Witsie forced to retract statements made on Facebook account

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.”

Witsie bail-out

Wits Legal Office bails students out of holding cells when they get arrested, even though they are not legally obligated to do so.
The legal office particularly assists students whose parents and guardians live far away. This practice has received mixed signals from Witsies though.

Witsie response

Some Witsies told Wits Vuvuzela they were upset there was a budget for bailing students out when many students faced financial difficulties.
“I find the bail thing very, very weird. Bail is a personal thing. There are so many students who are struggling financially and there are other needs such as fixing buildings,” said Nyakallo Motloung, 2nd year BADA.

[pullquote]

“People don’t have the cash and you could get arrested if you are innocent.”

 

[/pullquote]

On the other hand, Stu Watt, 3rd year BA Fine Art, said he thought it was a fantastic thing: “Ja, it is good. People don’t have the cash and you could get arrested if you are innocent.”

Wits Legal Office response 

According to Wits Legal Office adviser Tasneem Wadvalla, the practice of bailing out Witsies is rare.
“If it’s our student and we can assist, we assist. That is what you need to know. We are here to assist students in so far as possible.”
Wadvalla said the reason the legal office assisted students with bail was that students did not have the money to cover bail.
“We do not judge the merits of that basis, we are not saying ‘yes, by us assisting you, you are not

guilty’.
“We don’t delve into the issue. We don’t go into that detail. It is simply assisting our students in so far as possible.”
The legal office also steps in to verify that students do in fact belong to the Wits community. This verification assists with reflecting that students are not a flight risk.

[pullquote align=”right”]”It is simply assisting our students in so far as possible.” [/pullquote]

Injustice
Ruth Hopkins, a senior journalist at the Wits Justice Project, recently wrote an article in The Star that focused on the conditions in holding cells for prisoners awaiting trial and about abusive police officers.
“For the university to assist students with bail is actually fantastic. This is because there is much corruption in the justice system and the conditions of holding cells are appalling,” Hopkins said.
Hopkins’s article highlighted how many of the police service’s arrests are unjustified and random. It described how Steven Mothao was randomly stopped by the police and taken to a holding cell for no apparent reason.
“While onlookers gawked, the police officers slammed Mothao into a police van.

[pullquote]“I find the bail thing very, very weird.”[/pullquote] “He was detained in a police cell for 22 hours. For the first 14, he wasn’t offered a glass of water. Then Mothao was out on the street again.
“The police officers never identified themselves, they did not have an arrest warrant and and they did not inform Mothao of the reasons for his arrest.”

An indictment against Wits admin

The Legal Office, nor Employee Relations, should deal with sexual harassment, the report by Norton Rose and the Centre for Applied Legal Studies recommended last week.
This was revealed in the final sexual harassment report. The report also said that some sexual harassment complainants were told, “you realise if you go ahead with this you’ll be ruining this person’s life; are you prepared to do that?”.

[pullquote]“you realise if you go ahead with this you’ll be ruining this person’s life; are you prepared to do that?”.[/pullquote] The report revealed that both offices are conflicted and this compromises their ability to combat sexual harassment on campus.
“In our view the Legal Office is simply tasked with too many disparate roles to address sexual harassment claims comprehensively,” the report suggested.

The Legal Office and Employee Relations were exposed for not having any expertise or training in the field of sexual harassment or gender issues.
“The perception is that it is not necessary for specialists to be brought in to handle these matters, either because they are not important, or because the Legal Office currently consists largely of female attorneys, and it is believed that sexual harassment is a ‘woman’s issue’, which can be handled by any woman,” read the report.

Three particular areas were highlighted as competing interests for the Legal Office in sexual harassment issues: the university’s reputation, the complainant’s interests and the interests of the alleged perpetrator.

The report also perceived that there was a universal view that the Legal Office did not pursue difficult cases.

Complainants reported that they feel as if their issues vanished into a “black hole”.
However, the report did concede that the Legal Office had good intentions. The Legal Office’s mixed response to sexual harassment was “the result of an immeasurable overload of responsibility on the Legal Office, coupled with deficient training”.

The report found that the sexual harassment approach of the Legal Office is one which is “overly legalistic”.
In addition, staff members complained that the Legal Office told them not to speak to students about sexual harassment.
The inquiry recommended that the Legal Office should be restricted to dealing solely with the university’s interests.

Legal Office response

Prof Andrew Crouch, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic responded as follows: “My colleagues at the Legal Office and I fully support the principles which underlie the Report on Sexual Harassment released on the 4th of September 2013.

We are mindful of the nuanced nature of sexual harassment.

We have always been and remain committed to assisting and supporting complainants whose matters fall under my jurisdiction.”

[pullquote align=”right”]Complainants reported that they feel as if their issues vanished into a “black hole”.[/pullquote]

Prof Crouch added that the legal office supports complainants throughout and calls upon psychiatrists where necessary as well as, “implement practical measures to keep the complainant and accused apart from each other while the relevant process unfolds”.

Employee relations

The report revealed that the uncertainty between the role players was plentiful as to who was responsible for investigating claims of sexual harassment.
“These conflicting roles lead to a perception that the Employment Relations Office may encourage students to report but the Office is not available to support students through the process,” the report reflected.

In conclusion the report recommended that the Employee Relations office should not deal with sexual harassment because of the conflicted roles.

The report also revealed that intuition was used when dealing with sexual harassment as opposed to a “prescribed manner”.

“Often the policy is not consistently pursued due to a lack of practicality, time and certainty”.

 

[pullquote]“Often the policy is not consistently pursued due to a lack of practicality, time and certainty”.[/pullquote]

Lack of resources was another factor in the poor response as there were only two human resource officials at Wits.

“Various persons, who came before the inquiry, expressed the view that Employment Relations indicated that they were burdened by their complaints and did not do their best to deal with the matter.”

The inquiry also received complaints that communication involving follow-ups was reported as inconsistent or absent. The report highlighted inconsistencies, lack of co-ordination, lack of training on the issue, and a lack of resources.

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Wits Vuvuzela: Wits Legal Office “gags” politics department. March 12, 2013

Wits Legal Office “gags” Politics department

The Political Studies (politics) department has written that it is “deeply disappointed” by the action taken by the Wits Legal Office following allegations of sexual harassment made by Wits Vuvuzela, last year. The department  alleges that it was effectively “gagged” by the Wits Legal Office in its attempt to address the allegations against one of its staff members. A response written by the Head of Department, Professor Daryl Glaser, was widely circulated via email on Monday evening.

 

“Not long after the publication of this article, members of [the Politics] Department learnt that this report most probably concerned one of our colleagues,” said the open letter.

 

In an interview with Wits Vuvuzela last week, Glaser confirmed an investigation was underway against the former HOD, but stopped short of confirming the identity of the individual.

 

But in this latest letter Glaser did not shy away from naming Prof Rupert Taylor as the academic at the centre of the allegations.

 

 “We have not been impressed with the way in which the university legal department has dealt with this issue”

 

According to Glaser, the department was informed “at a meeting with the legal office that they would set up an investigation into the rumours and allegations.” They were advised by the legal office “that actions taken by [the] department could potentially complicate any future investigation or other related initiatives.”

 

The politics department stated in their response: “While we appreciate that discretion and restraint are required here, we have not been impressed with the way in which the university legal department has dealt with this issue.”

Prof Rupert Taylor of the Political Studies department. Pic: Facebook.

Prof Rupert Taylor of the Political Studies department. Pic: Facebook.

 

“When Prof Taylor stepped down, we were explicitly instructed not to say anything about why there was a new head of department. When we raised the prospect of discussing sexual harassment with our students, we were expressly forbidden from doing so, as it might compromise the investigation,” said Glaser.

 

Dikeledi Selowa, a former politics first year class representative for 2012, told Wits Vuvuzela that no information was given to the students by the department and they weren’t provided with a platform to discuss the allegations.

 

The department’s response explained: “When our students wanted to hold a public meeting to exchange experiences and handling of sexual harassment on campus, they were informed that no persons or departments could be named, that it could only take the form of a protest.”

 

“No public comment of any sort was permissable”

 

Glaser told Wits Vuvuzela that that no students had come forward with official statements against Prof Taylor. But the department was also discouraged from asking students to come forward “because the act of asking them about sexual harassment would compromise anything that they reported in response.”

 

He continued by saying: “When we repeatedly pushed for a public statement from the university in response to the Vuvuzela article, nothing was forthcoming. No public comment of any sort was permissible.

 

“In our opinion, the extreme conservatism and lack of responsiveness of the legal department has been a major stumbling block in addressing this issue.”

 

The letter stated that until now the legal office has still not communicated with the politics department what happened to the investigation. But instead has “effectively gagged [the] department from making public statements or taking other public initiatives in the name of protecting an investigation.”

 

Wits Legal office refuses to comment

 

Wits Vuvuzela tried to contact the Legal Office for a response to the allegations made by the political studies department but they refused to comment.

Tasneem Wadvalla, a spokesperson for the legal office, responded by saying that because of the virtue of their (the legal office) position within the university, where they might have to act as legal representation for the Wits Vuvuzela, they cannot engage in answering questions about allegations or any other legal matters within the university.

According to Wits University spokesperson, Shirona Patel, there were two investigations on sexual harassment currently happening at the university. “The first, where an individual was named, was that of Tsepo wa Mamatu, while the second was a campus-wide inquiry where all people have been encouraged to come forward with allegations of sexual harassment.”

[pullquote]”There is scope for a more effective university response to sexual harassment and sexual violence on our campus.”[/pullquote]

 

The political department felt that “It is imperative that investigations prompted by the Vuvuzela article exceed the mandate of the announced inquiry” They said that the “conservative” approach to the issue “suggest a desire to avoid grappling with the full dimensions of this critical issue and feel that a general inquiry primarily focusing upon general policy and procedure is inadequate.”

 

The department said they were “frustrated” that this issue has gone on for so long without a strong public statement by the university, and that there is scope for a more “effective university response to sexual harassment and sexual violence on our campus.”

 

The open letter suggested that the approach of the legal department needs to be reviewed and “information needs to be constantly and immediately available for students and staff so that they are empowered to secure their own safety.”

“Students and staff need to be heard, involved and consulted in the process of battling sexual violence of all forms on this campus.”