On 25 May, the Students’ Representative Council (SRC) held the second quarter student forum in Thuto 1-2. For the first time in four years, the student forum proceeded without collapsing.

The forum
The student forum started a bit later than scheduled. The student forum started later than scheduled, with the first report given by SRC president Njabulo Sibeko. Sibeko reported on the many issues that students have experienced and continue to experience, including: NSFAS accommodation cap, cancellation of lease agreements, and NSFAS students whose NSFAS portals still reflect the provisionally funded status. “We are also students. We can’t perform miracles, and that is why we need to go to the people with money to help us,” stated Sibeko.

Following the president, other SRC members also gave quarterly reports of activities in their respective portfolios, including how they have tackled student challenges that fall within the spectrum of their portfolios. When reporting on accommodation issues, the SRC member responsible for the Residences portfolio, Vhutshilo Muambadzi, stated, “We have managed to help all students that wanted to cancel their lease agreements.” A problem arose with the report of Captain Shongwe, the SRC member responsible for the Facilities, Safety and Security portfolio. Part of Shongwe’s report was not in the published SRC Quarter 2 Reports. As a result, questions with notice could not be lodged specifically on this part of the report.

Karabo Mogale, the SRC member in charge of the Societies portfolio, and Karabo Lefete, the SRC member responsible for the Day Students and External Campuses portfolio, did not attend the student forum. No apologies were given on their behalf for their absence, and when asked why Mogale and Lefete were not present, SRC secretary Phenyo Matabane replied, “No comment.”

Racism and toxicity at the forum
During the proceedings of the student forum, racial slurs and racist remarks were passed around by members of the EFFSC. When SASCO member Tarik Lalla, an Indian student, made his way to the front to ask the SRC a question without notice, EFFSC member Tshepiso Mathibela said, “Go make samosas, wena!” Lalla asked the Chief Justice of the Constitutional Tribunal and Presiding Officer, Lesedi Ngubeni, to protect him and deal accordingly with the member who shouted the racial slur. Ngubeni replied, “I did not hear what was said, and therefore cannot make a ruling on that.” This caused a commotion as members who attended the forum voiced their discontent over the lack of ruling.

The presiding officer then instructed Lalla to continue with his question and stated that he would make a ruling later. The second racist remark was also from Mathibela. When Mathibela stood up to ask the SRC a question without notice, SASCO members, including Lalla, shouted at him to go to the front of the hall and speak with a microphone. In response to this, Mathibela told Lalla, “I don’t listen to Indians; I only listen to Black Africans.” The Presiding Officer, Ngubeni, ruled that Mathibela had used offensive language, which violated Rule 15 of The Rules for Student Forum at the University of Pretoria. In accordance with Rule 15.2, the Presiding Officer ordered him to unconditionally withdraw his comment. After being urged by members of his organisation and a lengthy pause, Mathibela said, “I unconditionally withdraw.” The EFFSC members applauded him for his withdrawal.

Mathibela finally went to the front to pose his question to the SRC, which he opened as follows: “The question I am about to ask is not sponsored by white monopoly capital or Indian monopoly capital.” A member in attendance stood up and requested the Presiding Officer to ask Mathibela to withdraw his statement.

The Presiding Officer answered, “I cannot make a ruling on that, as Mathibela is not referring to anyone specific.” Shortly thereafter, members of SASCO, DASO, four SRC members, and the chairperson and transformation officer of House Humanities walked out of the student forum. “Why are you leaving? Leave ke, bye!” said Khanyi Mahlangu, an SRC member, when she saw the four SRC members leave the forum. A DASO member explained why they left: “The Chief Justice seems to be lenient when it comes to making rulings on the things that the EFFSC members are doing in there.”

Despite these members walking out, the Presiding Officer ruled that quorum was still met, and thus, the forum would continue. However, the Presiding Officer suspended the forum at 21:45, as the proposed time for the forum had lapsed. This meant that not all questions without notice could be posed to and answered by the respective SRC members.

Near the end of the forum, Jay Grobler, SRC student culture ex-officio, raised a point of order on the grounds of Rule 15 of the Rules for Student Forum. Grobler (who uses they/them pronouns) pointed out that the presiding officer had assumed every student’s gender throughout the proceedings, thus using offensive language when referring to a student with incorrect pronouns. The Presiding Officer conceded this point and apologised.

The aftermath
Following the adjournment of the forum, PDBY interviewed a few individuals. On the topic of the racism directed towards him, Lalla said, “For me what stood out today was the fact that, of all the things that I did […] all the positions I’ve held, the organisations I’ve joined, the one thing that was picked out today was my race. […] Critique me on my views, that’s fine. [But] on my race… People have died to not be criticised on their race. […] You really think we’ve made so much progress, and we haven’t.” He further explained, “I think for me it’s the lack of upsetness that also gets to me, by the SRC, by the Constitutional Tribunal. These are issues that we’ve sort of become immune to. And we can’t allow that.” However, Lalla also commented, “I appreciate the level of upsetness from other members in the room, and I can appreciate the fact that everybody saw that that was an issue.”

Christo Pretorius, the SRC deputy secretary general, was pleased that the student forum proceeded without collapsing for the first time in four years. However, Pretorius stated the following on the proceedings of the forum: “The SRC should always condemn racism in any form and shape, and what unfolded at the forum is totally unacceptable. And I encourage the Chief Justice to look into it, especially the misgendering of individuals.” Varnu Govender, chairperson of the EBIT faculty and one of the individuals who walked out during forum, stated, “Procedurally, when people walk out of the forum, especially SRC members – and considering that most of the faculty house chairs also walked out – the forum should be collapsed because then quorum is not met at that point. Principally, when you have so much tension in a room and racism going on, it is problematic to keep going on as if everything is fine.”

“I wanted us to have a full forum and to keep the forum going. It only made sense to persist, otherwise the forum would have collapsed,” stated Presiding Officer Ngubeni when asked how he felt about the proceedings of and conduct at the forum. He did, however, condemn the misconduct and the racism that took place at the forum.

In light of the Presiding Officer’s decision not to rule on the EFFSC applauding racism, as perceived by the audience, Deputy Chief Justice Webb stated, “It’s important to note that the ruling of the presiding officer condemned unacceptable language and gestures, and gross disorderly conduct.” She continued, “Firstly, in the interest of the general student populace, it would be best for student forum to continue. The Presiding Officer, in not condemning their actions, does not mean that he agrees with them or in any way says that they are what conduct should be. Thus, he did not recognise them and continued with forum, as is his duty.” She further stated, “Moreover, as Presiding Officer, he is not inclined to make any rulings on anything that he either did not hear himself or has substantial evidence that strongly suggests such incidence had occurred, relating to any racial allegations which were said.”

A word from a student that attended the forum
UP student Thando Nonkosi gave the following opinion on the effectiveness of student forum: “From my perspective, the student forum needs order and more control, and that is the responsibility of the Presiding Officer. Racism that took place tonight should be condemned, and because of the misconduct, lack of order and racism, I do not then think the student forum is a solid platform for students’ issues to be voiced out.”

Thabo Moenyane

Originally posted on the PDBY  website: A first in four years: Student forum proceeds without collapsing