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Alcohol in SU student accommodation

Temporary abolishment of the consumption and trade of alcohol in SU residences and PSO houses

The past year has been a difficult one for many of our students and the living and learning communities on our campuses, as we were greeted by a number of tragedies and unfortunate events that took place. Two such incidents immediately come to mind. Firstly, when a first-year student who lived in a residence, passed away after the decision was made to end his life support. He had been admitted to hospital after presumably aspirating. The specific circumstances that contributed to his death are not clear. But there had been speculation that he had consumed a lot of alcohol, and also rumours that there was some kind of drinking game or ritual or residence tradition involved. The second example is something that has been in the news a lot the past months and continues to be a strong focus at SU and actually nationwide and globally: gender-based violence. In other words, sexual assault, harassment and rape perpetrated by men against women.

In a recent communication to the Matie community, the Council of Stellenbosch University (SU) strongly condemned gender-based violence and welcomed the ongoing engagement between management and students in this regard. Council also expressed concern at alcohol abuse among students and requested all stakeholders to do more to combat this problem. We have to now step-up and take ownership of how we are going to combat the difficulties that make our living and learning communities unsafe and unwelcoming spaces for many of our students and newcomers.

In an attempt to tackle the issue of alcohol abuse among students, the Rectorate of SU decided that the trade of alcohol in residences and their “clubs" would be abolished. In light of this decision, the Residence Rules that form the community guidelines of the living and learning communities at SU, have to be reviewed, in particular the sections of the Residence Rules that deal with the use of alcohol in residences. This has to be done in order to codify the decision that the Rectorate has taken and will take place over the next few months, to be concluded mid-2020.

How do we bring the ideas of a drinking culture and gender-based violence together? There is a chapter in journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell's latest book that does exactly that. It is called “The Fraternity Party", contained in the book, Talking to Strangers (2019).  Gladwell analyses the link between campus drinking culture and sexual assault. His case studies are from the US and the UK, but it is applicable to us in SA as well. In particular, it is relevant to discussions about both alcohol abuse and gender-based violence at SU. What is really interesting about Malcolm Gladwell's chapter, was the information he presents, based on his research, about the effect of alcohol. And about drinking culture at universities … specifically binge-drinking.

The critic Emily Yoffe writes in Slate magazine: “Let's be totally clear: Perpetrators are the ones responsible for committing their crimes. Because – and here's the clincher – 'our drunken, blacked-out selves are not the same as our sober selves.' And that applies to men and women. If you are drunk, you are vulnerable – because of what you might do or of what might be done to you. We are not saying gender-based violence takes place because of alcohol abuse; or worse, that being drunk is an excuse for your behaviour. What we are saying is that alcohol abuse is wrong and gender-based violence is wrong. And we have a problem with both." Gladwell refers to binge-drinking culture among students and other young people in America and England. We also have that problem in South Africa, including here on our own campus.

Gender-based violence elicits righteous anger, and combating it is a righteous cause. The University has condemned gender-based violence, and management has entered into talks with students who are mobilising against the scourge. We have received a useful memorandum from the Anti-GBV Movement SU, and we have provided an extensive response. Four meetings have taken place late last year, and now we are jointly setting up working groups to tackle various aspects of the problem of gender-based violence.

In order for us to make the most of this period of the review of the Residence Rules and re-envision the way in which we want to deal with alcohol in residences and PSOs, the Division Student Affairs decided that no alcohol will be allowed to be consumed in SU student accommodation or on its premises, until such a time that the Residence Rules have been reviewed and the renewed terms have been agreed upon by the different communities. This is effective 1 January 2020. Once the rules have been reviewed, these principles will be supported in the Disciplinary Code for Students. The University will act against residences or individuals who are found guilty of transgressions.

In short:

  • From 1 January 2020 no alcohol will be allowed to be consumed in SU student accommodation or on its premises. Alcohol is not allowed to be stored in residences and the display of empty bottles or tins that is recognizable as alcoholic beverages is not allowed. 
  • When alcohol is found in student accommodation it will be confiscated and destroyed. 
  • The storing and consuming of alcohol in student accommodation will be dealt with as a residence disciplinary matter and repeated offences become a central SU student disciplinary matter. 
  • These rules stay in place until new residence rules, that have the positive impact of changing the binge drinking culture to a culture where drinking limits consumers' Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) to 0,08%, are agreed upon. 

In a recent conversation with campus community leaders, Prof Wim de Villiers, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of SU, said that the right thing for all residences to do is to proactively evaluate their respective cultures and traditions and constitutions against the values of the University. “What are our five values? ECARE – excellence, compassion, accountability, respect, equity. Everything we do should be in line with these values," De Villiers added. “The term 'responsible use of alcohol' in itself is not helpful in regulating the use of alcohol. This is especially so when the use of alcohol is the social norm and it is not clearly and universally understood when a user crosses the threshold to irresponsible use."

We urge our students to make the most of this opportunity, by engaging with the Division Student Affairs on this topic and exploring the ways in which you would like your respective living and learning communities to use alcohol in and around your residences and PSO houses. We are open to a period of engaging conversations with our students about the ways in which we will combat these difficulties, to make our living and learning communities safe and welcoming spaces for all.

Dr Choice Makhetha
Senior Director: Student Affairs