Staaltjies

Staaltjie of the Month

 
Staaltjie of the month is an initiative where once a month a new staaltjie (story) will be posted . These stories will relate to the history of Wilgenhof, describing events that have shaped Wilgenhof into the place it is today.

Wilgenhof: a Western Bekfluitjie or an African Village?

~Pieter Conradie and Treasure Gamede

Abstract: in which Pieter and Treasure deconstructs a certain public image of Wilgenhof from the perspective of their hool (room): B8, Old Bachelors, Wilgenhof. From this vantage point we, as fourth year residents of Willows, look out over the kwod and our past experiences here. The residents of Wilgenhof have at times been seen as a barbarian horde of hooligans who perpetuate a culture of toxic masculinities and white patriarchal privilege. It is our mission to investigate this image through a nuanced review of Wilgenhof’s architecture, practices and people.

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With today’s increasing emphasis on identities, the question “What sort of person are you?” becomes of utmost importance. Similarly the hallmark of various societies is the sort of people they create. Wilgenhof over the ages have fostered many critical and innovative leaders as well as violent and unthinking fools. The point of this essay is not to compare various Wilgenhof alumni, rather it is to analyse the different humanisms that are supported by its practices. Humanisms here refer to a culture’s way of being-in-the-world, or simply, what a culture deems ‘being a decent human being’. On the table are two opposing worldviews: Western Humanism in which individual excellence is championed and African Humanism in which an interconnected community is the ideal. In the next sections we will expand on these concepts and consider how they are applicable to life in Wilgenhof.

The characteristics of African Humanism
 

As a young boy growing up, I [Treasure] had a lot of my cousins visiting and at some points even living with us for months. Growing up in a house that was consistently full of family was amazing, sharing a bed with my cousin as we would pretend to be WWE stars before going to sleep are memories that still make me smile to this day. Everybody was treated equally, as if we were all brother and sister. We all got disciplined the same when we were being naughty. My cousin and I got a lot of disciplining since we were so naughty! We also got equal responsibilities and chores to do around the house. Mostly, we were all loved the same. There was really never a shortage of laughs and love in the house. These memories make me think of how back in the day (my grandparents’ days) a child was raised by the community, meaning, everybody helped each other and made sure that no one’s child was crossing lines or unfairly treated.

Another example of African Humanism that I saw in my life was at my sister’s lobola (traditional wedding). On the morning of my sister’s lobola, all my aunts came to my house and started cooking for the celebration that was going to take place later that afternoon. My uncles and cousins arrived a bit later, once they arrived we got the fire started for the braai and started braaing the meat. This day opened my eyes to how we as a family would always be there for each other as there was no catering company hired. Once it was time to eat, everybody was dished up and we all ate in one common area. People who weren’t even invited were dished up and allowed to eat with the group and this was because where I’m from, a lobola isn’t just for the family, it’s for everybody since that one child wasn’t just raised by the family but by the whole community.

These two moments in my life clearly showed what African humanism is: an interconnected community that focuses less on an individual’s success and more on the whole group’s success. It’s one where stories are passed down through storytelling (verbally), one where everybody is welcome. Like every social construct, African humanism has its downfalls. People are expected to play a certain role from a very young age (limited freedom of choice), yet such expectations also still play a role in Western Humanism.

The characteristics of Western Humanism

[If you are tired of reading about the society you probably live in, feel free to skip ahead to the next section, taking these words with you: ambition, excellence, isolation, development, alienation, success, exclusion and individual.]

The first traces of Western humanism as we know it today emerged in the Renaissance with writers such as Giovanni Pico della Mirandola claiming that Man (and unfortunately at the time he meant men only) is magnificent, because he is indeterminate and free to shape his own destiny. This means that Man has no definite place in the universe (for example no fixed identity as children of some divinity or as apex primates), rather he must create himself. He cannot be who he is, he is who he becomes. This idea lies at the heart of ambition, aspiration and a goal-driven society. Crucially man chooses to excel (to be excellent) as an individual and when he associates with other people it is to further his own ideals. Society strives towards success, especially in science and technology, but is an isolated success in which an increasing amount of surveillance and control is enacted upon individuals.

Today Western humanism is still the driving force of society as we know it. In cities we see it in isolating architecture and self-help books which sells you the idea that you can be a better you. The song “Little Boxes on the Hill-side” famously exemplifies the lifestyle of Western humanism in which everyone has their private little place. These ‘boxes’ would be connected to other places through roads, elevators, railways etc. and you would also find places in which people are specifically supposed to bond, i.e. coffee shops, bars and lounges. These spaces can further be booked for private events. In fact, most social events, such as weddings, birthdays and even funerals operate on an invite-only system. This is supposed to give a limited number of people a quality experience, but is obviously exclusionary.

Since almost everyone is a stranger, you would also have explicit social contracts which stipulate what a person should do and may not do. Formal constitutions, contracts and regulations are hallmarks of this sort of society. If you were to contravene these documents, the law would treat you as a threat and lock you away. Isolation and punishment, not rehabilitation and reintegration, is the strong arm of a Western penal system.

There has been much praise and much critique of Western society. For people who are part of its structures, it grounds an easy life in hard work. For those who are excluded from the structure, it makes opportunities very hard to find. And while overall human development has skyrocketed, it is built on depersonalised practices, alienated labour and mass poverty. I [Pieter] see Western Humanism as the spacecraft that is hurtling headlong into infinity.

Wilgenhof under Western Humanism: the Bekfluitjie

Wilgenhof, commonly known as Die Plek, is built not only to bring different people from different places together but to assist each individual to succeed and perform at their best. This can be seen from the structure of the rooms. Each room is identical and motivates everybody to be secluded and focused. Especially nowadays with the Bo-bed project, the freedom to create your own room layout has been replaced by one design fits all, making the rooms primarily spaces of study. Rooms are no longer really open places where you can chill with your friends. Instead, you also see bonding places such as the pub, Snookerhool and Tantrap in Die Plek, which Pieter points out as a characteristic of Western Humanism.

Another characteristic would be the paid events we host. These are not inclusive as they clearly separate those with money to those without as many without can therefore not attend and get the chance to enjoy with the rest. Many Wilgenhof events are free, such as culture evenings, book clubs, critical thinking sessions, quad sports and so forth, but you need a ticket for almost all the main events. This is clearly not the sort of practice one would see under African Humanism with its emphasis on open invitation. To counter this Wilgenhof has created the Ben Johnson system, which provides Wilgenhoffers the opportunity to take out an interest-free loan from the House Fund.

A further sign of Western Humanism is the great variety of rules Wilgenhof has. You are expected to memorise these rules during welcoming week. Examples are the times when you may make noise and where and when you may smoke, leave your clothes or clean crayfish. Some of the practices are shared through storytelling (for example why you must stop at the biesie-crossing and why you may not step on the pink foot), but the ones which organise our lives are mostly found in the constitution. Very few people actually read the constitution. Similarly the roles and responsibilities of elected committees and what we call whammies are split up and documented. This suggests that the way Wilgenhof functions is primarily Western, which can be strange and discomforting for people who do not understand how this sort of society works. It also means that you are not always aware of the expectations and opportunities which you must make use of if you want to stand for leadership.

Wilgenhof under African Humanism: the Village

One of the first striking features of Die Plek is its architecture. While the individual hoole used to give the Bekfluitjie its name (if not the amalgamation of Harmonie + Monica → Harmonica), life in Wilgenhof is centred around the kwod. During raastye (noise slots) we usually play kwottie, pump music, sit on the piwwies and watch other Wilgenhoffers go about their day-to-day. We greet each other by the name. We build Bigfires and dance around them. We speak our own lingo. We even zhower together. Many of the doors in the Hoek Ms Jones do not have proper latches so if we want to, we speak to one another face to face while taking a bositter.

Everything major in Wilgenhof is centred around the community. While there are places like the pub, Tantrap and Znookerhool specifically tailored for getting together, the most memorable conversations take place on the stoepe. Furthermore, lunch is a compulsory event where Wilgenhoffers share meals, chats and woes about their latest engineering projects. During such lunches recent announcements, news and banter are read. It must however be noted that not all Wilgenhoffers feel as at home during lunch. While we use English for all official communication, institutional multilingualism has not yet flourished throughout the spheres of table conversations and jokes in front of the House.

Our oral history is the most significant evidence for describing Wilgenhof as an African Village. Stories (staaltjies) are the binding fabric of our culture. Every year during welcoming we tell the newcomers some of the stories that Wilgenhof has accumulated over the years, as well as sharing our lingo, some of our strange practices and mythologies (for example if you weigh less that 50kg, you may not walk unattended in the kwod for fear that the Falcon will carry you away). It is not only Wilgenhof’s stories that are shared. Every newcomer is given the opportunity to tell one of their own stories from before they came to the Plek. These stories create a true sense of brotherhood through shared blunders, success, intimacy, and vulnerability. They can be humorous or deeply personal. They are the element of Wilgenhof that I am proudest of.

Upon leaving Willows, the oumanne (alumni) are also given an opportunity to tell your story at Ramdinee after an award ceremony. These stories usually reflect upon your years here, of times spent with your hoolie (roommate) and of your most vivid memories. Some of them are composed in poetry, some are rambles exceeding 20 minutes. It is an ouman’s last chance to address the House before they start coming back, because the oumanne always come back. In this way they are somewhat like ancestral spirits, praised and remembered for many years after they leave. And if you’re lucky, you’ll see their spectral remnants happily traversing the Rooi Plein or other spheres of life.

Conclusions

The distinction between Wilgenhof as a Western bekfluitjie or an African village seems all but conclusive. Beyond the usual difficulties of casting questions of degree into absolute terms, there genuinely seems to be evidence pulling either way. Our Ground Principles sense of Individuality and sense of Community are all too narrowly interwoven with Respect and Critical Thinking. The overlaps are connective threads adhering to people of a single Plek. The only answer we might give (other than there being no answer) is this: that as an institution Wilgenhof strives towards individual Excellence, but its Spirit embodies a connected community of the most profound kind.

We end with a brief warning about building one’s community too strong. Be warned: Inclusion is Exclusion. If you focus too much on establish strong bonds with your Republic (sections in Wilgenhof are called Republics with the exception of Pieter’s old Republic which, he insists, should be called an Empire) you may struggle to integrate with the rest of the community. Similarly if you focus only on connecting with Wilgenhoffers, you may struggle to engage with Cluster and what we call the Skewe Wêreld. This might be why Wilgenhoffers have kept themselves so secluded in the past.

There is a choice in where you define yourself and which rhizomatic threads you spread into other communities. Inclusion works on the premise of excluding everyone else. Walls, made of bricks and language, give us dimension, comfort and meaning. We will keep on erecting this great unfinished symphony that is Wilgenhof and perhaps it is time to share one another’s stories about inhabiting both individual and communal identities in this complex social world.

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