OPINION

Use of Nazi "Sieg Heil" salute at Puk unacceptable - DHET

Dept says it is considering NWU's report on the incident reported on in Beeld last Friday

Media Statement on Initiation at the North West University

"Everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected" The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa

The Department of Higher Education and Training has noted with concern the report on orientation activities at the North West University (NWU) in the Beeld of Friday, 21 February 2014. The photographs accompanying the article show first year students at NWU dressed in uniforms, marching in unison like troopers and, most disturbingly doing the ‘Heil Puk!' Nazi-style fascist salute (see Beeld report).

The university management has indicated that these pictures are snippets out of a longer video ‘singing a greeting to their primaria' which was taken out of context and what appears to be a Nazi-style salute is not that at all (see video below). While they have apologised for any offence the pictures may have caused, they have indicated that this is part of a tradition that first year students engage in and do not see this as an initiation practice.

However in the Departments' view, 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.

2 As the Department of Higher Education and Training, it is our aim to develop responsible citizens and future leaders who are just, free thinking and committed to building a society free of intolerance and injustice, and these gestures are not synonymous with those values or the values of our country.

It is not the first time that such practices are surfacing at the Potchefstroom campus of NWU. Following recurring disruptions at the NWU Mafikeng campus, the former Minister of Education, Ms Naledi Pandor, appointed a Task Team in 2008 to evaluate the extent to which the university had achieved the intended objectives of the merger and processes it followed to achieve those objectives.

In its investigation, the Task Team was informed that cultural practices in the residences were racially biased and the orientation of first year students included some unacceptable and archaic practices, tacitly condoned by management. At that time, the university's management rejected the findings of the Task Team and reported that such practices are being dealt with through the university disciplinary processes.

Following the infamous racist incident that took place at the Reitz Hostel, of the University of the Free State in 2008, the Minister of Education commissioned a national study on the "Transformation and Social Cohesion and the Elimination of Discrimination in Public Higher Education Institutions". The Commission reported that:

A common feature of residences in the Afrikaans-medium institutions [which includes the Potchefstroom campus of the NWU, according to the report] is the presence of strong hierarchical structures. Senior students have considerable authority and power over first-year students ... The power of senior students is expressed most clearly in the initiation ceremonies that have been a feature of residence life in many institutions.

At the start of the academic year, first-year students have to perform various activities, often of a demeaning character, determined by senior students. These include having to service the demands of senior students, such as running errands, washing their dishes, etc. In this regard it should be noted that the Reitz incident involving black workers was based on an initiation ceremony prescribed for second-year students seeking admission to Reitz (p.81).

3 In this regard, the Commission recommended that: All initiation ceremonies and activities should be banned, irrespective of whether the activity causes bodily harm or not. A toll-free (and anonymous) complaints line should be established to allow students to register infringements of this policy. The punishment for contravening such policy should be expulsion from the institution (p.88).

 In April 2010 the Minister of Higher Education and Training requested the university to furnish him with a progress report in relation to the implementation of the recommendations of the Task Team. In his response to the Minister, the Chairperson of Council, Mr P J Van der Walt, wrote that: NWU has established a Human Rights Committee that investigates allegations of harassment, racism, xenophobia and many other social ills that we experience in the wider society. This committee is chaired by an independent external Senior Counsel, and Council is satisfied that significant progress is evident in our interactions across the institution.

 In spite of the university's continuous denials that acts of degradation of human dignity were taking place at its premises, anecdotal reports on such practices have persisted. Similar allegations have resurfaced following the death of Mr Thabang Mokhoang in early 2012, during the first year student's orientation.

On 21 January 2012, at an orientation event for first year students at NWU, Potchefstroom Campus, Mr Thabang Makhoang tragically drowned in what was reported to be a team-building exercise called a ‘Fruit Festival'. At the time the university management justified this as a ‘cultural event' during which students ‘playfully rubbed each other with watermelon peels' and thereafter hosed each other down before taking a swim. Shortly after this incident, the Department requested the institution's Rector, Dr Theuns Eloff, to investigate the matter and provide it with a comprehensive report.

 4 The unsatisfactory outcomes of the NWU investigation into the drowning of Mr Makhoang became the basis for a request from the Department to the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), to undertake an investigation. The terms of reference for the investigation by SAHRC included an assessment of whether initiation activities are being practiced at the NWU Potchefstroom campus, in particular during the orientation period. However, we are concerned about the slow progress on this matter by SAHRC.

In December 2012, Aldred Genade, a senior academic at NWU, wrote: At the NWU, inaction on racial (and other forms of) diversity constitutes a key obstacle to transformation. While it is difficult to prove culpability, this indolence simply perpetuates the historic status quo that brought us to the place where non-whites eighteen years after liberation feel alienated and whites still dominate decision making. I ask whether the NWU is really serious about diversity or is diversity just a shuttlecock kept airborne to satisfy the occasional and cursory glances from our government, educational authorities, donors, prospective students, their families and the community.

Following the resurfacing of serious allegations of interfering with witnesses in the university's investigation into the 2012 drowning, on 28 May 2013 the Minister of Higher Education and Training wrote to the Minister of Police, Mr Nathi Mthethwa, MP, requesting him to institute a thorough investigation through the South African Police Services Directorate for the Priority Crime Investigation known as HAWKS, into the circumstances of the death of Mr Makhoang.

The Minister of Higher Education and Training is awaiting the finalisation of the Hawks report.

In February 2013, NWU controversially dismissed its Executive Advisor: Transformation and Diversity Management, Dr Ingrid Tufvesson, after allegations that she had questioned the transformation policy of the university. Dr Tufvesson had been appointed to the position in 2011.

5 The Department has also recently received reports that there is a culture of intimidation, harassment, fear and purging at the university in that any staff member who takes a stance on such practices is being victimised. The Department calls on the university to ensure that no such victimisation takes place, and requests that they do not go on any ‘witch hunts'. The footage speaks for itself and the university must answer to the call for transformation and deal with these issues head-on. It is bringing the whole of higher education into disrepute by continuing to defend and condone such practices.

With the latest reported incidents of first year students' initiation (die ontgroening) it is clear that the university misled the Minister in 2010 when reporting progress on transformation in their response to the Task Team on Transformation's report. Had the incident shown in the Beeld been committed clandestinely by a few students, the university could be forgiven and as such could have been considered as an isolated incident, or aberration. In the recent reports, however the activities were carried out in mass and even streamed through YouTube for the world to see. As such this incident is manifestly part of a common practice that has continued and is accepted by both the university management and Council as part of the culture of the Potchefstroom Campus of NWU.

Following the front page photos and article in the Beeld of Friday, 21 February 2014, showing the Nazi-salute incident and activities linked to what in our view can only be called initiation practices at NWU, Potchefstroom Campus, the Department has requested the university to provide a full report on this incident. Yesterday, the university submitted a report to the Minister of Higher Education and Training which he is studying and considering, and should the need arise, further action will be taken by the Department. I need to emphasise that the university must not seek to explain itself out of these incidents but act in addressing these issues.

The Department of Higher Education and Training does not and will not tolerate any unconstitutional activities that are perpetrated at higher education institutions.

Moreover, the Department does not condone any complacency by managers and governance at the institutions on such acts.

6 It is shocking that the university management defends what can only be called initiation rituals taking place at certain student residences during the orientation of new students at the Potchefstroom campus.

It is important to note that such traditions, while they may seem harmless ‘cultural' and ‘team building' events on the surface to some, contribute to a culture of exclusion and perpetuate stereotypes about race, gender and sexuality, and lead our youth to be indoctrinated into beliefs that are not in the spirit of our democracy and result in students leaving university not equipped to be part of our collective future.

The use of the Nazi "Sieg Heil" salute shown in the media and on the video is spoken of as innocent student fun by some senior staff at the institution. This is unacceptable and needs a concerted effort and education programme to change such practices.

The university by allowing such practices to be perpetuated in their residences is harming not only the institution's image and standing, but also higher education in general. However, the greater threat is that as a result of these ‘traditions' so treasured by some in the university that they will not act decisively to eradicate them, young people are damaged and indoctrinated into beliefs that will ill-equip them to make a positive contribution to our country.

Universities should be places where we teach our students to think critically, and not to be cowed conformists. If they leave our institutions ignorant, bigoted and uninformed about basic human rights, we have failed them. If they go into the world thinking it is perfectly acceptable to perform the Nazi salute while shouting "Heil PUK!" we have failed them.

Statement issued by Ms Kefilwe Manana Makhanya, Chief Director: Communication, Department of Higher Education and Training, February 25 2014

The picture as it appeared on the front page of Beeld:

 

The full video from which that image was extracted:

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