There was recently a whole exposé written about Wilgenhof, one of the oldest men’s residences at Stellenbosch University (SU). The piece contains detailed explanations of all its initiation practices and the discrimination some of its residents had to endure. It made me think: Is there still a need for men’s residences in South Africa? If so, how can we make them better?
Throughout the years, men’s residences at South African universities have been in the news for dangerous initiation practices that have either led to injuries or deaths of students. These practices and the overall culture were and still are rooted in toxic masculinity. Objectifying women; an obsession with nudity, obscene jokes, and sports; irresponsible drinking, and blatant homophobia. Things have improved over the years, but not as much as we had hoped. Because these patriarchal definitions of what it means to be a ‘man’ are still taught at many of these institutions.
During my undergraduate years I resided in a male residence. The same residence the exposé was written about. I made a lot of happy memories here; learned many lessons; met some of my best friends, and am still in contact with many of the “oumanne” (Wilgenhof alumni). I did, however, see how unhappy some of my friends and fellow residents were. How they felt they didn’t belong, and how they tried their best to make it more inclusive for generations to follow. Sometimes they got it right, but as soon as the leadership in the residence changed things would just go back to the way they were.
Last year I wrote an in-depth article for one of my modules in my honours course, where I investigated men’s residences at SU. I looked at whether harmful initiation practices and toxic masculinity were still present in these residences. My investigation led to the conclusion that most SU men’s residences are still plagued with toxic masculinity. Some of these residences have abolished certain practices and improved a lot, which is great, but others still have a long way to go. So I don’t think completely abolishing men’s residences would answer my questions. I think abolishing the toxic masculinity these residences are plagued by is the answer. And that can only happen if management and ALL residence leaders stand together to create an environment that is inclusive to all cultures, all races, all religions, and all sexual orientations.
I really loved my time in “Die Plek” (a term used by alumni to refer to Wilgenhof). It was my home away from home for three years. Sadly that wasn’t the case for everyone. So please give Paul Joubert’s piece a read. He captured exactly what many residents throughout their years at Wilgenhof have had to endure. And while we’re at it, I think we should all practice Wilgenhof’s four ground principles some of the “oumanne” haven’t for a while. Respect others, be an individual; have a sense of community, and always think critically.