If you’re a senior student and you fancy a room on the third floor of the Over de Voor men’s residence on the Potchefstroom campus of North West University (NWU), resign yourself to 30 whacks on the bum with a cricket bat. And if you’re a first-year student, you’ll have to crawl over the residence lawn in a contorted position to gain a “grass licence” to enter the hostel.
These are among the “outdated and alienating” residence initiation rituals that a ministerial task team has asked the university to address to head off future problems on the campus.
Education Minister Naledi Pandor appointed the task team late last year to investigate violent student protests on the Mafikeng campus and the efficacy of the 2004 merger between Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education, the University of North-West in Bophuthatswana, Mafikeng, and Vista University’s Sebokeng campus.
The team’s report says that some students have complained about injuries inflicted during residence initiation rites and that “cultural practices in the residences are racially biased”.
The residence, known as “Overs”, has a history of defying management and over-the-top antics, which include forcing non-residents to shower with their clothes on if they are caught walking on the sacred lawn.
The task team’s warnings about initiation rituals follows the disclosure last year of barbaric and racially based initiation practices at the Reitz hostel of the University of the Free State.
The ministerial task team found that NWU is performing above the national average and is experiencing a rise in student numbers.
But it identifies a range of merger headaches, including:
- The Potchefstroom campus seems mainly reserved for white Afrikaans-speakers, with a small number of black students;
- White students on the Potch campus view black students as guests, not equals;
- The Mafikeng campus remains black and has a low status within the merged entity; and
- The Potchefstroom and Vaal campuses collectively show a “remarkably” low pace of staff transformation. But student equity has improved at the Vaal campus, which has benefited from the merger.
It adds that students on the Mafikeng campus complained about maladministration centred on rector Dan Kgwadi, victimisation and inappropriately high fees when services on different campuses are unequal.
Academic activities ground to a halt in March last year amid student protests, which turned violent and came to focus on a proposed 13% tuition fee hike. When four students convicted of public violence were expelled, more violence erupted over demands for their reinstatement.
The report says that “varying applications of the disciplinary policy framework across the campuses” have exacerbated conflict.
It cites Potch students accused of using racist terminology and images on Facebook, who were allowed to write their exams before appearing before a disciplinary committee and offered counselling ahead of the hearings.
“These concessions have cumulatively served to further support the Mafikeng students’ claims about ‘unfair’ or ‘preferential’ treatment, as they have alleged that they are generally not afforded any compassionate treatment by management when they are charged for various transgressions.”
Vice-chancellor Theuns Eloff said the institution was committed to making the merger a success but took issue with the task team’s methodology.
Referring to initiation practices, he said: “The NWU rejects any practice or action that infringes on a student or staff member’s human rights.”