Quote of the week

[Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.

Greg Grandin
London Review of Books
2 November 2015

High Court judgment granting interdict to Stellenbosch University



CASE NUMBER:                                                       20183/2015

DATE:                                                     20 OCTOBER 2015

In the matter between:

STELLENBOSCH UNIVERSITY                             Applicant


OPEN STELLENBOSCH                                    Respondent



This is an urgent application which essentially is divided into two parts. The first part is for a mandament van spolie and the second is for an interim order, that is a rule nisi calling upon respondents’ to show cause on 1 December 2015 or soon thereafter as the case may be heard, why they should not be restrained from a range of activity which is set out in paragraphs 5 and following of the notice of motion.

Because this matter has come to me on an urgent basis, after hours and although service has been effected extremely late but given the circumstances not unreasonably so by the applicants’ upon respondents’, it is necessary for me to set out, albeit briefly, the reasoning behind granting this order which reflects my anxious consideration of the evidence as it has been put up by the applicants as justification for the relief sought .

This application as was suggested by Mr van der Walt, the director responsible for campus security at applicant, takes place within a  specific context.

The context is disturbances on University campuses of the kind which are both anxiety provoking and extremely troubling. Universities are in essence locations where reasoning is to be employed in order to deliberate , argue and contest all manner  of important political and  social questions . Within our context ,  I do not need to be persuaded  that there is an urgent  and  compelling need to transform both the demography of our universities with regard to  the student body  and more  particularly  staff, as well the core curriculum to reflect a far more indigenous flavour than  the stubborn adherence to a model of  a provincial English or European university .

However, these battles  can and indeed  must  take place within the context of hard fought  rights, all of which are contained in chapter two of the Republic of South Africa Constitution Act 108 of 1996.

Unfortunately this form of politics  sometimes does not occur .Indeed the evidence that I have heard tonight describes not a University but  more as a war zone.  I have heard witnesses inform me that they were shuffled out in single file, as they were instructed by security  told to evacuate the building.  The evidence ,at least on a prima facie  basis ,describes less of  a University, and more of a violent area  in which reasoning has been jettisoned ,on whatever basis  one wishes to define that term. The Constitution  must promote vigour and energy in our politics but not  violence and a discourse based upon  gratuitous insults .

If this latter approach to political struggle continues, even if with the greatest will in the world  we employ our energy to transform our universities as I have indicated they must , we may well  have little of  value  left to transform  of  the vital sector of  higher education in this country.

I have set out these observations as I have found this application deeply troubling .  As I indicated to the Acting Vice Chancellor , this relief may well  be justified in law but often it hardens  attitudes rather than  acting as a balm.

There is a further point  that is worth bearing in mind .it  has been raised in particular by the Acting Vice Chancellor of the University and the Chief Operating Officer thereof, Professor van Huyssteen, who also testified.  Professor van Huyssteen confirmed that the government subsidy at his University had declined from R8 900.00 per student in 2010 to R6 500.00 per year ,I assume, in 2014.

The overall University sector now receives only 40% of its funding from the government and the University of Stellenbosch, that is the applicant, only receives 22% of its total budget from the government.

In short , based on the level of government funding our universities can hardly be termed  public universities . Further , based upon these figures , it is difficult to see how all who deserve to be at a university can be admitted  as students and continue to receive  the quality that every person in this country , no matter their gender ,  their race, class or social standing  deserves ,unless some serious consideration is given to the manner in which government subsidises universities.

Indeed as Professor van Huyssteen told me, there is a deep irony in the context in which this case takes place .University funding appears to have followed models which have taken place elsewhere in the developed  world  . In common parlance, although the meaning is  often  misunderstood, the suggestion is that some form of neo liberal economics has  allowed for the quasi privatisation of universities or to put it differently, the subsidisation of universities by way of the private sector and by way of students through fees rather than by way of adequate government funding. According to his evidence ,  university funding is a major obstacle to the development of the sector.

Courts cannot second guess government’s funding priorities .That is the province of a democratically  elected  government .But the Constitution, read through the prism of our history  must operate as the framework  to determine the nation’s public choices , even in respect of  the prioritization  of public funding .In this case  , given  s29 of the Constitution read with the  Freedom Charter, there is  along commitment that all institutions of learning should be open to all, an aspiration fought for people for more than 60 years .Hence  government needs to reflect very carefully  how to vindicate these commitments to each and every South African who deserves to be at a University.

It is within the context of vindication of this commitment that this application is to be located  .Yet again ,as soon as the political process ,whether in this case at government or university level  fails, the  courts  are called in  as  a backstop. Hence, my extreme jurisprudential anxiety  provoked by this application. There is  limit to what courts can do; besides we do not live in nor should we operate within a juristocracy .

I turn then to deal with the two components of the relief which is sought. A mandament van spolie generally only requires that the applicant prove on the balance of probabilities that it was in peaceful and undisturbed possession of the property in question and that it was deprived unlawfully of such possession.  I am satisfied that the evidence given by both Mr van der Walt, Professor van Huyssteen and the other two witnesses, Mr Lipp and Mr Lombard that the particular building in question referred to as Administration B, situated in Victoria Street, Stellenbosch, has been and was until today under the peaceful control of the University administration.

Professor van Huyssteen described the building as the nerve centre of the University where the rectorate is housed. I am also satisfied that students who now occupy that building and according to the evidence of Mr van der Walt between approximately 100 to 200 students occupy the building, do so in an unlawful fashion and that accordingly the requirements of the mandament have been met.  In Wille’s Principles of South African Law, edited by Du Bois et-al (9th Edition) at 454, the learned authors’ write as follows:

A fundamental principle is nobody can take the law into their own hands. In order to preserve order and peace in society, the Court will summary grant an order for restoration of possession against someone who resorts to self help and dispossesses another unlawfully.

It is obvious that without the granting of a mandament, given the evidence that I have heard, peace and order cannot be restored.  The University, if the order is not granted, will be without its nerve centre.  It will be without its offices which houses the rectorate.  They are now illegally occupied and there is no basis by which any other order other than a mandament would be justified at present. I  take account of the short time of service upon respondents and that I am now without the benefit of their evidence .but , in the nature of the mandament and , given the evidence of  a widespread occupation unlawfully of the building , I have little alternative . In any event , the order only applies to those who are in unlawful occupation .

The evidence also suggests that a number of violent activities have taken place. All of the witnesses testified to the aggression which they encountered. .  Mr van der Walt, whose evidence was supported by the other witnesses, indicated to me that one of the respondents (6th respondent) had to be restrained when security personnel sought to escort senior personnel who were in the rectorate out of the building this afternoon.  Mr Lipp and Mr Lombard, who were according to their evidence ‘cut off ‘from the other members of the senior personnel who had been escorted towards a bus, described their anxiety in terms of a crowd who aggressively sought to interfere with their peaceful attempt to leave.

Mr Lombard went so far as to describe the fact that when a security vehicle finally was able to pick him up. Two people jumped onto the bonnet and sought to interfere with the windscreen wipers of the vehicle before being forced off the vehicle as it moved away.  These are disturbing  averments.  They justify an interim interdict of the kind which is sought in paragraph 5 ot the notice of motion . I have made provision for a speedy anticipation of the return day  which may afford an opportunity  for a counter narrative   to be provided to the Court.

All the witnesses informed me, in particular the acting rector Professor van Huyssteen that the senior personnel of the University who testified were all taken by surprise at events that unfolded today.

Apparently, later today(20October) there were plans for a meeting (there still may well be one, I do not know).  At this meeting students will be provided with a detailed fact sheet setting out the finances of the University and the reasons why an 11.5% increase has been proposed.  Indeed as I understand it from the witnesses, one of the meetings that was  taking place when the building was invaded was one  to finalise this document.  It is also apparent from the evidence that student representatives have already been informed about the state of finances at the University prior to today’s events.

The meeting was called by those who wished to have a fuller explanation of the finances so that student representatives  could explained to the broader student body the intricate implications of the difficult finances which now confront  applicant.  Furthermore, I am informed that a mass meeting is to take place on Wednesday and according to Mr van der Walt permission was sought and granted for such a meeting to take place which doubtless would allow students to protest further.

This order should not be construed as denying to students the right to protest vigorously, vociferously, loudly, intemperately and perhaps in a way that we as the older members of society not necessarily approve. That is not just their right, it is what students have done throughout the generations at universities the world over .It is what society should expect of students who again in our country  hold up a mirror to society  so that the latter can see the failures which have been committed. Undoubtedly students throughout the country are frustrated and angry at what they perceive as overly slow social and economic progress and  a breach of promises  as these  were contained in the Constitution .

However   , what they and the balance of the citizenry are not allowed to do is threaten staff, to violently occupy buildings, to barricade streets and destroy property   I was informed for example that Victoria Street was barricaded at a point and required police to intervene.

So reluctantly I must accept that the court must intervene even as  I have been at pains to suggest the courts  cannot and should  not attempt to solve the underlying problems  which have caused  the symptoms which have given rise to this  application .

In summary the interim  relief tells respondents   that they are not allowed to compromise those students who wish to write their examinations which is apparently about to occur.  They are not allowed to damage buildings, nor to harass, harm or detain members of the staff as they attempted to do in the buildings.  These are way beyond any permissible form of freedom of assembly association and protest which is sanctioned in terms of the Constitution.


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