Universities can not simply take the law into their own hands and evict students from residences without a court order, even if the students were involved in violence, a high court judge has warned.
The remarks by acting judge S M Wentzel followed protracted litigation between the Tshwane University (TUT) and members of its students’ representative councils in the wake of the university’s decision two years ago to close all residences and evict students without a court order after violent student protests erupted at TUT.
The University initially ignored an urgent court order obtained by the students to be allowed back into the residences and tried to have the order set aside, but eventually complied with the court order after several days on condition that the evicted students signed an undertaking renouncing violence.
The University claimed their actions did not amount to an unlawful eviction and that the residences were merely “evacuated” to protect its students, staff and property.
The students, with the help of Lawyers for Human Rights, in turn, sought a declaratory order that the mass eviction of the residence students without notice and without affording them a chance to be heard was unconstitutional, and also sought an interdict to stop any further unlawful evictions in future.
They also sought an order finding the university and its top officials guilty of contempt of court as well as a punitive costs order against them.
Judge Wentzel refused their application, said the function of the courts was to provide meaningful and effective justice to all, not to make political statements, nor to make blanket declaratory orders two years after the events giving rise to the matter had been resolved.
However, she said the issue of evictions to dissipate violence was still very much alive in light of the violent student protests that had erupted at universities throughout the country.
The issue of free education was a complex political issue that would not be readily resolved, and she suspected that student protests would continue around this and other issues for many years to come, she added.
She ruled that university had acted improperly by evacuating the students without a court order and granted a punitive costs order against it, saying even the involvement of students in violence did not entitle the university to take the law into its own hands.