Charges against four Reitz students clarified

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Pretoria - The University of Free State (UFS) has "not withdrawn" legal charges against the four Reitz students, says the institution's Rector and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Jonathan Jansen.

He said the university has withdrawn its own complaint against the students, but the criminal charges by the Directorate of Special Prosecutions in the province, and the human rights charges by the Human Rights Commission, are still standing.

The university made headlines when a racist video, which was initially aimed at protesting against the university's integration policy, surfaced earlier this year showing four students from the Reitz hostel degrading five cleaners.

The cleaners were allegedly forced to eat food laced in urine and participate in activities such as playing rugby.

While the men's residence was subsequently closed, Jansen said it would be reopened as a transformed model of racial reconciliation and social justice for students.

Jansen said the university simply withdrew its own complaint against the students, in so far as university processes were concerned, and on that basis decided to invite the students back to continue with their studies.

"These decisions alone fall within the realm of the university's authority," he said.

The decision with respect to the withdrawal of the university's complaint against the four students was based on two considerations.

"The first considerations were the institution's own accountability for what happened, and creating the conditions under which racism and racist attacks were even possible on the campus of an institution of higher learning.

"It is in this context that the institution decided to offer reparations for harm to the dignity and esteem of the five workers," Jansen said.

The other consideration was the institution's desire to create the conditions for racial reconciliation on a deeply divided campus, and in doing so to accelerate the chances of transformation at the UFS.

Jansen also confirmed that there were broad consultations with the Human Rights Commission, Nehawu as representatives of the workers, Student Representative Council (SRC) about the need to resolve the Reitz issue outside the courts.

He further indicated that the matter of Reitz and its resolution through negotiation was also raised with the Minister of Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande.

The South African Student Congress (Sasco) has communicated a message of support to the university to return the two students and to re-open the Reitz residence.

Meanwhile, the Ministry for Women, Children and Persons with Disabilities has expressed concern on the absence of the voice of the affected women working at the UFS.

Minister for Women, Children and Persons with Disabilities Noluthando Mayende-Sibiya said: "The voice of the affected women workers has been absent in the media discourse since the incident took place in 2007."

She also noted that while the story had been covered extensively from a racial angle, there was a need to look at its gender and class perspective.

"We did not do much about the class background of the students which reinforced their perception of superiority over the workers. I have no doubt that the gender of these workers also contributed to their vulnerability to abuse," she said.

She added that the consideration of the matter by a court of law will give local media an opportunity to tell the story from the perspective of the victims of the incident.