Suspended students accuse UJ of criminalising campus protests

Suspended students at the University of Johannesburg have accused university management of heavy-handedness and of trampling the right to protests on campus, MBALI ZWANE reports.

Three student leaders from the University of Johannesburg (UJ) appeared at a disciplinary hearing on Wednesday following their refusal to sign a statement issued by university management, in order to have their suspensions lifted. The students face various charges, including participating in illegal protests, intimidation and acting indecently.

Claire Ceruti, Xhamla Songwevu and Tshoarelo Mahloko were among the six students suspended from the university for their involvement in the recent #FeesMustFall and #EndOutsourcing campaigns.

The university agreed to temporarily lift the suspension subject to the students signing a statement in which they commit to uphold the terms of a court order which the university earlier obtained to prevent them from protesting on campus.

The other three students have signed the statement but Ceruti, Songwevu and Mahloko refused, and opted to face trial. They have been suspended from the university and expelled from its residences, and were unable to write exams.

Trevor Ngwane, chairperson of the United Front, an organisation formed by the trade union Numsa to support community protests, said the students’ lawyers have requested more details on the charges at today’s hearing as the university’s statement on the matter was too vague.

The students’ lawyers also requested that the students be allowed to defer their exams and write them in January. No agreement was reached and the trio will appear again on Friday.

The charges against them include inciting violence and destroying property.

But Ceruti denied the charges of inciting violence. “None of us incited violence. Any of us may have incited resistance to violence, however, because this became frequently necessary for five weeks of more or less continuous struggle at UJ,” she said.

“The university is demanding that we apologise and sign an agreement. We do not know what we are supposed to be sorry for, and anyway there are a number of apologies owed to us which are still outstanding.”

However, she accepted that the group was guilty of disrupting the functioning of what she called “an intensely abnormal system,” saying “For this we can make no apology.”

“We intend to defend the right to protest at UJ, and to continue to press for the [vice chancellor] to be held accountable for the disproportionate violence he unleashed on us and his manhandling of his post,” she said.

Access to information NGO, the Right 2 Know campaign, on Wednesday released a preliminary report on human rights violations against protestors at UJ during the #FeesMustFall protests, which you can read here.

The university could not be reached for comment by the time of publication.