On 15 May 2023, the Moot society voted on the capacity of Simon Augustyn to continue coaching moot teams following a series of allegations concerning the abuse Augustyn subjected his team to.. The panel of 12 executive members, voted in favour of Augustyn, meaning he may continue to coach teams, without any disciplinary sanctions.

The abuse participants experience in the society is not exclusive to Augustyn’s actions. The abuse participants were subjected to, has caused many to experience suicidal ideations, mental breakdowns that cause them to drop out of university due to the traumatic experiences and an excess of associated mental health issues. PDBY interviewed a series of individuals, masters law student Leah Rees and some who wish to remain anonymous: “Eliza”, “Ezmerelda” and “Abraham.” The Chairperson, Heinrich Nienaber, and Vice-Chairperson, Jade Werner have taken no decisive actions and offered little to no remedies for the problems plaguing ‘Africa’s top mooting society.’

The allegations

The society has been accused of being a space that does not prioritise the well-being of its students. As Rees remarks, “When I was in first year I was told not to join if I planned on prioritising my mental health.” That is precisely what happened to Abraham. Abraham was a student who participated in the internal competitions whose coach was allegedly anything but kind to him. Abraham said, “ My Moot coach ***** made me want to kill myself because of how pushy and unreliable ***** was.” Abraham elaborates, “Our coach would cram us with meetings at the most inconvenient times and make us work around whenever she was writing. However, the disappointing part is that we would comply with the meeting times, but she would ghost us and not text back at the time we were supposed to meet, and ***** would show up late to her own meetings.” Abraham continued, “***** would couple our practice sessions with snide comments like, ‘out of all my teams, you guys are the weakest and need to start being serious if you want to win.’ This statement held no validity as we had won both our rounds and left us feeling demeaned and demotivated.” Abraham expressed that these incidents caused him and his partner to hate moot, and wanted to perform poorly on purpose in the rounds to be kicked out. Abraham concluded by saying, “the whole experience made us hate law and was more soul-crushing than anything, Moot is supposed to build your confidence and not shatter it.” Abraham would later drop out of his studies due to mental health issues related to this experience.

In April 2023, PDBY conducted an exposé on the Moot society focusing on Augustyn, a coach on the Vis Moot team, who abused his team to the point where they experienced a series of mental health-related issues. The findings against him led to the Executive Committee (EC) holding no disciplinary hearing and instead opting for rehabilitation of Augustyn. This contradicts the promises Nienaber made in his response to PDBY in April, where he stated, “… if a member of a team, albeit a coach, speaker, or a researcher, is found to have taken part in any behaviour contrary to our code of conduct, the Moot Society would take the appropriate disciplinary measures, or ensure that the offending party faces the appropriate consequences.” As Ezmerelda explains, “After the Vis competition, Simon had undertaken a ‘rehabilitation programme’.

As a part of his programme, he has been allowed to coach several teams. The extent of the rehab programme is unknown to the EC and still remains very vague. The programme from my understanding consists of supervised contact with his team as well as counselling with the SCU.” Ezmerelda further explained, “However, it must be noted that the biggest issue that came up was the toxic culture the society faced as well as the lack of disciplinary procedures that have been put in place by the society.” This dissatisfaction was not solely noticed by Ezmerelda, as she adds, “The misogyny persists within the Society as it was determined that Kate, Simons ex, did this [called for the vote concerning Augustyn’s capacity to coach] as a personal attack meanwhile she was tired of watching the people around her deteriorate and asked for accountability in the society. While she may not have received the result that she wanted, she was successful in highlighting the incompetence of the EC that she works for.”

Much of the controversy extends further to Werner and Nienaber. Ezmerelda states that, “Heinrich is incompetent. He is only concerned with his personal image and has resultantly neglected his position as chairperson of the EC. No active effort has been taken in his term…” On the subject of Werner’s leadership, Ezmerelda would add, “Jade is absent most of the time. A dumbfounded face of shock when anything in the Society happens. This does not allow her to fulfil her mandate of disciplinarian in the EC. Most of what happens in the society is unknown to the leaders.”

These sentiments are not unique to Ezmerelda as Eliza would explain, “However, in the case where things go wrong, or people become unhappy – his belief that he is in his (and I quote) “ethical man era”, [it] is used as an internal defence to any and all his actions. This little phrase is thrown into numerous conversations and has become a well-used joke by Mr. Nienaber himself. Mr. Nienaber is very concerned about his appearance and the view others hold about him; however, in this era, he believes that he can do nothing wrong and that everyone is against him.” However, Eliza diverges from Ezmerelda’s account in saying that Nienaber feigns ignorance, as Eliza further says, “Heinrich knows very well what goes on in the society, and is very good at keeping secrets …Often when things are brought up Mr. Nienaber has pretended that he doesn’t know about any of it, and in other cases has caused/ allowed things to go wrong in keeping these secrets…which is a priority to him as it works with his idea of what his reputation should be/look like.”

The response

In a joint response to the allegations, Werner and Nienaber state, “Earlier this year, revisions were made to the code of conduct for external teams, aiming to enhance student protection and streamline measures, particularly with regard to well-being. All students affiliated with the Moot Society have been apprised of the availability of the Student Counselling Unit (SCU) at UP. Additionally, they have been informed that the Head of Well-being is accessible to provide moral support and assistance in engaging with the SCU.” However, Ezmerelda feels, “not many participants use it, nor does it assist in behavioural management and conflict.” On the matter concerning Augustyn’s conduct Werner and Nienaber state, “The matter concerning Mr. Augustyn has been thoroughly addressed in strict adherence to the pertinent regulations and established guidelines. It is worth highlighting that all parties directly involved have expressed their satisfaction with the outcome.”

However, this is contrary to Ezmerelda’s account concerning Kate’s dissatisfaction with the outcome of the society’s stance on Augustyn. When questioned further on the delay in addressing Augustyn’s capacity to coach and the absence of any disciplinary proceedings against Augustyn, Werner replied, “The statement addresses everything. We won’t be saying anything more.” Following PDBY’s inquiry, Nienaber sent a voice note to the Moot EC group which accounted for the vague answers that emerged. In the voice note updating the EC on the matter before them, Nienaber makes reference to a meeting the EC had following PDBY’s initial investigation into the society in April. Nienaber stated, “In that meeting, I was asked that: If we are ever approached by PDBY again to be more transparent, so today I met with the Dean [of the faculty of law] and the Head of Communications at UP.” Nienaber continued, “…they [the Dean and Head of Communications] helped me draft a statement, I sent the statement to Banathi, he has tried to get more from us, and we were advised to do the following: send him our statement and that is what we stand by, and if needs be, we should (with the assistance of the Dean and the Head of Communications) draft a reply after the article is published on our social media and make a public statement.”

What should happen to Moot

On this, Ezmerelda says, “The moot society is not a safe space for students. Frankly, the society should be dissolved in its entirety due to the lack of reform, mismanagement… This would be beneficial for the law faculty and the general public as it is a space that promotes negativity, sexism, misogyny, and elitism.”

Banathi Nkehli

Originally posted on the PDBY  website:  Moot society shatters students