Water cannon were used against protesting students at the University of KwaZulu-Natal's Westville campus. Photo: Jacques Naude

Durban -

The University of KwaZulu-Natal has come under fire for charging four masters students who penned an open letter to the vice-chancellor and principal, Professor Malegapuru Makgoba, criticising the institution.

The four have been slapped with several charges for contravening the rules for student discipline.

The university has been castigated for its response, with critics alarmed at what is seen as the suppression of freedom of expression. Universities are seen as institutions which encouraged debate, rather than stifled it, critics said.

The students are to appear before a disciplinary tribunal at the university’s Westville campus on Wednesday.

The students are facing four charges.

They include:

- Writing an article containing inaccurate, false and/or defamatory statements and information and having it published in a newspaper and other media;

- Acting in a manner contrary to the policies of the university;

- Acting in an insulting, indecent or improper manner towards the executive members of the university - but not limited to the vice chancellor; and

- Bringing prejudice to the good name of the university.

UKZN’s spokesman, Lesiba Seshoka, said management was investigating the matter and asked the “rights of all parties concerned to be respected and official due processes be allowed to take its course”.

He did not respond to detailed questions emailed to him.

The four students - Lukhona Mnguni, Mnikeni Phakathi, Thembani Khumalo and Siyabonga Khumalo - circulated the open letter to newspapers and on-line media - after the university failed to respond to the plea to extend the final registration date, so that students could raise money for fees.

The students, who are all in the masters’ programme in the College of Humanities, raised several other issues in their open letter, including the alleged low morale of lecturers, students and academics.

The other concerns were over:

- The university’s handling of students’ financial challenges;

- Tuition and residences fee hikes, which they said were excessive;

- Security on campus; and

- The use of the police and the courts to intimidate students.

In response, the university claimed the four students had contravened the Rules for Student Discipline code. The students were charged with publishing an article containing inaccurate, false and defamatory statements.

The university alleged that they had wrongfully infringed the fundamental rights of other persons, acted in a manner that was contrary to the provisions of the institution, and acted in an insulting and indecent manner to Makgoba and the university’s executive members. Their conduct, the university claims, could damage the good name of the institution.

One of the accused, Phakathi, said on Sunday that when they asked for clarity on the charges before the start of a mediation process, the university responded with formal charges and ended the mediation process.

Phakathi said he and the other three students were “activists” who were concerned that they were not being allowed to raise their concerns freely. He said there was nothing to suggest disrespect to any individual in the letter.

The organisation Right2-Know applauded the four UKZN students for exercising their rights, saying it believed the charges were unjust and unconstitutional.

Right2Know has demanded that the university drop the charges immediately and said its campaigners would be supporting the group on Wednesday.

“Freedom of expression is a right that belongs to all... In the university space, this right should be upheld most highly in order to groom passionate, critical, outspoken and upright thinkers that will take our nation forward,” the organisation said in a statement.

“When students have the courage to speak out on issues that directly affect them and those within their university community, they should be afforded an ear and not be treated as ‘enemies’ and subjected to heavy-handed disciplinary measures.

“It is outrageous that the university management has, instead of listening and opening a dialogue about the issues that the students raised, tried to silence their concerns by adopting a defensive and wholly misplaced legalistic response.”

Right2Know also accused the university of stifling free thinking and the public’s right to receive information.

“We call on all who value freedom of expression… to defend the students’ right to speak out and call on the university to drop these charges. We call on all student formations, especially at UKZN, to speak out and mobilise against this intimidation.”

The SA Students Congress (Sasco) in KwaZulu-Natal said it was “appalled and dismayed” by the university’s response.

Sasco's provincial chairman, Dumo Ntyinkala, said the body was alarmed that university managements across the board were stifling students and had formed a top-down style of approach toward criticism.

He said academics at universities did not want to be challenged and believed they had all the answers and tried to exclude the students by silencing them.

“This practice is unconstitutional and undermines the ability of students to be independent and critical scholars.”

Said Ntyinkala: “By seeking to silence these four students, the university management is playing into the hands of a tyrannical practice whereby academic leaders believe that they are beyond reproach and in fact they see themselves as Messiahs of the problems in our society.”

Ntyinkala said the institutions were not respecting the choices of students, and being arrogant in trampling on the democratic values “as if universities exist as some ivory towers that are ungrounded” in the reality as experienced in the country.

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