In office for only two weeks, all 20 members of the University of the Free State’s student representative council (SRC) now face high court action from a student unionist who argues that their election violates South Africa’s Constitution.
The controversial SRC elections left many students unrepresented, final-year bachelor of administration student Motsoahae Tom Thabane told the Mail & Guardian after filing his application in the Bloemfontein High Court on Tuesday.
UFS is the first respondent in Thabane’s application, followed by new SRC president Richard Chemaly and his 19 council colleagues.
Aiming to nullify new student constitution
Thabane is “a bona fide member of Sasco [South African Students’ Congress]”, he says in his court papers, which ask the court to set aside the elections and to nullify the new student constitution in terms of which the SRC was elected.
It was this constitution, adopted in June, that fuelled controversy even before the two-day elections started on August 29, the M&G reported at the time. Claiming UFS had “banned” political activity from campus, Sasco applied that weekend for an urgent court interdict to prevent voting from starting.
The court rejected the application on the Sunday before voting began, and UFS vice-chancellor Jonathan Jansen issued a statement two days later denying that UFS had “banned” politics, adding that this was in any case “not possible in a constitutional democracy”.
For the first time, candidates in this year’s SRC elections were not allowed to represent any organisations, the M&G reported. This had followed Sasco-led disruptions of last year’s inter-varsity events between UFS and North West University.
Sasco said at the time that North West was “racist” and “untransformed”. UFS obtained an urgent interdict against further Sasco action, suspended the SRC and deregistered political parties on campus.
Thabane’s court application this week claims that UFS “then unilaterally established a so-called broad student transformation forum and interim student committee”.
Political parties excluded
In the discussions that ensued on a new student constitution, “no political organisations were included, [nor was] any political party allowed to participate”, Thabane says in his papers.
“[I]t was clear that [UFS] would make every effort to oust political parties from campus.”
Because “political formations contested the legality of the decision [by UFS] to simply disestablish the old SRC”, they “were not keen on taking part in meetings” to forge a new constitution, he says.
The country’s Constitution says “every citizen is free to make political choices, including the right to participate in political activities and to campaign for a political party”, Thabane argues.
But “the new constitution of the SRC infringes” these rights and “effectively bars thousands of students from being elected [to] the SRC”.
This “can surely not be democratic or constitutional”, his papers state.
Speaking to the M&G, Thabane said the “process itself disenfranchised students”. He echoed the argument in his papers that the low voter turnout of 4 000 did not meet even the new student constitution’s stipulated quorum.
Chemaly said the SRC is “aware of the application, respects the legal rights of all people and organisations, and hopes for a speedy resolution”.
“Right now, the SRC has a job to do and it involves student interests, so we’re continuing as normal,” Chemaly said.
UFS spokesperson Lacea Loader said on Thursday the university was studying Thabane’s court application.