A number of students at UJ face disciplinary action after staff discovered they had submitted fake sick notes to avoid writing their exams on time.
Law enforcement officials have cracked a syndicate involved in providing university students with fraudulent sick notes, which allow them to cheat their way out of writing exams on time.
Hawks spokesperson Paul Ramaloko confirmed that a case of fraud has been opened in the so-called "sick note saga" and that two men had been arrested in connection with the case.
"These are boys in their early 20s, they were pretending to be doctors so if students didn't want to write their examinations at the University of Johannesburg, they were giving them doctors' certificates using false names and false practice numbers," he said.
Ramaloko said the situation had been going on for "quite a long time" and that it was clear the students knew the men were not real doctors.
"Students knew these people are not doctors and they're issuing certificates, so this managed to grant them another opportunity to write their examinations," he said.
The matter was referred to the Hawks for investigation because the operation fits the bill of an organised crime syndicate. A number of individuals are believed to be involved in the operation and law enforcement officials are expecting to make more arrests.
Ramaloko said he could not speculate further on the extent of problem as the investigation is ongoing. "We cannot say if it’s a national problem. So far it's just a UJ issue," he said.
Students at UJ say the sick note saga first came to light last week, when faculty members began investigating students suspected of having used fake sick notes to get out of taking their exams.
A notice circulating on Twitter, purportedly taken from the university’s online learning environment, warned that accounting students would receive zero for their exams if they had used fraudulent sick notes. The M&G could not confirm the veracity of the notice.
By 11am on Thursday, a list of unacceptable doctors – including a "Dr Shy K Rowling" – was circulating among students. The list has been embellished but closely matches an official list seen by the M&G.
In a statement released on Thursday afternoon, UJ said that it was investigating the claims together with the South African Police Service. The university said that if students are found to have submitted fraudulent sick notes, a disciplinary hearing will be held and "an appropriate response" would follow.
UJ's deputy vice-chancellor, Professor Adam Habib, said that while faculty members assess sick notes, in cases where lecturers, faculties or committees notice that several sick notes are issued by the same doctor, or if any other suspicious trends are observed, the university asks for students to be examined by its own healthcare practitioners at the university's Health and Wellness Centres or by a preferred healthcare professional.
"We take all allegations of unethical student or staff behavior extremely seriously and we await the outcomes of the investigations into this matter," said Habib.
SRC seeks leniency
Meanwhile, the Student Representative Council (SRC) is scrambling to support students who may have been involved in the saga. Affected students are expected to meet with the council this evening to discuss the matter.
Ali Komate, chairperson of UJ's Doornfontein campus SRC, said that the council was in the process of negotiating with both students and management. Komate said not all of the students may have been aware the sick notes they got were not legitimate.
"Some of them were not aware, some were aware. We are negotiating with management so that students who got the sick notes can be able to write their tests again," he said.
He said that while the SRC condemned the use of fake sick notes, students should not be expelled over them. "The university is investigating and there must be disciplinary action … but students must not be expelled. They must be disciplined but it should not be anything extreme," he said.
Mudslinging on social media
The hastag #UJSickNoteSaga was trending on Twitter on Thursday and, as details emerged, students from the country’s various academic institutions took the opportunity to slate each other on Twitter and Facebook.
But @sasiomendez, took offense at the criticism, especially from Damelin students, saying they "kno nothing bou degree pressures".
Meanwhile Xhanti Sivatemba joked that NMMU was "so behind" other universities because "we don't even get sick notes from Dr Wiz Khalifa & Dr Dre", and a smug Tlalane Letlhaku tweeted that while UJ & Wits students fought over the issue, UCT students were working "to make sure we keep our #1 spot in the continent".
Musa Mahlangu asked: "Why are people so sensitive? We are not judging the people who do dumb things. We are making fun of them."
Borrowing from rapper Jay-Z, Darryl Margolis tweeted: "If you got caught I feel bad for you son, you got 99 problems but exams ain’t one."
The UJ SRC on Friday distanced itself from the comments made by Komate, who has been elected to the SRC for 2013 but has yet to take on the role.
SRC president Isaac Moagi said in a statement that the UJ SRC condemned, in the strongest possible terms, the unethical behavior of students who had used the fake sick notes.
Moagi said that considering the number of students involved in the saga, the SRC is in discussion with the university management to find a possible solution. It is also awaiting the completion of the due disciplinary process.
"Every student who will be found guilty should just forfeit the credit attained in a particular module affected but still be afforded an opportunity to repeat the module in the next academic year.
"Sanctions should definitely send a strong message that the university does not tolerate academic dishonesty and fraud. However, in communicating such a message sanctions should be of corrective and rehabilitation in nature," he said.