A Curious Case: More troubling than Nazi salutes

2014-07-09 14:00

The report of the task team that investigated initiation practices at the residences of North-West University did not find any evidence that Nazi culture is prevalent there.

But it makes for chilling reading anyway, more so when you recall the heartbreaking death of Thabang Mokhoang.

He was a promising student who drowned in mysterious circumstances during a first-year induction event at the university’s Potchefstroom campus two years ago.

The report paints a picture of a residence culture that systematically excludes and ­humiliates poor first-year students and those not fluent in Afrikaans as well as the Afrikaner culture from which many of the initiation practices are drawn.

Those who do participate in the military-style initiation are subjected to a barrage of humiliating practices that suppress their individual identities, autonomy and thoughts.

They are made to dress in residence-specific uniforms and hairstyles, dance and sing songs almost exclusively in Afrikaans, and act with absolute deference to senior students.

In the report’s testimonies, one student ­recounts how they felt they had no choice but to participate out of fear of being ostracised. Nonparticipation can even see students ­penalised by being made to forfeit their place in the residence.

Another said Afrikaans is used to exclude people from social life at the residences. That student said a house committee member from their residence nudged them to leave if they felt they could not cope with the environment.

These initiation practices, which dovetail into the official university-sponsored first-year orientation programme, take place with the consent by wilful ignorance of university management. They are part of what the task team called a quest to maintain the old South Africa’s ideals of exclusivity and supremacy at the campus.

It is for these reasons that AfriForum, the litigious Afrikaner rights lobby group, threatened the university with a lawsuit should it release the report into the public domain.

Ironically, they want a copy for themselves and have threatened to use the provisions of the Promotion of ­Access to Information Act if the university does not allow them access.

AfriForum claims the report unfairly maligns Afrikaner culture and that its recommendations are a case of throwing out the good with the bad.

They, along with residence committee members and residence “parents” at the university, argue that the residence traditions and initiation practices should be preserved.

But clearly there is a fundamental problem that cannot be ignored any longer. The task team notes that investigations into these issues date as far back as 2001 and extend beyond the residences into general campus life.

Yet, decades later, the climate at the university’s Potchefstroom campus remains toxic.

The traditions and initiation practices the likes of AfriForum want preserved were formed when systems of racist exclusion shielded the university from the influences of the other cultures and languages of this country.

It is absurd to expect those traditions and practices to be cast in stone and for the university’s now multicultural and multilingual student body to observe them unthinkingly.

Reading the report, I can’t help but wonder what Thabang was doing in that nearly 4m-deep pool when he knew he could not swim. He did not even have a towel to dry himself after showering, let alone for swimming.

Even if the Hawks investigation requested by the minister of higher education does confirm an earlier investigation that exonerated the university of any wrongdoing, the fact ­remains that a university tradition directed Thabang to that pool and its culture of intimidation and reverence to authority made him too afraid to refuse to enter it.

I wonder, too, what the Potchefstroom campus’ orientation events and practices would look like if students like Thabang had historically been allowed a say in their ­development.

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