On Monday, the University of the Witwatersrand’s medical school class of 2017 stood on the Great Hall steps in their white coats to have their annual class photo taken when a group of more than 20 students pulled out posters and a banner on which was written: “Wits med school is racist”.
Student representative and final-year student Mtwakazi Bula, who was part of the demonstration, explained that it was triggered by the university’s decision to pass a white woman student who had failed a compulsory six-week course in July.
It’s alleged that the white student was allowed to have her exam script reviewed and that marking errors were discovered. But Bula says close to 30 black students, who had also failed the course, were not given the same treatment.
“At this point, it’s only black students who have failed,” she said.
In an emailed response, university spokesperson Shirona Patel denied any racism related to assessments and examinations in the faculty of health sciences and said all students, regardless of race, were subject to the same processes.
Patel said the complaints come from a small group of students who had not performed and were trying to “bypass assessment processes through political means”.
“These groups suggest that they are being failed simply because they are black, without presenting any evidence to support their assertions,” the university said.
Patel said she could not comment on specific incidents because it was against Wits policy.
This year, Wits says it conducted a broad inquiry into claims of racism in the medical faculty, led by a senior staff member from a different faculty. The investigation found no basis for these allegations. Instead, Patel said, the investigation found there were weaknesses in administration and communication, which were being addressed.
After pictures of the demonstration surfaced on social media, current and former students began to share their experiences of racial discrimination at the school using the hashtag #WitsMedicalSchoolIsRacist.
In a tweet responding to a concerned parent, vice-chancellor Adam Habib called the allegations “nonsense” that should be ignored. “It’s fake news propagated by individuals with agendas of division and destruction,” said Habib.
In a separate incident in July, clinical lecturer Dr Rainy Dube said she was outraged when the department failed to support her after she was harassed and verbally abused by a white student. Dube said the altercation happened when she would not accept the student’s anaesthetic procedure report because it was not signed by the doctor who had supervised it.
Students are required to submit a signed logbook and an anaesthetic case report to qualify for their integrated primary care exams.
Dube said she allowed the student to write the written exam and gave him a day to get the signature, failing which he would not be able to sit for the practical exam.
“This student would not take it. He started to scream at me, saying: ‘This is nonsense. This is rubbish,’ and had started following me around the class as I was moving from one desk to another. I said to him: ‘You really need to stop,’ because he was harassing me and being unprofessional. One student actually jumped in at some point and told him to stop.”
Dube said the student continued to harass her before and after the exam until she was intimidated into accepting the report. When she reported the matter to the department, Dube says she was told the incident was not racist or sexist. Instead, she said a meeting was held with the student and the head of department, without her input, and the issue was “swept under the carpet”.
“My boss sent me an email, saying he had met with the student, who was understandably upset, and said because he is Jewish he would never oppress someone else,” said Dube.
The doctor decided to escalate the matter, but it was only after two months that the student was finally instructed to apologise to her.
“It was not the first time that a student had been disrespectful towards me, and white male students for one get aggressive. This was the worst incident for me and to be told by a white man again that I cannot call something racist or sexist, I was like: ‘Wow,’” said Dube.
She claimed she later found out that the school had “ignored” her because they wanted to “protect” her after the father of the student had threatened to sue her.
Patel said: “All complaints that are formally lodged in the faculty are investigated in line with the university’s rules, policies and procedures.”
Earlier this year, another senior lecturer in the Wits engineering department sent an email to undergraduate students with the subject line: “Betting it all”, in which she outlined how the university had bent over backwards to accommodate one white male student.
She said the university had granted 19 students a special exam for her course, introduction to environmental engineering, after the students had failed it twice before. The lecturer alleged the only reason the university had made this arrangement was because of the rich white male student. It was later claimed that the student had a history of taking the university to court over his assessments.
A final-year medical student, who asked to remain anonymous, said she had also failed integrated primary care. Yet, when she asked for a review of her exam, the head of department allegedly told her “it wouldn’t make a difference”.
“But now we have this white girl who goes in and marks are being changed all of a sudden,” she said.
Wits says it would never compromise its “high standards” by passing students who have failed.
“It would be irresponsible for the university to allow students — future doctors — to pass without them acquiring sufficient knowledge. If this were to happen, it could compromise the treatment of future patients and people’s lives could be placed at risk,” said Patel.
The University of the Witwatersrand has refuted allegations that it passed a final year medical student who had failed a compulsory course.
This comes after a class photo was interrupted by students alleging racism because they say the student was the only one, in a group of about 30, who could review her examination where marking errors were found. The students claim she was given preferential treatment because the student is white.
Student representative Mtwakazi Bula said the black students who had failed were not given the same opportunity to review their scripts.
Professor Martin Veller, the dean of the health sciences faculty, has rejected these allegations saying the student’s marks for a theoretical exam were “incorrectly transcribed into the marking system”.
“The issue was picked up during the remediation process and when the correct mark was entered it was evident that the student had clearly met all the requirements to pass the component
“Given that the student had met all the clinical requirements for the programme, she has been allowed to continue and complete her assessments,” said Veller.
Veller also raised concern that the student was being unfairly victimised by the protesting students “even though they are aware of the facts”.
Wits says the student was not at fault and is investigating how the mistake happened.
Meanwhile the faculty says it will take “strong action” against those found harassing the student.
Tebogo Tshwane is an Adamela Trust trainee at the Mail & Guardian