23 November 2009

South Africa: Reitz Four May Be Compelled to Apologise

THE four former University of the Free State (UFS) students involved in a racist incident last year may well find themselves compelled to apologise , despite their lawyer saying last week that they could not do so without opening themselves to further prosecution, and so would not.

Bloemfontein lawyer Christo Dippenaar's announcement could embarrass UFS vice-chancellor Prof Jonathan Jansen, who earlier in the month told the Cape Town Press Club the four men would likely apologise by the end of the month. Jansen declined to comment on Friday, saying the legal process should take its course.

Dippenaar said an apology now would lay the four open to further litigation and a decision on whether to make one could be made only when "all the facts are on the table".

The four -- Johnny Roberts, RC Malherbe, Danie Grobler and Schalk van der Merwe -- had applied to the Free State prosecution authorities to have the case resolved through alternative dispute resolution, and their version of events had not yet been filed in court. An apology could not be demanded before this had been done, Dippenaar said.

The students are to appear in the Bloemfontein Regional Court on February 24, charged with crimen injuria. They allegedly forced the cleaners to drink a liquid into which one of them appeared to have urinated. They will also face charges in the Equality Court: the South African Human Rights Commission was likely to file its application in that court this week, with the aim -- among other things -- of compelling them to apologise formally, commission spokesman Vincent Moaga said.

The commission wanted the case -- which shocked SA and the world when it came to light in January last year -- to be precedent-setting, and was also to ask the Equality Court to award the five workers who were involved damages, Moaga said.

He said the commission would not comment on Dippenaar's announcement, preferring to leave decisions to the courts.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) marched from the Bloemfontein city centre to the university gates on Saturday to protest against the men's decision not to apologise, and against the "broader issue of racism" at UFS, said Cosatu's Free State provincial secretary, Sam Mashinini.

"The charges against the Reitz Four (as the men have come to be called, because they all lived in the UFS's Reitz hostel) should not have been dropped by the university, or by Prof Jansen.

"We don't believe he (Jansen) can lead the process of transformation at the UFS ... (because) his decision to drop the charges was made before justice was done," he said.

Jansen announced at his inauguration on October 16 that the university would no longer press criminal charges against the four men, and that they would be allowed back to continue studying there. The students were previously expelled.

Jansen's announcement had no effect on the state's pressing of charges against the four men.

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