his personality. Besides, he was smart. If I remember correctly, he was the best engineering student in the country in his final year.

One senior went to call Pedro. He then confronted me: “Yes, Ienk, why don’t you sing along?” I explained that these were vulgar songs and that it went against my grain to sing them. “Besides”, I said, “we all know that our boarding father is a lecturer in theology. Is he aware of the songs our freshmen are forced to sing; has he heard it and approved? Or shall I call him now so that he can judge for himself whether we can just sing the songs?”

Pedro then decided that I didn’t have to sing the songs, but that I had to participate in the other activities. From that day I was a marked man.

The other day I read veteran journalist, Tim du Plessis, writing about his initiation experiences. It turns out that he and I were at university at exactly the same time, but he at the then RAU, which is now called the University of Johannesburg. And now you want more: At RAU, the same initiation practices have been applied. Tragically, one of the first years there died after being forced to swallow the “pill”.

Today, things look very different at Tukkies. It is the largest residential university in the country that can accommodate more than 8,000 students. The name “Boekenhout” has been changed to TAU (Lion) and the residence’s composition looks completely different. No initiation is allowed.

According to dr. Louis Awerback, this is not necessarily the best solution, because the practices are simply continued underground in secret, as indeed happened at Wilgenhof. But at Tukkies, with its larger and wider racial representation, the situation can quickly turn ugly if practices are applied that affect the humanity of students.

New initiation based on the values ​​of the Constitution is definitely needed.