/ 11 November 2011

Wits student activists disciplined

A showdown is looming at Wits University over the suspension of 16 students for the whole of 2012 following their roles in protest action two years ago against fee increases. Some say they will disrupt next year’s registration process if the suspensions proceed.

The students, with newly elected student representative council (SRC) president Feziwe Ndwayana among them, received their sentences two weeks ago. They were found guilty in disciplinary hearings of disrupting classes and blocking traffic to and from the campus during protests in 2009 mounted by about 2 000 students.

Ndwayana became SRC president last Tuesday but will have to give up her position if the appeal she and others intend to lodge fails. But “we won’t go down without a fight”, she told the Mail & Guardian, adding that her “comrades” have vowed her exclusion and that of the other 15 others “will never happen”.

The students see their “harsh” sentences, and disciplinary processes they say were unfair, as Wits management’s attempts to suppress student political activism.

But vice-chancellor Loyiso Nongxa said the university “does not suppress student activism in any way, everyone has a right to protest and Wits is in no way charging students for protesting”.

“I’ve repeatedly said protest is a right,” Nongxa told the M&G. It is how people “behave themselves” in doing so that matters, and here they broke the rules of the university by disrupting classes and traffic.

Council will be non-existent
Former SRC president Morris Masutha said Ndwayana’s suspension means the council will be non-existent for most of 2012 because members of the Progressive Youth Alliance-dominated body would each rather boycott it than fill her position. The ANC Youth League, the Young Communist League and the South African Students’ Congress make up the alliance.

“Feziwe is our president this year and she’ll be our president next year. We’re going to fight very hard to ensure that [even] if it means we’ll have to stop registration next year,” he said.

Said Nongxa: “We’ll look at what happens if the SRC doesn’t want to fulfil its obligations …. What would be the response of the students [if it doesn’t]?”
Thabang Madileng, now barred from registering for his master’s and graduating next year, said witnesses who would have testified on his behalf could not appear because his case was heard in December 2010 and January when students were on holiday.

But the disciplinary hearings were scheduled to suit the students, Wits spokesperson Shirona Patel said. “This was done, on the request of the students, to accommodate their needs and not to interfere with their mid-year or end-year examinations.”

A final-year law student who spoke on condition of anonymity pending his appeal said the sentence is “way out of proportion. It’s too harsh [and also] grossly unfair”, because he was tried in absentia.

Appeal on the cards
Ndwayana also said she was tried in absentia and would appeal on those grounds. It was impossible for her be Johannesburg for her case because she was sick and had to undergo a traditional ritual, she said.

Nongxa told the M&G that any student who was tried in absentia “must come to me [and] I’ll address that”.

Another student who also asked not to be named believes he deserves a lesser sentence. “I pleaded guilty [and] showed remorse, so I don’t deserve to be expelled. I should have been given a warning or a suspended sentence,” the second-year student said.

Ndwayana said their fight against the sentences is propelled by their belief that “student activism is put at stake by these suspensions”. For Masutha, the suspensions are an “attempt to kill student activism on campus”, because political activists were “targeted” out of group of about 2 000.

Ndwayana said the presence of police in campus in the protests was alarming — it meant students were treated “like criminals”.

But Nongxa said police had to be called in. “What do you do if you find behaviour that requires police intervention? The action required police intervention, pure and simple.”