Pretoria - Higher Education and Training Minister, Dr Blade Nzimande, has called for the suspension of the decision to withdraw the complaint and readmission of the four Reitz students.
This follows a decision announced recently by the University of Free State (UFS) Vice-Chancellor, Professor Jonathan Jansen, that the institution would withdraw its own complaint against the students and consider readmitting them to continue with their studies.
Reacting to the decision on Wednesday, Nzimande said the institution must convene an urgent meeting of all stakeholders in the university community to discuss this matter, and to seek a common and better way forward.
"We call for the suspension of the decision to withdraw the complaint and readmit the students, pending the outcome of a process of institution-wide, meaningful consultation, and that the minister be advised on any consequent action that might need to be taken.
"Our call is informed by the fact that our Constitution and the values it embodies are above any individual institution and should be strictly adhered to and promoted," the minister said.
He reiterated that the decision was grossly insensitive in that it failed to unite the university and the broader South African society in dealing with racism and other forms of discrimination.
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.
Nzimande said following this incident at the hostel, government commissioned a full investigation into racism in higher education, adding that the findings revealed racism and other forms of discrimination were rife at institutions of higher learning.
"Therefore how we deal with this particular incident does not only affect UFS, but is a matter for the higher education sector and society as a whole.
"We are concerned that the decision to withdraw the complaint threatens to undermine all our efforts to root out racism and all forms of discrimination in higher education.
"Hence it is imperative that a process is undertaken which will result in real reconciliation and also to deal decisively with any other threats to our constitutional order."
Meanwhile, Professor Jansen said although the university planned to withdraw the compliant against the students, the criminal charges by the Directorate of Special Prosecutions in the province, and the human rights charges by the Human Rights Commission, would still stand.
The Department of Higher Education and Training had explained that its view in this matter was that government should not allow victims of racism to be unconditional unilateral forgivers.
"We fear that on one hand Professor Jansen has taken it upon himself to absolve the perpetrators on behalf of the victims and compensate the victims on behalf of the perpetrators.
"This would constitute a superficial trade off which further impugns the dignity of the victims and is unfortunately an apology for the perpetrators of racism," the department said.
According to the department, the UFS was to submit a report to the Ministry on Monday about the circumstances and processes which led to the announcement; however the department has not received it.
"Contrary to public assertions by Professor Jansen, neither the minister nor any member of his staff was consulted nor informed of this decision prior to the announcement last Friday," the department said.