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Stellenbosch deliberates fate of ‘racist’ student residence

 Image: nattrass, via Getty Images

University mulls closure of accommodation block where white supremacy symbols were found this year

The governing council of Stellenbosch University in South Africa has called for “further consultation and consideration” on the rector’s recommendation that its 120-year-old Wilgenhof residence be closed.

The council met on 24 June to deliberate rector Wim de Villier’s recommendation, which echoes a previously confidential report after disturbing finds signalling a white supremacy culture at the residence were made public earlier this year.

Rather than endorse the closure outright, the council of the once whites-only university has issued a call for written submissions on the future of the residence to guide its deliberations.

“The council recognised that opinions on the future of Wilgenhof are deeply divided. This involves several issues including the interpretation of tradition and the need for all university practices to enable an inclusive university where all stakeholders feel they belong,” the university said in a statement.

It said such issues must be thoroughly considered in the interest of fairness, transparency and administrative justice, aligned with its vision and values. 

White supremacy finds

On 9 January, harrowing scenes were uncovered at South Africa’s century-old university when officials opened two locked rooms in the 120-year-old Wilgenhof men’s residence. “Hool 88” was the room where Wilgenhof’s internal disciplinary committee, “the Nagligte” (the Nightlights), conducted their disciplinary activities at night.

Numerous people were overcome with “shock, distress, emotions and tears” upon entering the two rooms, according to a previously confidential report commissioned by the university. The report described the room as “dark, menacing and intimidating” with enigmatic symbols, objects and costumes.

Expert submissions to the investigation panel have confirmed the number 88 has a symbolic association with white supremacy: the number references the phrase “Heil Hitler”, which becomes 88–H being the eighth letter of the alphabet.

Commenting on the report’s findings on 13 June, higher education minister Blade Nzimande strongly condemned the existence of any racially inclined or discriminatory practices or cultures at any of South Africa’s universities.

“Such racist and discriminatory practices or cultures have no place in a free and democratic South Africa,” he said. He urged all stakeholders within the higher education sector to work with government to eradicate such “abhorrent practices or cultures”.

Who owns Wilgenhof?

One of the complications of Wilgenhof’s fate is contention about its ownership. The report states that the residence predates the university and that the Wilgenhof community thinks it “owns” the residence.

“This sense of ‘ownership’ is a deeply held view among the mainly white, male, Afrikaans-speaking community of Wilgenhoffers past and present, who take pride in the facts that: (1) Wilgenhof pre-existed the University itself, and (2) they raised half the money needed to replace the original Wilgenhof residence building,” the report says. 

This feeds into a profound sense that the Wilgenhof community past and present owns the residence and that Wilgenhof is special and set apart from any other residences at the university, the report notes.

Submissions on the fate of the residence will be accepted until 31 July.