Students at UKZN’s Pietermaritzburg campus are attacking and intimidating lecturers if they get failed or disqualified from sitting their exams, and lecturers say they live in constant fear.
An investigation by The Witness has found reports of students “kicking, shoving and intimidating” lecturers.
At least one student was formally disciplined by the university this year for sending threatening e-mails to a lecturer. The student faced six counts of contravening the university’s rules for “harassing” the lecturer causing them to “reasonably believe that he was in danger of being harmed”.
The outcome of that disciplinary hearing has not been announced, but suspension or expulsion are possible sentences.
In the last two months, there have been at least three incidents of lecturers being intimidated, including death threats, and — in one case that The Witness has verified — being assaulted by students.
One lecturer requested a guard from the university’s Risk Management Services (RMS) to escort her from the parking lot to her office after she was intimidated by students last month.
UKZN has been mired in student protests since the Fees Must Fall movement began in 2015. On the Pietermaritzburg campus there has been extensive damage, including a residence that was partially set alight.
Eleven students were arrested in 2016 for protests — 10 of whom spent more than 40 days in prison after they were initially refused bail, but this was later overturned by the high court.
This year, students set fire to a jacaranda tree and pelted an RMS vehicle with bricks during a protest sparked by a supposed lack of action by university management over the off-campus rape of a student.
Lecturers said some acts of intimidation are brought on for academic reasons, such as students failing to meet duly performed (DP) requirements, which would bar them from writing exams, to disagreeing with scheduling of tests.
Acting UKZN spokesperson Normah Zondi confirmed the university was aware of such complaints, and was dealing with the matter.
“Executive management condemns this behaviour in the strongest possible terms. The academic space should be free from any intimidation or violence.”
But affected lecturers said complaints to immediate superiors were fruitless, since there was “only so much they could do”.
The Witness has also seen correspondence from lecturers to university management detailing complaints, which apparently went unanswered.
The Witness spoke to a wide spectrum of sources within UKZN — none of whom would go on record, fearing reprisals.
One lecturer who was assaulted and intimidated by students said the university has not acted on her complaints despite it happening months ago.
“I know we can take action with police or lay civil charges, but it could have repercussions, and that paralyses us. If [my action] was the reason for a student getting expelled, then my safety is not guaranteed.
“They aren’t scared to intimidate us on campus, so I have to fear for my safety. They are untouchable.”
Another lecturer who has been threatened more than once said: “They threaten us if we don’t give them DP. We feel as if we’re being forced to give marks.
“Last year one student was caught for plagiarism, but they got aggressive so we backed down. How many of us are backing down?”
The lecturer said: “The fear is there. It’s exhausting, because you never expect something like this to happen.”
Central SRC president Sandile Zondi said he was unaware of this issue, but agreed it would be a serious offence.
He said, however, that lecturers should lodge complaints against students rather than speak to the media about it.
He did not believe lecturers would be subject to repercussions for reporting students. “No one can frighten a person; if [the student] is wrong, UKZN will punish them, not the other way around.”
Other sources said UKZN had begun taking acts of criminality by students seriously since student protests became common a few years ago.
An academic source said the tension between lecturers and students may be a result of huge class sizes that lecturers have to contend with.
“Some schools have 1 600 students, and lecturers have to pass 85% of them to meet their own requirements. How do you give quality education to all with that size?"