In August 2016, the University of Johannesburg (UJ) suspended 17 students suspected to be involved in the arson attack that saw the destruction of UJ’s Auditorium on 16 May 2016. The charges include arson and conspiracy to commit arson. Given the seriousness of the charges, the students were suspended access to the University until the completion of their disciplinary hearings.
Five of the suspended students applied to the High Court for urgent relief permitting them free and unimpeded access to the University and all of its campuses, accommodation and facilities.
On Friday, 9 September 2016, UJ opposed the application and presented its arguments opposing the relief and as a result the five students abandoned the relief initially sought and instead requested that the disciplinary hearings against them scheduled to take place from 19 to 26 September 2016 be deferred to dates after the final examinations.
On Monday, 13 September 2016 Judge Wright of the Johannesburg High Court granted the five suspended students the relief requested.
To clarify, by granting relief, it appears the Judge Wright understood that the relief being sought was access to the University. While in fact the relief being sought by the five suspended students was a postponement of the University’s disciplinary hearings.
In light of this confusion, it is of the view that the arguments advanced for either forms of relief is not sustainable, the University has applied to appeal the decision. The effect of such a notice of appeal is to suspend the operation of any court order until the outcome of the appeal.
The University is responsible for the wellbeing of over 50,000 students and members of staff and has a duty to take all necessary steps available to it to ensure that all students and staff are safe from acts of violence and sabotage. However at the same time, it has an obligation to ensure that the students suspected of these acts are treated in a fair and just manner.
So whilst the charges are serious, it cannot be assumed that the suspended students are necessarily guilty of the charges until the disciplinary hearings or criminal actions, as the case may be, have run their course. It is not the intention of the University to prejudice innocent persons and similarly it is not the intention of the University to place innocent students at the risk of violence and harm. For this reason the University has proposed the following to the involved students as a means of balancing the rights of all parties:
- UJ agrees to postpone the disciplinary hearings to a date after the examination process for this academic year is completed;
- UJ agrees to provide the involved students that were in university accommodation on campus their choice (subject to availability) of accommodation off campus provided by the University’s accredited service providers.
- UJ will meet with each student registered for the second semester together with their academic representative to find ways in which to accommodate and facilitate the accused’s academic progress while they are suspended from access to the campus, such as for example:
- providing the suspended students with copies of all lecture notes applicable to their respective classes;
- providing the suspended students with recordings of all lectures applicable to their respective classes;
- providing the suspended students with access to all necessary research material;
In this way the involved students are not prejudiced in their ability to continue with their academic year, and at the same time the University meets its obligations towards its remaining students and staff.
Furthermore, this resolves the confusion in the Court Order and essentially grants the students precisely what they requested in their amended request for relief from the court.
The University upholds the values of the Constitution that provide that every Student has rights and freedoms including a right, peacefully and unarmed, to assemble, to demonstrate, to picket and to present petitions freedom of association and a right of freedom of expression and the University welcomes and encourages a culture of the contestation of ideas in a robust manner. However these rights are to be exercised without wrongfully infringing upon the rights and freedoms of others.