The story of Wilgenhof begins more than two centuries ago. Wilgenhof’s oldest building, Old Bachelor’s, was originally built as a farmhouse in 1799 and is honoured today as a national heritage site. Beginning with Lord Charles Somerset in 1817, the land has changed hands multiple times. By the time Ryneveld Street was laid down in 1832, the dirt road past Wilgenhof had been years old – and so the rest of Stellenbosch was built skew with respect to Wilgenhof. In 1832, Wilgenhof was repurposed to be a distillery and starting in 1875, when the second floor was built, accommodation was offered to boarders in town. In 1881 the name was changed to ‘Willow Grove”, affectionately known as ‘The Willows’, due to the large amount of willow trees on the premises.
Christiaan Marais, the owner-director of the Board of Managers of Wilgenhof Boarding Establishment, truly established Wilgenhof in 1903. Marais referred to it as a “house for youngsters from elsewhere in South Africa coming here for the continuation of their studies” (“huis voor jongelingen die elders in Zuid-Afrika herwaarts komen ter voortzetting hunnen studren”). In 1904 the residence could take 110 boarders and in that year Bob Loubsher became Wilgenhof’s first Springbok rugby player (perhaps Paul Roos, fellow house father, had a hand in that) – this was the beginning of a 45-year period (1904 – 1949) where no Springbok test match was played without a Wilgenhoffer in their ranks.
In 1906, newcomers were welcomed into Wilgenhof for the first time – and although the welcoming period has been continuously reinvented, it is a persistent phenomenon that Wilgenhoffers are no longer the same after the first few weeks. This has been the cause of much speculation by the rest of the Stellenbosch community, but it comes down to newcomers internalising our four Ground Principles: Respect, Individuality, Sense of Community and Critical Thinking. This lens has enabled old-Wilgenhoffers embody excellence in their fields, including many statesmen (including a Prime Minister), phenomenal sportstars (too many to list here), activists (including anti-Apartheid activists Frederick van Zyl Slabbert and Beyers Naudé), formidable businessmen (such as Christo Wiese, Markus Jooste and Michael Jordaan), artists (under whom Jan Rabie and Pierre Greeff), professionals (Justice Edwin Cameron), et cetera.
A singing group, the Troebadoers, originated in 1934. Their name was changed to the Kraaie in the subsequent year, as it has remained ever since. With their anthem starting “O, dis weer die Kraaie van Wilgenhof!” they became the first serenade group in Matieland. The first Kraaieloop (where the group serenades different campus residences) was born and has been an annual tradition ever since. It can be said with relative certainty that the Kraaie are one of Wilgenhof’s most well-known features. They have won the Sêr/SUAcapella mokkie (trophy) numerous times (most recently in 2019).
Wilgenhof grew slowly but surely throughout the coming decades, producing many titanic leaders. However, in 1949, after many years of structural decay, the University planned to demolish the residence and sell the property on which it stands to the Department of Education. Residents and old-Wilgenhoffers alike were appalled with the thought that their home would be razed. What followed remains one of the proudest moments in Wilgenhof history. After some negotiation, an opportunity for survival arose. Wilgenhof would be saved if it could somehow amass £15,000 (approximately R7 million today) within ten years and pay it to the University. The Rector at the time, Dr Wilcocks, infamously opined in respect of Wilgenhof that “you haven’t a hope.”
Despite the seemingly insurmountable sum, on 10 December 1959, Wilgenhoffers achieved their goal and world-renowned Dr Danie Craven handed over the £15,000 cheque that still lays in our Archive today. The cheque formed one half of the price for building a new Plek, with the University contributing the other half. The achievement of this task was thanks in large part to many reunions, fundraisers, and records and performances by the Kraaie. This is a cornerstone of our history and a paradigm of the Sense of Community that we strive for. In 1962, the residence was destroyed for reconstruction. The cornerstone of the new Plek was laid on 22 March 1963 and Wilgenhof as it stands today was erected to resemble the demolished structure. In 1964 the Wilgenhoffers returned to the residence.
Seventeen Wilgenhoffers departed on the first Wilgenhof Trans-Africa Tour (“WTAT”) in 1962, which went as far north as Kilimanjaro. Since then, multiple more WTAT’s have been undertaken, with the most recent one in 2019. Wilgenhoffers also use this opportunity to do community work in the places they visit, embodying a Sense of Community. Other charitable projects include ‘Coke and Buns’, which is where Wilgenhoffers donate their lunch to the Stellenbosch Night Shelter every Thursday, as well as the annual Kayamandi-outreach and G-Projek.
Dr Craven became Residence Head in 1967 and held this position until 8 October 1981. He was fond of saying that “the more things change, the more they stay the same”, as well as “Wilgenhof needs a crisis to survive.” We can attest to this truth even today. The centenary reunion was held in 2003 and more than a thousand old-Wilgenhoffers attended the festivities. It was an unforgettable experience to see Die Plek again – the place where they had spent the best days of their lives.
In line with the principle of Critical Thinking, Wilgenhof is committed to grow and reinvent itself continuously. That being said, our history is incredibly important to us because it serves as a reminder of where we have come from. It remains the greatest educator – teaching us to learn from the successes and failures of our institution and our predecessors to become a more excellent establishment with each passing day. Drawing on the lessons of the past, it is our ultimate aim to become a world-class institution which creates a platform for the holistic development of students, so they may in turn forge a better world.
Finally, and without detracting from the above, one should always remember: “Die Plek is in sy moer!”