Walking into Wilgenhof’s courtyard is a strange experience. It is simultaneously reminiscent of both a calm old-Stellenbosch guesthouse and a slave-quarters. The latter effect is probably largely due to the old white-washed buildings and the slave-bell that continues to announce mealtimes. In the dining and rec-halls, one is struck by the monochrome pictures of white men who had walked there before you, and had achieved something noteworthy enough to be memorialised on the walls.
These pictures are a sign of enduring traditionalism and romanticisation of “koshuisgees” (roughly, “residence spirit”) that many residences at Stellenbosch University exhibit. This, in combination with the inherent gender-segregation of a “men’s” residence, results in a feverish feedback loop of toxic masculinity.
The past few weeks have been filled by revelations of shocking practices at Wilgenhof men’s residence at Stellenbosch University. These have had the very clear overtones of racism and queerphobia one might expect from reading the previous paragraph.
CW: queerphobia, racism, initiation practices, apartheid things, and the like.
During Welcoming Week, a monitor was the subject of a queerphobic meme posted on a since-deleted Wilgenhof first-years’ Instagram account. Monitors are tasked with observing welcoming practices to ensure they are not problematic or damaging, and apparently it had become standard practice in Wilgenhof to refer to monitors as “cockroaches”. After the Instagram post, many of the general practices came to light, and then in the week of 2 March, screenshots of queerphobic WhatsApp statuses by senior Wilgenhof residents were distributed on social media. The one post was recently made by a fourth-year resident of Wilgenhof who is employed as a “mentor” (mentors are senior students who are chosen to “mentor” newcomers in various ways, and they receive financial compensation for that service), saying that the Bible is not homo-phobic but rather “disgusted” with homosexuality. The other screenshot is of a post from 2019 by a now-alumnus of Wilgenhof while he was still a resident. This latter post was a news headline of Brunei’s declaration that homosexual people will be sentenced to death by stoning (which was luckily repealed soon after), with a Bible verse in support. A further screenshot is of a conversation with said alumnus, where he confirmed his support for the stoning of homosexuals.
The majority of the current uproar resulted after a newcomer moved out of Wilgenhof and halted their studies at SU because of the victimisation and toxic culture they had experienced at the residence. Their parent(s) contacted upper management, and an investigation into the alleged toxic culture was set in motion. Many students have, however, been frustrated by the apparent slowness of these official processes, pointing out that “official processes” and “engagements” meant to address toxic residence culture have been active for several years, with minimal improvement. (See for example this, and this.)
Members and allies of the queer community held a mass-meeting and marched in protest on Thursday 5 March. Mr. Spurgeon Wilson, the current resident head and alumnus of Wilgenhof, was present at this meeting and availed himself for questions. Most of his answers, however, just affirmed that he is committed to the institutional processes and is engaged in conversation with residents. Attendees of the mass meeting were disappointed with Mr. Wilson’s apparent unwillingness to condemn queerphobic behaviour in Wilgenhof outright.
For many students who have had to deal with “Die Plek” (“The Place”, a Wilgenhof colloquialism for the residence), none of this behaviour is a surprise. In fact, research shows that Wilgenhof’s shocking traditions date back to at least the 1930s, specifically the practices of the “Nagligte” (“Night Lights”). In order to keep “discipline” in residence, it is still a practice for members of an extra-judicial “disciplinary committee” known as the “Nagligte” or alternatively, the “DK” (“Dissiplinêre Komitee”, i.e., “Disciplinary Committee”), to dress up in black Ku Klux Klan uniforms and dole out punishment as they see fit to any resident who they feel has transgressed the official or unofficial code of the residence. This punishment reportedly always took place past 01:00 in the morning, and has taken 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.
During an “engagement” between members of the community and Wilgenhof residents, with Senior Director of Student Affairs, Dr. Choice Makhetha, on Tuesday 10 March, no resident denied the accusations that the practice of “Nagligte” is still ongoing, and several actually openly admitted to the activities performed by what they refer to as the “DK”.
A further practice that has been revealed is that of “Vleisfees” (“Meat Festival”). This event, which takes place once a year, is touted as a residence braai, but apparently serves as the first years’ introduction to the “Nagligte”. The first years are told to wait in their rooms for several hours, in darkness, after which a tremendous noise is heard from outside, consisting of “horrendous” screaming, rattling chains, and banging sticks. The “Nagligte”, dressed in their KKK regalia, then fetch the first years from their rooms, and instruct them to not look the “Nagligte” in the eyes, face the floor, cover their crotches, and address them as “Sir”. During this and various other first year initiation events, they are also thrown with paint and made to eat a disgusting aloe and linseed oil concoction. This drinking of the concoction is apparently known as “k**lie-k**lie” (the racial slur towards Indian people). During one of the DK’s loops (“runs”) in 2019, one of the sections where queer residents were staying were referred to as “holnaaiers” (a slur towards gay men, primarily).
Another tradition that had allegedly recently been scrapped is “Bekfluitjie” (“Harmonica”), which apparently originated as an insult of Wilgenhof, given the similarity of the outside appearance of their windows to a harmonica. If a woman were to yell “bekfluitjie!” outside of Wilgenhof, she would be stormed and grabbed by residents, reportedly thrown into a shower and given the choice of “no clothes and hot water, or clothes with cold water”, after which they would be “showered” according to their “choice”. A Wilgenhof-internal engagement was held the week of the Instagram post (on 11 February) where they wanted to bring back a revised version of the practice of “Bekfluitjie”, but that was unsuccessful.
Many “smaller” day-to-day practices have also been mentioned: the overwhelming majority of showers are open-plan (meaning no cubicles) and toilet cubicle doors mostly do not lock (thus no privacy). First years are not allowed to use the stairs and thus be in any section above ground floor, as an attempt to discourage inter-year socialisation. No cellphones may be used in the dining hall, or, of course, during any secret event. Up until recently the Culture Committee head was known as “The Mandoor”, meaning “the slave-driver” (which was only changed after extreme backlash, but then only despite resistance). Pictures of apartheid-era prime ministers are still proudly displayed in the “eetsaal”. Most shockingly, the “DK” is apparently met in a room called Hool 88 (“Lair 88”), which is a Neo-Nazi dog-whistle (code) for “HH”, meaning “Heil Hitler”. Perhaps fittingly, accompanying this is a swastika carved into the tar ramp on the ground floor.
Many residents have complained about the various injustices they have had to face, however, nothing had changed much. One alumnus of the residence testified at the 10 March engagement that they were often told that they could not provide enough “evidence” that the residence’s practices were harmful. At that same engagement, many other students, mostly women, expressed that they are generally terrified to be in Wilgenhof or sometimes even in the vicinity of residents. It is a well known piece of advice among women’s residences that one should “never drink the punch” at a Wilgenhof party, for fear of being drugged.
Talk around Wilgenhof often involves the word “cult”. This may seem hyperbolic to some, but I believe it is important to point out the characteristics the residence shares with religious cults. Most broadly, the first glaring similarity to a cult is that the first years’ vulnerability — by virtue of being in a new place, wanting to fit in — and relative naïveté is exploited in order to further a toxic tradition that benefits those that make it to the top.
The first years are taught from Welcoming Week that they are worthless and have to prove how much they want to be in Wilgenhof. After arriving, they are introduced to the “Wysemanne” (“Wise Men”) who will teach them about “Die Plek”, and that, should they not pay attention, they would be in big trouble with them and the “Oumanne” (“Old Boys”). The first years are made to memorise facts about Wilgenhof history and their fellow first years’ names while standing around the “Wysemanne” in a “Vierkant” (“Square”) for up to four hours in full Stellenbosch heat.
This militaristic approach to initiation is often defended as building “character”, “gees”, or bonds between first years. In psychology, this mutual bond is known as trauma bonding. A trauma bond can take the form of Stockholm Syndrome — a trauma bond with one’s captors or abusers, or a trauma bond between victims of trauma, from having “made it through” the traumatic event together. This bond can trick victims into perpetuating the trauma, inflicting it on the next generation, since they believe that they “turned out fine”. (This is similar to parents wanting to injure their children as punishment because they “went through it and turned out fine”.)
A religious cult often arises from the dictum that some central figure has found the “Truth”, which needs to be taught in recruits who have to prove their “worth”, loyalty, and acceptance. While Wilgenhof perhaps does not have a central figure dictating truth (at least not any more), they do instill in newcomers the belief that they are actually the free-thinking rational critical engagers who are actually pro-transformation. But then they just parrot tired individualist rhetoric that emphasises “individual responsibility” and disclaim any responsibility for toxic cultures that they might have had a role in perpetuating.
Another cult-like feature is an extreme paranoia about a conspiracy to destroy or undermine Wilgenhof which dates back to at least the 1950s. In 1957 the “Battle of Wilgenhof” took place between civilian and military residents, who were temporarily placed at Stellenbosch University main campus while the Saldanha facilities were being built. There was apparently quite some stigma attached to the military, causing military students to be most unwelcome and met with disdain. Conflicts and physical violence led to Prof. HB Thom, then-rector, ordering the Nagligte to be disbanded and their practices to be stopped immediately. This was more than half a century ago.
The paranoia and secrecy can still be seen in various ways: they refer to the University as “the Kremlin” who want to do nothing other than destroy Wilgenhof’s traditions, “Cluster is k*k” is a common saying, and, in order to keep everything under wraps, residents are warned that, should they ever “praat uit” (“speak out”), they would “find [them], no matter where [they] go”. One of the few places this secrecy and paranoia is documented is the “Gedenkboek” of 1968 which prominently declares that it is “FOR PRIVATE CIRCULATION ONLY”.
At the 10 March engagement a Wilgenhoffer tried to explain how any resident had the freedom to “not take part” in activities related to the “DK”. The important thing to consider, however, is whether it is in fact at all possible to escape from racism and queerphobia when the racists and queerphobes are living with you. This individualisation also ignores the processes of socialisation. As pointed out above, during Welcoming Week, newcomers are made to give up their previous morals, their freedoms and their privacy, and in turn are given an ideology that tells them that everything that goes wrong in their life is their own fault. At the same time, they are taught that in order to be accepted at Wilgenhof, you have to give up yourself and become a “Wilgenhoffer”. And if you are not a straight white male you better be trying extra hard to prove yourself.
Speaking of white males, Wilgenhof’s alumni bring large acclaim to the residence, and it benefits from this by way of donations and, perhaps more importantly, reputation. Residents fondly cling on to the legacy of figures such as Danie Craven and Beyers Naudé, among others. Among the more recent alumni are big names such as Paul Harris (former CEO of FirstRand) and Markus Jooste (former CEO of Steinhoff), both members of the so-called “Stellenbosch Mafia”. The current chancellor of the University, Justice Edwin Cameron, is also a Wilgenhof alumnus.
Dr. Choice Makhetha revealed that when she was appointed at SU last year, she was half-jokingly warned by colleagues that she “should not touch Wilgenhof”. Wilgenhof has always had an air of being untouchable, and this apparently radiates to upper management. Many have speculated that this is because of wealthy alumni donors that maintain control, but without disclosure of financial statements, that question will remain unresolved.
I do not believe that Wilgenhof is a cult, at least not in a strict sense. Their absolutely dizzying mess of signs, symbols and regalia — mostly from white supremacist groups, but also including the Soviet hammer and sickle (see the featured image of this article) — can perhaps be better explained by what I like to call syncretistic edginess: using signifiers of an unrelated bunch of “extreme” positions to evoke intensity, fearlessness, aggression, rogue masculinity and, as an “Old Boy” explained in a recent alumni newsletter, “guts”.
Rather, Wilgenhof is a symptom of a larger problem, South Africa’s inability to escape it’s apartheid legacy, and old white men clinging onto power every little way they can.
All historical information in this article is from a master’s thesis (2018) by Ruhan Fourie about Beyers Naudé, and an article (2009) by Prof. Deon Visser about the 1957 “Battle of Wilgenhof”. Further, I strongly recommend reading The Afrikaner privilege machine by Deon Wiggett (2017).
Any possible mischaracterisation or fault is as a result of my own misunderstanding, not malicious intent (mine, or my sources), and will be corrected upon provision of more accurate information. All information is either from linked sources or were provided by sources in confidence.