Pretoria - A student at Rhodes University who was permanently barred from the institution after she was found guilty of kidnapping and assault during student protests in 2016 about the perceived “rape culture” on campus, has been thrown a lifeline.
The Supreme Court of Appeal this week overturned the finding of misconduct against Yolanda Dyantyi and the subsequent sanction barring her from the university.
Five judges ordered that the university had to consider the matter again. If it decided to reinstate the charges, the court ordered that the disciplinary hearing had to start afresh before another proctor (the official who handled the hearing on behalf of the university).
The legal issues before the court arose as Dyantyi’s attorney could not be present throughout her hearing due to other commitments.
While dates were given when the attorney would be available, the university decided these dates were too far in the future and that the hearing had to continue without the attorney.
Dyantyi argued that this left her in the cold as she was due to testify in the hearing at that stage and was thus unfairly treated. The Supreme Court agreed that the proceedings were procedurally unfair towards her.
In 2017, at the time when she was barred from the university, she was in her third and final year of study for a BA degree.
The matter was sparked by student protests at the university during April 2016. The protests were precipitated by the emergence on social media of a list of male students and former students of the university who had allegedly committed rape or acts of sexual assault at the university.
The protests were directed at the perceived “rape culture” at the university. The protesters believed there was a rape culture there and that management had failed to effectively address the issues on campus.
During the protests, three male students were removed from their rooms at university residences, manhandled and deprived of their freedom of movement.
Despite calls by the vice-chancellor and other members of the senior management of the university to release him, one of the students was held against his will for about 11 hours. The protests continued until the university obtained an interim interdict against the protesters.
Dyantyi participated in the protests, but at all times maintained that she had done nothing unlawful.
The subsequent hearing, however, resulted in her being found guilty of kidnapping, insubordination, assault and defamation.
She was excluded permanently from the university and her academic record endorsed with the offences.
Her legal team argued that the procedural unfairness of her hearing, by ordering that it went ahead without her lawyer present, and only a candidate attorney there, tainted the decisions derived against her.
The Supreme Court found this to be unreasonable and that it had prejudiced Dyantyi. The court said no harm would have been done if the hearing was simply postponed to the dates which were agreeable to her attorney.
The court added that at common law an individual’s opportunity to present evidence in support of their case and to refute evidence against them “is the essence of a fair hearing and the courts have always insisted upon it”.
The Socio-Economic Rights Institute, which represented Dyantyi, welcomed the judgment.
It said this was a vindication of Dyantyi’s pursuit of justice and refusal to be silenced and restored her right to tell her side of the story.