Wits’ oldest residence celebrates 100 years with an exhibition that displays their history.

To mark the Men’s Hall of Residence’s centenary year, Campus Housing and Residence Life, hosted an exhibition that displayed the rich history of Wits student accommodations. The showcase started on Wednesday, August 31, providing in-depth and detailed outlines about the establishment, traditions and cultures particular to each residence.  

Old Wits University uniforms and blazers were on display, alongside archived images of alumni, and boards with information that took attendees on an informative and interesting journey. The preservation and documentation of Wits residence history, bridges the past and present seamlessly.  

Wits, which first started as the South African School of Mines in 1896, later became a college in 1906 and gained full university status in 1922. By then, the tertiary institution had Men’s Res and Dalrymple, making them the first homes for students who attended Wits at the time. Over the years, a total of 18 campus residences have been built and occupied by over 6300 staff and students from all over the world, creating a diverse community. This reformation is a contrast to the initially segregated and gender divided spaces that were on campus.  

In the 1940’s, black students were situated in Sophiatown and Enoch Sontonga Avenue due to the Groups Areas Act. Other residences such as the Glyn Thomas House located inside Baragwanath Hospital were also built. These spaces housed both men and women, making it unique from other Wits residences.  

The exhibition, also revealed the change in traditions that existed back then. First-years from Knockando and Men’s Res underwent initiation in the 1950’s and 60’s. These initiations entailed sliding down a mud field, into a dirty pool, having to wear a black bootlace as a tie for the first month of the academic year and being upturned to leave a footprint on the ceiling.  

Attendees reading about the history of Wits throughout the years.
Photo: Malaika Ditabo

Other traditions included the drinking of a full six pack of beer in 30 minutes without any spillage to welcome in the new res house committee members. The committee also enforced dress codes that had to be followed. During the week, students were expected to wear long white flannels on the tennis court and an academic gown to supper.  

Residences used to host activities such as the “exchange dance”, where first-years from Men’s Res would select a dinner partner from Sunnyside Hall of Residence said Wits alumnae, Ismé Bennie in a 2012 edition of the Wits Review. This process involved all first-year ladies, standing at the top of the stairs until their names were called, upon the arrival of their date. Bennie said other events such as “Res dance” and Rag parade (Remember and Give) were attended by Sunnyside that had its own float. Beverlie Davies, Wits alumnae, also shared her experience, she said women in the residences also had to wear white dresses under their academic gowns when they had “formal dinner” which were from Monday to Thursday.  

Over the years, these traditions have been phased out to make space for the new traditions. Initiation, although prohibited by the institution, has remained prevalent at residences. Instead of mudslides, the committee members enforce early morning wake-up calls and long hours of singing around campuses during orientation week.  

The exhibition displayed the highs and lows in res, including the societal, economic, and cultural shift experienced at Wits. The change in times has welcomed some of the old into the new, while completely dismissing other practices in the wake of socio-economic change and democracy in South Africa.  

FEATURED IMAGE: Attendees at the exhibition viewing the boards filled with information about the residences. Photo: Malaika Ditabo