BY FLAVIA DAVIDS
After weeks of caucuses, elections and campaigning, election season at Stellenbosch University (SU) is coming to a formal end. As the tenure of the 2020/2021 Student Representative Council (SRC) came to an end, new members were instated on 13 September. This election was, however, not without its issues, as the process was interrupted by both the disqualification of an SRC candidate and of a newly elected SRC member from running for chairperson.
The newly elected members of the 2021/2022 SRC are: Chris Briel, Takadiwa Chipfumbu, Almé Engelbrecht, Alysa-Abby Kekana, Viwe Kobokana, Ilan Meintjes, Unathi Ngumbela, Precious Nhamo and Philip Visage. On 13 September, Viwe Kobokana and Philip Visage were elected as SRC Chairperson and Vice Chairperson respectively.
Outgoing SRC chairperson Xola Njengele expressed his congratulations to the newly elected SRC members and said, “When looking at the newly elected SRC members, I see a lot of diversity and, gauging from what they presented at their caucuses, [they have] diverse views, which is definitely what is needed for a functional and effective SRC.”
Prior to the end of the election, Zizo Vokwana’s candidature was disqualified on 2 September, just four days before the new SRC was announced. As reported by MatieMedia on 5 September, Vokwana was informed that she was disqualified from running for SRC after having been found guilty of contravening SU’s Disciplinary Code on 31 August by the Central Disciplinary Committee (CDC).
The CDC is one of SU’s disciplinary bodies appointed to enforce the disciplinary code for transgressions made by SU students, and they have the jurisdiction to deal with contraventions of SU’s Disciplinary Code, which was last revised in 2012.
Vokwana is reported to have had three cases against her. As a result of the CDC’s finding, Vokwana’s candidature was disqualified in line with section 15 of Schedule 1 of the SU Student Constitution. The provision states that if a student is found guilty of any offence by the CDC or SU’s Disciplinary Appeal Committee (DAC), their SRC candidature will be terminated.
The CDC’s decision to discontinue Vokwana’s candidature was met with anger by the SU’s South African Students Congress (SASCO) branch. In a statement released by SASCO chairperson Queen Majikijela, a third-year BA (Language and Culture) student, the branch questioned the university’s motive behind the CDC’s decision, stating that the institution was using “bogus disciplinary charges’’ against Vokwana to “trample on [her] rights to participate in student leadership”.
The CDC’s decision was also condemned by the Economic Freedom Fighters Students Command (EFFSC). In a statement issued on 3 September, the organisation expressed that they were “utterly disappointed” in the way the proceedings were conducted by the university, and wanted Vokwana’s candidature to be restored.
SU Media Manager Martin Viljoen’s response to these events was that “Stellenbosch University respects the independence of the students’ election process and should not interfere with it, as it is guided by the Student Constitution.”
As of the date of this article’s publication, Vokwana has not responded to Die Matie’s communications asking her for any comments on the situation.
After the election, one of the newly elected SRC members, Ngumbela, was disbarred from running for chairperson. In a MatieMedia article of 11 September Francesca Visagé, the current SRC election convenor, explained that an investigation into Ngumbela’s alleged misconduct by the Election Committee was prompted by an anonymous complaint that Ngumbela had promised certain SRC members certain positions and portfolios in exchange for votes in the SRC chairperson election. On 9 September, the evening he availed himself for the chairperson position, Visagé informed Ngumbela of his disqualification via WhatsApp message.
He has argued that the allegations against him were a ploy to prevent him from being elected for that position. “The allegations against me are baseless. I believe that it was [an attempt at] character assassination and [a way of] discrediting me and my candidacy for chairperson,” said Ngumbela.
Ngumbela has also raised doubt about the procedures followed to inform him of his disqualification. His argument is that formal procedures were not followed in his disqualification as potential SRC chairperson and has described the election as being “rigged”.
“If I am being investigated for something, I was supposed to be told in writing or via email, not through a WhatsApp text saying that I am being investigated,” said Ngumbela.
Ngumbela went on to say that he was told that he could provide evidence to refute the claims against him, yet he was unaware of the initial evidence against him that prompted the investigation.
In response to Ngumbela’s allegations, Visagé stated that the Student Constitution does not stipulate specific procedure; the only specification listed in section 26 (1) of the Student Constitution is that the Election Convenor is required to investigate the matter and deliver a decision within a 24-hour time frame.
As stated to Die Matie, Visage noted that “due to the very limited time frame, [the Election Committee] thought it best to contact [Ngumbela] via WhatsApp to ensure that he [received] notification of the event as soon as possible, especially since this was after hours. This would also have given him the most time to respond or produce any evidence in his defense.”
Visagé further noted that the Electoral Committee was unable, and is still unable, to identify the complainant or to release the evidence brought forward by them in order to protect the party or parties.
Ngumbela’s election as SRC member was unaffected by the Electoral Committee decision, yet he made the decision to terminate his membership for the 2021/2022 term.
“I have to put myself, my mental health and my wellbeing first,” said Ngumbela, who tendered his resignation to the chairperson and vice-chairperson via email before any portfolios had been assigned to the respective SRC members.
Despite the obstacles that the new SRC has faced before the start of the term, its members remain hopeful for the coming year. Chipfumbu is one of these hopeful members and said, “I am eager to see what the year holds for the university in the upcoming year. I believe that the students have found empathy because of the pandemic and it would be interesting to see how students will relay that empathy into ordinary life on campus.”