Stellenbosch students traumatised by ‘men in black’ still have to write exams

A Stellenbosch University student who was suspended for a month during the #FeesMustFall protests has described the trauma of being constantly followed by private security guards dressed in black uniforms.

The 23-year-old said: “I can no longer walk freely on campus as I am very afraid of these men following me around.”

He said he was booted out of residence for three days from the day he was suspended and had no access to the university’s student portal SunLearn (where lecture notes, slides and tutorials can be viewed).

“During my suspension period, I was followed around almost everywhere I went by MIB [men in black] taking videos and photos of me. There was a time when the MIB drove right behind [me] from Academia [a student residence] all the way to Eikestad mall. They waited for me outside McDonalds until I got my order and followed me again on my way back to Academia.”

On another occasion while he was walking down a street a vehicle occupied by the MIB drove next to him and three men got off and started walking alongside him.

Earlier this month, when he was on his way to study for an exam, he was accosted by the men in black. He did not write the exam because of “the emotional trauma that they inflicted” on him.

The student took photographs of the men following him. He even visited a police station to inquire whether there was a warrant issued for his arrest after rumours surfaced that he was going to be arrested. He was told that there was no arrest warrant.

“The day of CDC [the Central Disciplinary Committee] came and I was found innocent, which means I was suspended and put through a lot of emotional and psychological trauma for no reason.”

The student said he’d reached the point where he’s considered discontinuing his studies and attending another university next year.

“It has been very difficult for me to concentrate on my studies because I keep thinking about all that had happened.”

He’s not alone. A 22-year-old woman, who was among a group of protesters who forcibly closed the library for several days, said students were traumatised by events on campus.

A staff member who spoke to the M&G said the 22-year-old was very angry and disillusioned: “She keeps on asking me questions like: ‘What now? This is not right’.”

On October 25, a group of students pleaded with senior members of Stellenbosch University’s management to offer them the opportunity to write exams in January so that they would have enough time to study.

The university’s first round of exams ended on Wednesday and the second started on Thursday.

Stellenbosch University’s vice-chancellor, Professor Wim de Villiers, ruled out the possibility of a third opportunity in January, saying it would be impractical “given the logistical challenges associated with administering an exam at the start of a new academic year”.

De Villiers stated in a communique that because of the lost academic time as a result of the #FeesMustFall protests, students will be “afforded greater leniency when considering access to the second exam opportunity”.

The M&G has established that those students who achieve a 35% final mark in a module during the first examination will be allowed to sit for the second one.

However, other universities such as the University of the Witwatersrand, University of Cape Town (UCT) and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University are allowing students to write in January.

The staff member who spoke to the M&G said the 22- and 23-year-old students, as well as many others who were still traumatised, were writing the exams despite being unprepared.

“They know they might fail but they don’t have a choice. The university does not have an understanding about what is happening in South Africa. It once again shows the incapability of identifying with the pain of students.”

Commenting on the request from students to be allowed to write exams in January, the staff member said: “Most of them are hardworking. They are not students who are looking for a chance not to write exams.”

Meanwhile, 1 226 University of Cape Town (UCT) students have opted to write all their exams in January and almost 3 000 students have deferred individual exams to next year.

UCT spokesperson Elijah Moholola said a further 1 300 students from health sciences will also be sitting for their exams in January.

UCT students who opted for the deferred exams will write them from January 23 to February 10.

University of Pretoria students are also asking for exams to be written in January.

North West University said exams at the Potchefstroom campus finished last Friday while those on the Mafikeng and Vaal Triangle campuses, which started a week later than was scheduled, will finish on November 18.

Exams at the University of KwaZulu-Natal will commence on November 25. UKZN spokesperson Lesiba Seshoka said they were confident that the exams would proceed smoothly.

Stellenbosch University responds

Stellenbosch University’s spokesman, Martin Viljoen, said the executive committee of Senate thoroughly considered students’ concerns regarding the effects of the recent student protests and the option of an exam in January.

“After lengthy discussions the committee was of the opinion that the university’s established system of two equivalent and consecutive exam opportunities already offers affected students the opportunity to utilise additional preparation time for entering the second exam.”

He said students may choose to write either of the two opportunities or write some modules in the first exam and others in the second.

“If a module is failed during the first exam, students may rewrite the module in the second exam. A third exam opportunity in January would be impractical given the logistical challenges associated with administering another exam for more than 600 modules at the start of a new academic year.”

He said a recent survey indicated that more than 93% of the students who participated in the poll wanted to complete the academic year.

“At universities where exams have been postponed until January, the entire exam, and the related administrative systems and processes, have been moved with no need for an additional set of exam papers.”

He said that lectures and other academic activities such as tests were never suspended, adding: “At other institutions academic activities were completely halted for extensive periods in some cases, affecting protesting and non-protesting students alike.”

Viljoen said students could follow a process of post-exam appeals concerning marks.

He said the occupation of the library and the Wilcocks building, disruption of lectures and tests, intimidation of staff and students, preventing students from entering the library and smashing glass doors and windows did not fall in the ambit of peaceful protest action.

He said disciplinary hearings of 12 students had been concluded and that one was expelled. Another three were suspended for a specified period and two were cleared of the charges. He said sanctions such as stayed suspensions and community service were imposed on six others who were found guilty.

Viljoen said the security actions of the university were mostly reactive “but where possible proactive steps are taken”.

“Examples of proactive measures are monitoring the actions of students known to have been involved in unlawful forms of protest action or those who were interdicted against unacceptable behaviour.”

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