President Jacob Zuma expressed shock on Tuesday at reports that students at the North West University had used the Nazi salute.
"The use of gestures associated with Nazism are shunned upon throughout the world and are relics of a time which symbolised oppression, persecution and some of the worst atrocities committed in human history," Zuma said in a speech prepared for delivery at the university.
Beeld newspaper reported on February 21 that some students used the Nazi "Sieg Heil" during an initiation ceremony.
Photographs were published by the newspaper showing groups of students at the University of the North West doing Nazi salutes.
Zuma said universities should develop responsible citizens and future leaders who were just, free thinking and committed to building a society free of intolerance and injustice.
"The ANC government takes this matter seriously and will not tolerate any unconstitutional activities that are perpetrated at any education and training institution," he said.
Zuma told students that Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande was looking into the matter.
On February 25, the higher education ministry condemned the salute staged by first-year students during an induction at the university south-west of Johannesburg.
The images of students raising their right hands at the end of a song sparked the ire of the department of higher education.
It said the pictures showed a group of students "dressed in uniforms, marching in unison like troopers and, most disturbingly doing the … Nazi-style fascist salute".
A short YouTube video shows students wearing black T-shirts and navy-blue shorts singing, dancing and then waving a salute.
Government at the time said it would not tolerate such "archaic" and "unconstitutional" practices that damage and indoctrinate young people into beliefs that "are not in the spirit of our democracy".
The university authorities have apologised for any offence caused by the images, according to government, and they denied it was a Nazi salute, but a tradition of first year students "singing a greeting" to the head of their residence committee.
But the government could not be convinced.
"Such practices are not at all innocent and can only be characterised as unacceptable practices where the use of gestures associated with Nazism are shunned upon throughout the world and are relics of a time which symbolised oppression, persecution and some of the worst atrocities committed in human history," it said.
It was "shocked" that university administrators could defend "what can only be called initiation rituals". – Sapa