In the fortnight since Theuns du Toit urinated on the laptop and other belongings of Babalo Ndwanyana in Huis Marais Residence at Stellenbosch University (SU) the incident has received daily national coverage without pause.
Du Toit faces criminal charges of housebreaking, malicious damage to property and crimen injuria, but without using the word ‘racist’ the media frenzy would be inexplicable.
The Mail & Guardian published an editorial that begins, ‘His name is Theuns du Toit. Remember it. He is the latest face of racism in South Africa.’ It goes on to say, ‘What happened at Stellenbosch University – do not be fooled – was a racist act.’
Du Toit is widely accused of racist animus. Over 100 000 people signed a petition calling for his expulsion on the basis that he committed a ‘racially motivated attack’. (Curiously the petition already had 102 000 by the time it got national news coverage seven days ago. Since hitting the limelight it has only garnered a further 2 000 signatures.) Last week’s Sunday papers all included op-eds headlining the incident as ‘racist’ and condemning Du Toit without attempting to give his version.
Powerful leaders including the Minister of Higher Education, Blade Nzimande, have denounced the suspended first-year law student ‘in the strongest possible terms’ as having acted ‘in the most egregious and abominable racist manner’.
Chancellor of SU, and former Constitutional Court Justice, Edwin Cameron said the incident made him feel ‘grief-stricken, ashamed as a man, as a white man, that things like that can still happen’.
Pierre de Vos, a law professor at UCT, took matters further, saying Du Toit committed an act of ‘spectacular racism‘. According to De Vos, ‘some’ people deny this incident was motivated by racism because they are racist ‘white South Africans’ who lack ‘humanity’ and/or ‘intelligence’.
Whatever actually motivated Du Toit, who is reported to have had non-racial attitudes in high school and no bad blood with Ndwanyana, exams have been postponed across SU to accommodate students’ ‘mental health and emotional state’. Apparently traumatized protesters are desperately asking ‘am I the next toilet?‘ to be abused by a forthcoming tsunami of vicious white racist urinators.
For all that I am not convinced the act was racist, or that expulsion would be just. In UrineGate II I will lay out the forensic case for this point; here I intend to do something that might seem more light-hearted. I want to tell you three strange tales of bedroom urination and redemption in arguably the most ‘elite’ university on earth.
At the end of every academic year in May Princeton University, top-ranked in the US, hosts a ‘Reunions’ party, with attendance averaging around 20 000. GQ covered the event when I was a student, providing this context:
‘Reunions weekend is probably the largest regular alumni gathering in the world. Historically, the level of alcohol consumption here exceeds that of every other event in America save the Indy 500. The school mascot is the tiger, and Reunions is defined by blackout drunkenness and blaze orange disorder. To be clear, not all of the events directly involve getting shitfaced. The schedules are dense with memorial services and prayer services and community-service projects. But really, the main point is getting shitfaced. Anthropologists refer to this kind of debauchery—bonding by way of getting smashed—as the pursuit of conscious excess. The multigenerational aspect heightens the sense of disappearing into a tradition and a collective identity. The most passionate Reunions fan I know—a ’97 who hasn’t missed a year since first sneaking in as a freshmen [sic]—opines that the profusion of ridiculous costumes we wear encourage the event to become ‘a platform for creative absurdity.’
In one vignette, ‘a kid pissed in a cup, tucked himself in, popped his collar, and briefly humped the nearest girl’. In another, ‘We lurched around to the most youthful corner of the bacchanal, where the nooks of the buildings, covered in ivy and draped in shadow, witness desperate kisses, steaming pisses, restorative vomiting bouts.’
Someone like De Vos will be fascinated by the author’s race. Troy Patterson is a black Princeton alum who went from GQ to Bloomberg to The New Yorker to name a few. What I find interesting about this account is that Patterson both criticizes and celebrates what we would call ‘the jol’, drinking to excess. Public urination goes hand in glove with binge drinking from Hillbrow to Harvard, but reports like Patterson’s might give you the sense that there really is something a bit extra to be said about Princeton University. SU has a reputation for being old and boozy, but Princeton University was home to ‘tavern haunting’ since 1746 and the debauched bacchanals that unfolded there ever since horrified the neighbours while fascinating a chunk of the world because the piss-ups never stopped Princeton from achieving the top academic ranking in the US for undergraduate students while sustaining an intellectual powerhouse that produced five Nobel prizes last year alone.
As a former campus celebrity called ‘Professor Shitface’ used to toast (whether drinking Veuve or two-dollar vodka), ‘Think the best, drink the best – cheers, Princeton!’
Princeton P***cat 1 – The Neighbour’s Drawer
If that all sounds a bit obnoxious that’s because it is. Millions of people from universities around the world will have similar stories to tell about drunken mishaps and hard-work hangovers, but the universal university problem of dealing with people learning to drink gets a specially sharp expression at Princeton because it is so famously boozy. In my experience at Princeton drunk people did not just piss outside, some specifically pissed inside one another’s bedrooms and on one another’s stuff and I think everybody involved in SU UrineGate could learn about the Ivy League way to deal with that possibility.
In my first year there was the dinnertime confession from a pal over salmon and steak. He felt awful, couldn’t really eat. Something first seemed wrong to him when he woke up at 3pm without any recollection of the last 18 hours. When he came back from lunch (really breakfast) he saw an A4 page stuck to his door that said something like, ‘Someone came into my room last night and urinated into my sock drawer. I couldn’t see who it was, please don’t do that again.’ It was signed by a freshman female who was at once terrified and polite. The same message was pasted to every door in the corridor and on the floor above. His gut knotted, the flashbacks haunted him. ‘It was me,’ he admitted.
He was blackout drunk and made a wrong turn in the residence corridor, mistook her bedroom door for the bathroom, unleashed. The lights were off, and he couldn’t find the switch. He cursed the old building with its confusing layout and bedroom doors that didn’t lock. ‘Cut the excuses,’ I said ‘What the hell were you thinking?’ He could hardly remember. Sometimes he said he swore he really thought it was a toilet, sometimes he said the ‘wishful thinking’ part was more ‘wishful’ than ‘thinking’.
The university did not get involved, but the offender got pressure from us, his friends, to restore his honour. Among other reforms, he stopped drinking alcohol for a month and to everyone’s surprise he fell in love during purgatory. Later his date became his wife, and they remain a hard-working couple. The victim recovered and thrived without bitterness.
P***cat 2 – The Roommates TV
In second year, I was in the splash-zone myself. A friend slurred his way into my bedroom around midnight and locked the door behind him, not quite on the first attempt. Then he bungled into bed with me. You could say he wasn’t the type. He was a gym regular who could bench-press 120kg. He was straight and butch. But there he was wearing nothing but undies, clinging to me like a koala.
I started counting the ways to say ‘thanks but no thanks’ while keeping an eye on my textbook. There was a multivariable calculus equation I was halfway working through, practice for an exam I had to take in 10 hours. Part of me hoped that if I just kept studying he might pass out before any of us had to deal with this extraordinary ‘coming out’ moment.
Except I had the situation all wrong. My friend was clasping me in fear, not amore. ‘Gonna kill me. G, save me’. It felt like I was smelling the words and listening to the whiskey breath, but for all that I was relieved until another friend started bashing in the door, ‘I know you’re in there! I’m going to kill you!!’
So you probably guessed by now the one guy urinated a torrent of hardly processed alcohol-urine onto the other’s flatscreen TV. Those two tough guys shared a bedroom and were best friends. The pisscat had no malice, he was just drunk to delusion. He later said he realized something was wrong from the moment of release (and relief!) so he pointed his translucent arch into the corner, onto a pile of textbooks and homework assignments. Then his ankles moistened, because his jeans soaked so much urine that osmosis was beating gravity. Then he heard the TV owner coming home, drunkenly singing through the window, at which point he tried turning the TV on, you know, just to see if it worked. That bombed it, sparks flying, speakers buzzing, flashing a kaleidoscopic cadenza across the screen which ended black where the urine struck, rainbow on the fringe, and amazingly the TV still worked in the top-right corner where the urine never reached. Seeing that, my friend realized he needed help.
I did what I could. To stop them from brawling I cleaned the urine with paper towels. The offender slept in my bed while I studied in another TV-room until I had coffee for breakfast, followed by three more coffees for good luck. After that things were touch and go, but we all pushed through, apologies were made and accepted.
The offender was a scholarship boy (like me) so he took double-shifts mopping the dining hall floor for almost a year to pay back some of the TV money, which changed him.
My friend the p***cat who slept under bushes became my friend the scholar and gentleman. By fourth year he was voted a student leader who spent most evenings cooking study-snacks for 80 people and most nights shepherding drunkards, breaking up fights, and cleaning up vomit. After graduating he moved to a tough spot and used his more sophisticated skills to serve the needy with a big-impact multiplier.
P***cat 3 – The Horror
In my third year a friend said, ‘I need your help, I think [name hidden] has gone mad’. This was the worst case of all.
These guys lived in a bunkbed situation. The friend who came to me was on the bottom bunk. The top bunker had been getting too drunk to find the toilet recently so he would keep empty Valpre bottles in his bed to decant beer-urine swill into at 3am. That was gross but tolerable for the bottom bunker, until one night the top didn’t close the cap properly, so a drip-drip came down the side of the bunk along with a pong. My friend kicked the bed above him and swore, but that only dislodged the bottle and opened the cap, which meant the chap underneath got soaked in his friend’s piss. He raged and banged his head by mistake into the bed above him, but the one on top just kept snoring, so the bottom bunker left in a huff.
The next day the offended party came back to quietly move out permanently in an act of passive aggression that would have helped no one except the psychoanalyst. However, his plan was thrown off by a funky smell loitering at the door of the top bunker’s cupboard, which was half unlocked. Like that suitcase in Pulp Fiction when the cupboard split opened the colour yellow emanated into the room and at this point my friend said, ‘I can’t explain it, G, come see’.
Inside stood about eight months’ worth of Valpre bottles filled with piss. I would say two dozen at a minimum. In some cases the ammonia seemed to have sublimated. In some bottles there were layers of thick black-green fur above yellow layers of ooze above what looked like clear water. The Princeton chemistry department might have done battle with both the biology and physics departments to analyze that natural experiment. I came from the philosophy department and I asked myself the helpless but relatable question, ‘Why?’
There was an odd stain on one of the lower shelves. ‘I vomited when I first opened it,’ my friend explained, ‘just like that’. I could sympathize.
Time and hard conversations in the days to come revealed that the offender did not need DSM 5 psychiatric treatment, he just needed to figure out something important in his life, which he did with a little help from his friends. He is now a niche-famous success.
The point of these three stories is not just that drunks sometimes do what Du Toit did without any racial animus, or any malicious intent towards others whatsoever. Self-destructive behaviour always harms others. The point is that the problem called binge drinking or alcohol abuse should be tackled seriously, preferably at an early age when it is often at its most bizarre, and that tackling it can produce good outcomes. Reform is possible.
I love a drink, and I haven’t been to a bachelor’s party where everybody urinated in the toilet, but I had to learn respect for C2H6O from the university of hard knocks. Drawing the line is difficult, and essential. One can be so drunk that one is literally pissed. Other times it is worse.
One of my best friends went to Stellenbosch in 2008 and died by May that year in a car accident that involved drunk driving. How common is that?
Well, this study, coordinated through arms of UNISA and the SAMRC, estimated that 27.1% of road accident deaths between 2016 and 2018 were the result of drunk driving. That amounts to about 9,120 deaths in the three-year period, or 8.3 people killed in drunk driving incidents per day.
This study focused on alcohol-related medical ailments and found, astonishingly, that approximately 62 300 adults died from ‘alcohol-attributable causes’ in South Africa in 2015. In other words, 170 human beings die per day in this country from alcohol abuse, not including the eight who die from drunk driving.
Since Du Toit urinated on Ndwanyana’s belongings, roughly 2 500 people died from alcohol abuse.
Why does that matter? Because maybe alcohol abuse is the problem here. In 2019 Leandró Hopley died from binge drinking at SU. I don’t know any recent deaths from racism at SU, but I do know Du Toit’s drunkenness is one thing we know about this case, common cause from the witnesses and evident from the video. Whatever else there is to say about the incident Du Toit is clearly one of millions of SA youth (and several at SU) that are in hard need of a lesson about C2H6O.
Alcohol abuse also gets vicious. According to SAPS data, there were 31 322 cases of murder, attempted murder and assaults during the year before the pandemic that involved a perpetrator who was ‘confirmed to be under the influence of alcohol’. That is 85 cases of alcohol-infused violence per day. I have strong reasons to doubt that Du Toit was performing a racist attack, but even if he was, if his critics were at all serious, they would not only admit that he appeared to be intoxicated, they would mention how this connects to a bigger problem at SU and in SA more broadly.
Rape was excluded from the alcohol-related violent crime calculation above, although there is likely to be a strong connection between alcohol abuse and sexual violence. 10 000 rapes took place in three months last year, or 103 per day, in South Africa, with an unknown alcohol factor.
SU has such a problem with alcohol abuse in general, and alcohol-related sexual abuse in particular, that it banned alcohol from student housing just before the pandemic. (Banning is not the solution). Last week there was an alleged double-rape at SU under circumstances that remain entirely mysterious, which I have tried without success to clear up by a week of correspondence with the NPA.
Minister Nzimande is eager to say racism is the problem in UrineGate, but alcohol abuse goes unmentioned. What if alcohol abuse is the problem in UrineGate and also the biggest problem at SU? Why have zero thought-leaders even considered that possibility, and where does the public ignorance about deranged urination leave pisscats in need of tough, but ultimately friendly, support? At best they remain lost, at worst more will die without heed.
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