Wits professor allegedly verbally and physically abuses his PhD candidates  

A lecturer and professor at Wits University is alleged to have physically and verbally abused three international PhD students under his supervision for the last two years.

The three students have been sponsored by the National Research Foundation chair held by professor. It is said that two of the students’ Masters degrees had been previously partially funded through the professor’s grant.

SRC Legal Officer, Faatima Laher said the lecturer, whose name is known to Wits Vuvuzela, funds South African and international students in their PhD and Masters studies.

Laher told Wits Vuvuzela that the SRC was working with former head of Amnesty International, Raees Noorbhai, to get the matter investigated by the university.

“The abuse is shocking. Students are being choked and punched … one student … said he had something thrown at his face by the professor and lost a tooth,” said Noorbhai.

He told Wits Vuvuzela that he had interviewed three students last year and reported the abuse to the head of the relevant school. However, the head had told him that the allegations were “unfounded”, that “the matter has been handled by the Employee Relations Office and that the case is now closed”.

Noorbhai said the school head had told him that since “his office had been bypassed when the matter was escalated” to the relevant dean’s office and Employee Relations, he would play no further role in the matter.

“These students are mostly African migrants from countries such as Ghana, Sudan, Libya, Zimbabwe … and they enter the programme under his grant and then he abuses a lot of these students physically, verbally… and if they don’t comply with what he has to say then he sends emails to them threatening deportation,” said Laher.

She said these alleged abusive acts take place in the lecturer’s office during one-on-one consultations with the PhD candidates, who are vulnerable because they rely solely on his funding which has additional benefits such as medical aid.

Laher said a female PhD candidate was forced to switch to a different supervisor to avoid more abuse. “She said that had she not [switched], she doesn’t know the consequences of what would have happened if she remained under him.”

She continued, “When brought up at Senate, they also pushed it under the rug and stated that this is not something that should have been brought up with them.”

Vice-Chancellor Professor Adam Habib told Wits Vuvuzela that he had never heard of the matter and referred the publication to the deputy vice-chancellor (DVC) of Postgraduate Affairs Professor Zeblon Vilakazi.

Vilakazi also said it was the first time he had heard of the matter. In an email, he told Wits Vuvuzela that, “The way such matters are escalated is through the PGA (a student body under whose remit PG matters of graduate students fall and they generally raise such issues and also sit on the graduate studies committee which I chair). The PGA has direct access to my office and that of the director of PG affairs (prof Robert Muponde).”

However, he promised to “follow up and revert back with facts as soon as I have information to share on this story”.

Noorbhai said he was shocked that Vilakazi did not know about the matter. “I sent a report to the Employee Relations [Office] last year and they said it was escalated to the DVC, but at no point have I received an update on the case.

“I know that Vilakazi knows because academics in Senate brought it up as well,” Noorbhai said.

Laher told Wits Vuvuzela, “It’s gone to [Employee] Relations, it’s gone to Jerome September, the dean of students. [Employee] Relations said everything is above board and there’s nothing they could find.”

The Dean of students Jerome September confirmed that he was aware of one complaint. “The matter was brought to my attention by the student and I subsequently raised the matter with the Dean of the Faculty of Science who is managing the process in line with the university’s policies, processes and procedures,” September wrote in an email.

Laher also told Wits Vuvuzela that the case had been reported to the Gender Equity Office (GEO). However, director of the GEO Crystal Dicks denied that the matter had been reported to her office.

FEATURED IMAGE: The Great Hall. Photo: Wits Vuvuzela