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06 February 2024 | Story Dr Munita Dunn-Coetzee | Photo SUPPLIED
Munita Dunn-Coetzee
Dr Munita Dunn-Coetzee is Director: Student Counselling and Development, Division of Student Affairs, University of the Free State.

Opinion Article by Dr Munita Dunn-Coetzee, Director: Student Counselling and Development, Division of Student Affairs, University of the Free State.

The discovery of two hidden rooms with disturbing images and materials at Wilgenhof Men’s Residence (Stellenbosch University) last month has rekindled conversations about hazing and hazing practices. Wilgenhof, with a manifesto emphasising it as a place of belonging where all are free to be themselves, is described as a ‘house of horrors’, as punishment was seemingly doled out to male students as determined by an informal disciplinary committee.

Hazing is an ancient, universal practice. In society, whether past or modern, the need to join a group is an aspect of humanity. Hazing in educational institutions tends to occur as part of the hidden curriculum and manifests in a cyclical nature, for example, at the beginning of an academic year. A number or practices are associated with joining groups – it may take the form of a rite of passage, a ceremony, hazing, or paying a fee. The goal of participating in hazing activities is to be admitted and accepted in the group. By participating, prospective members can also prove their commitment to the group. When people freely choose to undergo a difficult initiation, it often increases their commitment and group cohesion – they need to believe the price of membership was worth it. The whole point of hazing is to build solidarity between members of a group.

Successfully navigating intimate, reciprocal relationships

The cohort of students joining higher education in South Africa typically fall in the 18- to 25-year-old range, and thus within the developmental phase of emerging adulthood. Erik Erikson, a German American child psychoanalyst known for his theory on psychosocial development of human beings, emphasised that this stage of development is about successfully navigating intimate, reciprocal relationships with others. A developmental need at university is therefore to fit in, to belong to a group, and to be part of campus activities – it brings security and protection. Hazing, however traumatising or painful, fulfils a developmental need.

Research has shown that the length of time for young people to actually create a personal identity has increased to the mid-to-late 20s. Emerging adulthood in Western culture can therefore be a time of shifting identities. This brings about a continued risk of experimentation with unhealthy behaviour. They are no longer minors and are faced with two additional life challenges: increased adult responsibilities and decreased familial support. From the onset of puberty through age 25, the adolescent brain undergoes profound changes in structure and function. A core element in the journey to adulthood involves the attainment of autonomy – on an emotional and behavioural level – learning to make your own decisions and manage your own emotions. Another developmental need is thereby met through hazing practices. 

Psychological consequences of hazing

While a few hazing rituals may appear mildly risky, many rituals cross the line. It is believed that humans are psychologically wired to form social groups in response to a threat, and this is what makes hazing effective in creating group identity. Despite the fact that hazing is potentially fatal and emotionally damaging, it is also believed that new students should have the same hazing experience as their predecessors. The hazing culture is therefore reproduced and enforced.

The psychological consequences of hazing can be rife. The concept of hazing is built upon psychological manipulation, degradation, and humiliation. Negative consequences that might have lasting effects include sleep problems, difficulty forming relationships, difficulty trusting others, decreased self-esteem, depressive tendencies, anxiety, self-harming tendencies, as well as academic underperformance. Unfortunately, hazing can also consist of social isolation, forced exercise, excessive drinking, and activities with a sexual innuendo. This results in embarrassing, abusive, exploitative, and dangerous activities. 

A student who has experienced hazing might feel a loss of control and empowerment, feeling more like a victim than before the hazing. This may appear directly after the hazing or later. Students who might have experienced traumatic events prior to hazing are more at risk for negative psychological reactions to hazing. This also applies to students witnessing hazing. They may experience feelings of guilt and shame for not having intervened to assist the hazing victim. And ironically, those who initiate hazing are not horrible, malicious human beings. They may believe the actions are expected of them and that they are carrying on a tradition for their residence. Those who haze others may also experience some of the same psychological consequences. We need to also remember that these psychological consequences would be significantly exacerbated should a student pass away due to a hazing-related activity. 

Will you still send him?

The focus thus far has been on the student, but what about the student’s parents, caregivers, and support system? Within the South African education system, not all South Africans have access to higher education. As a student finishing Grade 12, your dream is to enter tertiary education and to become the one breaking the cycle of poverty. Despite claiming that a university is a welcoming community assisting students to optimise their potential, hazardous hazing activities – such as the current discourse on Wilgenhof’s ‘house of horrors’ – have far-reaching negative physical and psychological consequences for both parents and students. 

Joining any group or team should not mean sacrificing your psychological health and well-being. It should be optimising your sense of self and enriching you systemically. If your son has been accepted at Wilgenhof Men’s Residence for 2024, will you still send him?

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