Initiation, Hazing or Orientation? A case study at a South African University

“Initiation” is derived from the Latin word initium – an “entrance” or “beginning”. Typically it involves a rite of passage or ceremony marking acceptance into a group (gang, team, age cohort)of some kind. Metaphorically it can involve “a transformation, in which the initiate is ‘reborn’ and starts afresh in a new role. This definition applies to many harmless and socially accepted induction ceremonies such as baptism, confirmation or university graduation, each of which has clearly defined objectives, and serves a useful purpose of introducing, acclimatising and ‘starting’ an individual in a new and foreign (possibly uncomfortable) environment.

However, increasingly in the modern world, and in tertiary institutions, the word ‘initiation’ has come to refer to activities that are potentially humiliating or degrading, often involving some coersion, and the risk of emotional or physical harm. In America, the term “hazing” is the common equivalent. While mild initiation may involve nothing more than the pranks or antics of young students, there are forms of initiation imposed by the group on a newcomer that lead to harassment, abuse and humiliation. When peer pressure is exerted by a group on other individuals in order that they ‘voluntarily’ conform to norms, under the threat of ostracization or other negative consequences, one moves into a very different and negative interpretation of the word ‘initiation’, and it is this concept that is explored further in this paper.

Hoover and Pollard’s (1999) National Survey in the United States of some 60,000 student athletes from 2,400 institutions revealed that a quarter of them experienced some form of hazing in order to join a team. Of these, one in five were forced to do something or humiliated in some way, half of these acts involved alcohol and 2/3 involved embarrassing apparel, sleep deprivation, or unhygienic behaviour.

In the most comprehensive survey to date of 53 institutions in the United States involving over 11,000 undergraduates, Allen and Madden defined hazing as “any activity expected of someone joining or participating in a group that humiliates, degrades, abuses, or endangers them regardless of a person’s willingness to participate” (2008:2) These behaviours are embarrassing, dangerous, and potentially illegal, and typically include alcohol consumption; public humiliation; isolation; sleep-deprivation (including being woken very late or early); public performances or skits of a potentially embarrassing nature; being made to sing or chant with a group in a public situation; wearing clothing that is potentially embarrassing; acting as a servant to others; associating only with specific people, being tied up or confined, being dropped off at an unfamiliar location, drinking large amounts (of water or alcohol), and performing or miming of sexual acts (op. cit. 2008:9).

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(Author: Vivian de Klerk

Published by Macrothink Institute)