THE ELEVEN charged Wits students have raised concerns about the chairperson presiding over their disciplinary hearing.
Advocate Jennifer Woodward was appointed by Vice Chancellor Adam Habib.
“The chairperson was appointed by the same vice chancellor who is prosecuting us,” said SRC secretary Tasneem Essop.
“The vice chancellor is a player and a referee. It doesn’t make sense. How can you charge students then decide who the judge is,” said SRC international student affairs officer Pearl Pillay.
Habib defended the appointment of Woodward and called her a “senior and well-respected” advocate. He said the Wits Legal Office recommended the appointment of an independent person which was supported by management.
He said the recommendation was made because of the case’s “potential reputational risks and the need to ensure a fair, transparent process.”
Habib said the committee holding the hearing was independent and its decision could be reviewed and appealed by a committee appointed by University Council.
The students were charged with contravening the university’s code of conduct after they disrupted a concert by an Israeli pianist during a protest for Israel Apartheid Week in March.
The 11 charged students have resigned to losing the case. They said the hearing process was biased and fraught with double standards and inconsistencies.
SRC president Sibulele Mgudlwa said: “The judge was frustrated and disallowed our lawyer from getting instruction from us. Our lawyer was scolded and shouted at but when the same behaviour was showed by the prosecutor, it was ok.”
Essop told Wits Vuvuzela the venue of the disciplinary hearing was moved without the charged 11 students’ knowledge. She said they were scolded by Woodward when they arrived late at the new venue and were not allowed to explain why they were late.
Habib confirmed the inquiry venue was changed but said the SRC’s legal representative team was made aware of the change.
Essop and Pillay said the judge was “extremely patronising” and treated the charged 11 students “like children”.
“We got a gag order for tweeting. The university threatened to charge us with more misconduct charges. What is the university scared of?” said Essop.
Pillay said the charged students were ordered not to tweet during the trial after Deputy Vice Chancellor Prof Yunus Ballim was offended by something he saw on twitter.
“The next day, the prosecutor printed 68 pages of our tweets. The judge asked us not to tweet. We wanted the media to know,” said Pillay.
Habib told Wits Vuvuzela Woodward decided a “trial by media” was not best for the circumstances “given the manifold and diverse interests in the case”.
He said while the media wasn’t allowed to attend the inquiry, “there were no objections should the student wish to comment to the media outside.”
SRC president Sibulele Mgudlwa disputes this and said the accused students wanted the media to be present.
“We made calls for the media to be there and for the trial to be public. The university and the disciplinary hearing presiding officer [Woodward] has rejected our calls.”
Mgludlwa said they [the students] haven’t laid a formal complaint against the university but “we might be writing a letter of complaint to the vice chancellor” depending on what their lawyer advises.
The trial of the 11 Wits students will resume August 13.
Wits Vuvuzela. Wits 11 cry foul July 19, 2013
Wits Vuvuzela. Israel vs SRC May 31, 2013