File photo: Gcina Ndwalane

Durban -

The Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) has branded misconduct charges against four senior University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) students, who criticised the university’s leadership in an open letter, as “intimidation and censorship”.

This was after the students spent six hours behind closed doors at the university discipline office on Wednesday negotiating a process of mediation with the institution.

They had expected to face a disciplinary panel, but their fate was still uncertain, and the charges against them had not been dropped, they said.

Emerging from their meeting, one of the four, Master’s student Lukhona Mnguni, said the concerns raised in the open letter were not discussed.

“We continue to call for the vice-chancellor to respond to the concerns raised in the letter. We are unsure what management seeks as an outcome (to the mediation process).

“We expected to be dealt with by a disciplinary panel, but that did not happen. The matter was stood down, and mediation proposed, which we welcomed,” he said.

“We are not trying to be arrogant or disrespectful or undermine university processes or policies, but freedom of speech and academic freedom are issues too critical to stand down from.”

The students said the date of their next meeting with officials was unconfirmed.

Thembani Khumalo, also one of the four and a former students’ representative council president, said the mediation should address the issues raised in the open letter and how they were raised.

The university brought disciplinary charges against Master’s students Khumalo, Siyabonga Khumalo, Mnikeni Phakathi and Mnguni after they wrote an open letter criticising how vice-chancellor Malegapuru Makgoba and his executive responded to a spate of funding-related student strikes.

The students accused the university’s management of being “hostile” and “unsympathetic”, and in turn have been accused of making inaccurate, false and defamatory statements.

On Sunday, the KZN branch of the R2K campaign was the first to issue a statement in support of the four, saying the charges were “unjust and unconstitutional”.

University spokesman Lesiba Seshoka would not comment on the statements by the FXI and R2K.

When asked about Wednesday’s proceedings, he said it was an internal process that should be allowed to proceed in a dignified manner, and that he would comment when there was an outcome. Representatives of R2K showed up at the university’s discipline office on Wednesday to lend support.

The FXI said it was disconcerted about a growing number of instances of “blatant censorship” at universities. The institute’s executive director, Phenyo Butale, said UKZN had no grounds to charge the students with defamation.

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The Mercury