The 11 students facing a Wits disciplinary hearing have complained the presiding chairperson is prejudiced and “interrogating their evidence with negative hostility”.
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 hearing began on Tuesday and was closed to the media.
Advocate Jennifer Woodward is chairperson.
“It’s clear we are already guilty,” said former SRC president Feziwe Ndwayana. SRC Treasurer, Justice Nkomo, said Woodward had “already concluded that the students are guilty, crushing all evidence without reason”.
Nkomo said all the students had pleaded not guilty, despite being advised by Wits legal representatives to plead guilty, in order to receive a suspended exclusion instead of suspended expulsion.
The Wits legal office said the hearing was closed to the public in order to protect the accused. But Tokelo Nhlapo, SRC deputy president, who is also facing charges, said: “I am disappointed that, as an elected member of the Wits Student Representative Council, my supporters, voters and others are being kicked out and prevented from being here.”
The students were represented pro bono by Mohammed Desai, of the Muslim Students’ Association. Some students said on twitter the university should be using resources to help students, not fight them. According to a lawyer from the Wits Law Clinic, Woodward was probably being paid R25 000 per day since she was a senior counsel.
As SRC president in 2009, Ndwayana faced disciplinary charges for her role in a protest against fee increases. Ndwayana was suspended and released from her SRC duties only weeks after her appointment.
In 2006 SRC President Mbali Hlope was also arrested and faced criminal charges after a protest against fee increases. The charges were dropped, but Hlope was later excluded academically.
“We are not backing down, we are going ahead full force because we didn’t do anything wrong,” said Nkomo.
The hearing continues.