UPDATE: A response from the Wits Legal Office on Bhekithemba Mbatha’s matter was receieved after going to print. This article has been updated accordingly to include this comment.
Bhekithemba Mbatha told Wits Vuvuzela about what he believes is violation of his freedom of speech.
Facebook is to many students just another platform to be social. It seen as a free space where people get to share their views and ideas, the serious and the not-so-serious with few consequences.
Bhekithemba Mbatha, a postgraduate Law student, was until recently one of the many young people who believed this about Facebook.
Last week, however, Mbatha discovered that this isn’t quite the case when it comes to Facebook and the management of Wits University.
Mbatha, a postgraduate Law student, wrote on his Facebook page criticizing a Wits Vuvuzela article about dismissed SRC president Mcebo Dlamini’s comments in admiration of Adolf Hitler
He accused the Wits Vuvuzela of being a “useless tabloid” that practices “poor journalism at its best.”
Mbatha’s post called for a “public burning of Vuvuzela” urging “comrades” to “bring their match sticks and we will burn this newspaper!”
Not long afterwards, Mbatha was contacted by the Wits Legal Office and was told to retract his statement publically or face a charge of inciting violence and risk being kicked out of university.
“I was shocked to hear I have influence as I do not hold any positions on campus, I am just a mere student who was raising his opinion about an issue I see on campus,” said Mbatha.
He said the time university management spent sanctioning him could have been used to help needy students.
Mbatha said his Facebook comment to publicly burn Wits Vuvuzela was not meant to be taken literally and was being “blown out proportion”.
“There is no sane student, a Wits student, crème-de-la-crème of our community, that would literally take matches and burn a building,” he said.
“It’s like Wits is becoming obsessed with our Facebook, with our accounts. What happens on Facebook is blown out of proportion. This whole thing was blown out of proportion.”
The Wits Legal Office responded by saying:
“The University holds dear the rights to freedom of speech and media freedom as guaranteed in the Constitution of the country. As such, it is committed to ensuring that it fosters an environment within which Wits operations, including its student newspaper, can function without fear or threat.”
Mbatha feels that freedom of speech is threatened in the university as well as student activism. “Now we are scared of being charged, we are scared of protesting because we are going to be charged, we are scared of talking on our Facebook pages because we are going to be charged.”