Closure of Wilgenhof would pave road to SU transformation

Stellenbosch University’s Wilgenhof Residence.

Stellenbosch University’s Wilgenhof Residence.

Published Jun 20, 2024


The closure of Stellenbosch University’s (SU) problematic Wilgenhof Men’s Residence would be a progressive step for the institution. This unprecedented move could shake things up and pave the way for a more transformative university.

Following the dreadful objects found in the Wilgenhof residence a few months ago, and the university’s proactiveness in establishing a panel to investigate what have seemed to be inhumane practices, the outcomes of this report could have meaningful impact for change.

For a long time, students at the university complained not only about Wilgenhof and its shenanigans, but also about other residences where harmful practices occurred. These include acts of racism, discrimination, homophobia and other types of violence and discrimination.

The urination incident at Huis Marais in 2022 and a few other few urination incidents that followed, served as a painful reminder of how SU is still stuck in apartheid, where white boys think it’s okay to dehumanise black boys by urinating on them.

The establishment of the committee to deal with racism, following the Khampepe Report on racism at the institution, and its slow progress has further demoralised some progressive blacks at the institution, as many felt this committee and its recommendations are not taken seriously.

The resignation of its chairperson, Professor Aslam Fataar, was a clear indication of this slow progress in addressing harmful cultures and attitudes at the university.

Of course, one should be cognisant that it would take many years to erode traditions and practices more than 100 years old, but real radical steps can help us get there faster.

This is where people like Professor Pierre de Vos concur, when he a few months ago said Maties would need a radical black person as the next vice-chancellor to combat the realities of the institution where the majority of the country feel like minorities.

This is notwithstanding the progress made over the past few years, and in that regard, its outgoing Vice-Chancellor, Professor Wim de Villiers, must be commended for his work and efforts to fight for a more inclusive Maties.

The two of us agreed and disagreed on many things during my tenure as SRC member at SU, but one fundamental thing I think we agreed on was human dignity, a non-negotiable.

Speaking to him just a few weeks ago, he reflected on his almost 10 years at the varsity. For him, transformation was one of his key priorities. He acknowledged that he made mistakes in some instances, but prides himself for the strides made in addressing the inequalities at the university.

For this reason, following his recommendation that Wilgenhof should be closed, I think the institution has reached a tipping point, where it can finally and truly become an institution in Africa and for Africa.

Considering numerous transformation challenges at Maties over the years, we felt that the university was not serious enough, and I think it speaks to how slow transformation is.

However, considering this bold and, one must add, radical move to say that this residence must be closed down at the end of the 2024 academic year, is progressive.

This paves the way and sets the tone for all other residences in the university, that the time to play with people’s human dignity is over, that the university is serious about addressing problematic cultures and harmful practices. I do, however, hope that this radicalism will be continued across the board, not only in residences, to ensure that the institution goes through a full-on cleansing process, where all harmful practices and traditions can be eroded once and for all.

Finally, I truly hope that when De Villiers packs his bags in March 2025, a new vice-chancellor will enter with the same type of energy to fight apartheid-styled traditions and that they carry at least a little bit of radicalism within them.

Cape Times