Pretoria - The University of Pretoria (UP) does not have space to accommodate all 30 religious affiliations present in the institution as a result of the lack of available space on its campuses
The university gave an explanation regarding its space challenges following an uproar over the closure of the Muslim prayer room by academics and students at the university.
The Muslim Students Association (MSA) at the university announced that it was saddened that the prayer facility known as Jamaat Khana located at the Prinshof campus would be taken away from the Muslim students.
The student group said through a Facebook post on its account that the decision by the university to close the prayer room came after countless negotiations between the student representatives and the university had fallen through.
"The university did not provide alternatives that were feasible and thus they are now evicting us from the Jamaat Khana. The MSA is currently reviewing all options in our capacity, with stakeholders from across the board, to not only appeal the decision but also look at various alternatives to provide the Muslim students with a permanent solution for salaah on the Prinshof campus," read the post.
The group subsequently called on all Muslim students and progressive student bodies to stand with them as they fought to protect the right to freedom of religion and hold the university to honour its goal to build institution cultures and practices that were inclusive and welcoming to a diverse student community.
For its part, the university said it was "deeply concerned and saddened by the unfounded, false and irresponsible statements made by certain members of the association and their supporters."
Rikus Delport, the university spokesperson said it was evident that a great deal of misinformation and a misrepresentation of the facts were intentionally being distributed in the media and on social media regarding the issue.
Delport conceded that the space previously used as a Muslim prayer room had to be re-purposed as part of the upgrade of the library in the HW Snyman building at the campus.
He said, however, that the upgrade was funded by a clinical training grant from the government that would benefit all students at the university.
The project had, according to the university already commenced in February this year, and the student association was consulted even before the commencement of the project.
"Should this project not be completed in time, the university will forfeit the grant funding, and in addition to that it will have a serious negative impact on any possible allocation of future grants to the university."
"Although the MSA confirmed its understanding that the upgrade of the library in the HW Snyman building would be to the benefit of all students and that it should continue without delay, the organisation subsequently deliberately failed to vacate the prayer room," Delport added.
The spokesperson said the university had engaged the students in good faith regarding the matter on numerous occasions over a prolonged period of time, affording the group ample opportunity to vacate the room which they had failed to do despite various requests.
In addition to the time afforded for the move, Delport said the possibility of allocating alternative space which complied with the Muslim student's demands was investigated, however, it was found there was none at the Prinshof campus.
"The university is a secular institution and is not in a position to allocate dedicated spaces to all approximately 30 religious affiliations, as generally speaking there is a huge demand for space on all its campuses. As a responsible higher education institution, its first priority remains to exercise its mandate to allocate and use available space for academic purposes that will benefit all students," he said.
Delport added that the university would, despite its constraints, allocate space at the Prinshof campus on an application basis for the Muslim students where such space was available, however, he stressed that this was an exception to the rule wherein the groups were the only religious organisation that was afforded a dedicated space on the Hatfield campus.
He said a dedicated prayer room facility was available at the Hatfield campus and transport would be made available for students between the two campuses.