Final-year civil engineering students, whose studies in China were funded by the Free State government, are stuck there following what they say is the provincial government’s refusal to draw President Cyril Ramaphosa into the matter.
This allegation is contained in court papers filed at the Bloemfontein High Court last month by Vuyo Ncokazi and Tsietsi Maqhosa, students at Dalian University of Technology in Liaoning Province, China.
It was also confirmed to City Press by the office of Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane that the two had lodged a complaint relating to the same matter in July.
They had filed for an urgent interdict against the province’s director-general (DG) Kopung Ralikotsane over his refusal to undertake a two-pronged approach, which was agreed with the province’s delegation led by Professor Aubrey Mokadi, special adviser to the Free State Premier Sisi Ntombela at the time when they met students in May.
The Free State government had sent Mokadi and his delegation to the university to negotiate after students complained about mistreatment they were allegedly receiving from a senior professor at the university.
In court papers, students alleged that the university’s professor had “deliberately without just cause” failed all the international students for Structural Design of High Rise Building module.
University authorities, students alleged, were refusing to allow them to finish their qualification in record time.
According to court papers, the agreement they reached with the province’s delegation entailed that the Free State government – following the submission of a report back by Mokadi – would approach the university’s vice-chancellor and attempt to find a solution.
Failing this, Ramaphosa and Department of International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor would engage with the People’s Republic of China through diplomatic channels to find an amicable solution.
This was the last resort to resolve the stalemate.
But students alleged in court papers that, upon receiving Mokadi’s report, the DG refused to implement the two-pronged approach agreement because Mokadi allegedly recommended Ralikotsane not do so.
Students alleged that Mokadi was conflicted and should not have made such a recommendation as it amounted to interfering in an administrative matter.
They also stated that Ralikotsane proposed a different approach, which entailed that these students should apply for the extension of their scholarship and motivate for it.
But students said the DG’s proposal would not solve their challenges with the professor and the university.
The students’ urgent application to interdict the DG’s decision not to implement the agreement was dismissed by the Bloemfontein High Court last month. The court ruled it was not urgent.
City Press understands that the affected students, who are still in China, were struggling to raise funds to take their matter to court again and have the Free State government’s decision not to implement their two-pronged agreement reviewed and set aside.
Mokadi and the spokesperson for the Free State government, Tiisetso Makhele, had not responded to detailed questions at the time of writing despite these being sent on August 14.
Losing their urgent interdict application was a double whammy for the students as Mkhwebane’s office also declined to investigate their complaints.
Oupa Segwale, acting spokesperson for Mkhwebane, confirmed on August 16 that complaints were received from the two students in July.
The complaints, Segalwe said, were related to allegations that Ralikotsane refused or failed to assist them.
“Key among those issues is the fact that they will not be graduating in record time as they failed one of the modules prescribed for their fields of study, namely Civil Engineering, at the said university. The Free State government is paying for their studies and related expenses. They demanded that the Free State government intervene and negotiate with the university to relax its requirements in respect of the module, which is a major module for the qualification, so that they can pass and graduate in record time,” Segalwe said.
He said students alleged that they failed the module because of the challenges.
“They want the Free State government to then escalate the matter along diplomatic lines if the university fails to accede to this demand. There were five of them who failed this module at this particular institution, but three students withdrew their grievance and opted to rewrite the module, leaving the two.”
As a result, Segwale said Ralikotsane wrote to the two advising them that the provincial government could not entertain their grievance as it relates to academic performance, which is subject to the university’s laws, rules and requirements to pass.
“The complainants cannot accept this decision and effectively want us to review it and instruct the Free State government to set in motion a diplomatic process to intervene and have them pass when they actually failed. The Public Protector finds the DG’s decision reasonable because he does not have the powers to force the university to accede to their demand, as well as to initiate a diplomatic process to have the university relax its requirements. The timing of the grievance and the complaints was so tight and close to the university recess that the matter has now become academic,” Segwale said.
Their graduation was in June, he said, and they lodged their grievance in July.
“They lodged their complaint with us in July, when the matter became academic already and any remedy, if the complaint was substantiated, would have become obsolete. The Public Protector’s assessment is therefore that she cannot be of assistance to the complainants as she does not have the power to order the DG to force the university to accede to what the complainants are demanding. She will be informing the complainants accordingly and closing the files,” he said.
One of the students told City Press this week: “I was supposed to have graduated on June 26 and could not simply because of the diplomatic disputes between the Chinese government and their university with the Free State government. As a result of [the violation of my Constitutional rights] I find myself held ransom in China while I was supposed to have returned home and serve the country and become an active participant in the better development of our economy.
The student said it would have been a bit easier to persevere “without hope in this gruesome situation if, among many, I wasn’t receiving messages of intimidation from the university about how I and other international students will still be exposed to the same unfair treatment, inter alia, racism, discrimination en masse because we complained about this treatment”.
The student said the Free State government, DG among many, was cognisant of this information and had been furnished with concrete evidence thereof.
“I thought they would be sympathetic towards me. However they are so deeply embroiled in this chaotic and highly political space; it’s just so embarrassing to have such incompetent people as leaders. I feel my rights and privileges are grossly trampled by their decision to move away from the two pronged approach (agreement), breach of contract between me and them,” the student said.