Judge exonerates Stellenbosch vice-chancellor of interfering in language policy case

03 December 2019 - 09:19 By TimesLIVE
Retired judge Burton Fourie found 'there was no evidence to support a finding that the conduct of the rector in regards to the nomination of Justice Cameron for the position of chancellor of Stellenbosch University constituted a serious violation of the law or serious misconduct'.
Retired judge Burton Fourie found 'there was no evidence to support a finding that the conduct of the rector in regards to the nomination of Justice Cameron for the position of chancellor of Stellenbosch University constituted a serious violation of the law or serious misconduct'.
Image: ERHARDT THIEL

Professor Wim de Villiers, rector and vice-chancellor of Stellenbosch University, has been exonerated after an independent investigation into allegations that he had tried to influence the Constitutional Court case on the university's language policy.

The allegation was that he had attempted to interfere in the ConCourt's litigation related to the SU 2016 language policy, which gave preference to English over Afrikaans, by trying to convince Judge Edwin Cameron to accept the nomination for election as SU chancellor.

Cameron, who retired from the ConCourt in August, was elected as the university's chancellor in September. He is an alumnus of the institution.

In October, the Constitutional Court unanimously found in favour of Stellenbosch University, which opposed an application by Afrikaans-language lobby group Gelyke Kanse to compel the institution to return to its 2014 language policy.

The university said in a statement this week that retired judge Burton Fourie had found that “there was no evidence to support a finding that the conduct of the rector in regards to the nomination of Justice Cameron for the position of chancellor of Stellenbosch University constituted a serious violation of the law or serious misconduct”.

In the report, Fourie said: “In my view, the facts and circumstances, and in particular the conduct of the rector, do not, when viewed holistically, give rise to a reasonable apprehension of bias on the part of Justice Cameron due to influence brought to bear upon him by Prof De Villiers. At best the evidence shows that the rector, as he was duty-bound to do so, assisted — probably even taking the lead in identifying suitable candidates for the nomination of a new chancellor.

“Justice Cameron, on the other hand, only put his name forward for nomination when the green light was received from (an advocate) on behalf of Gelyke Kanse.”

“A conspectus of the evidence as a whole does not, in my opinion, point to improper conduct on the part of either of them in regard to the process of the nomination of Justice Cameron, nor that they had conducted themselves at any stage in a manner that reasonably conveyed that Justice Cameron was biased in the Gelyke Kanse litigation.”

Fourie was appointed to conduct an investigation after a complaint against Prof De Villiers. In a letter to the institution in October, Dr Leon Schreiber, an alumnus of Stellenbosch University, requested council, via the registrar, to investigate allegations that Prof De Villiers had attempted to interfere in the Constitutional Court case by trying to convince Justice Cameron to accept the nomination for election as SU chancellor.

In response to the report’s findings, De Villiers said: “I repeat what I said from the get go: I did not interfere with the legal process. I am satisfied that I acted in good faith, and that the nomination and election followed due process. This has now been validated by the investigation.

“My only regret is that concerted efforts to discredit me and the university also involved attacks on Justice Cameron and the other judges and processes of the Constitutional Court. There were no covert or sinister intentions by myself or others in our attempts to convince Justice Cameron to make himself available for the position of chancellor. There was no attempt at secrecy. It was common knowledge that a number of prominent SU alumni, including members of the SU rectorate, regarded Justice Cameron as an excellent candidate for the election of a new chancellor. It is also totally unrealistic to allege that one person yielded so much influence to convince a bench of 10 prominent Constitutional Court judges to find in favour of Stellenbosch University, and all but two of this electoral college to vote for Justice Cameron.”

The Constitutional Court ruling in October stated: “This court finds that the university’s process in adopting the 2016 policy was thorough, exhaustive, inclusive and properly deliberative. The university’s motivation for introducing the 2016 policy was to facilitate equitable access to its campus, teaching and learning opportunities by black students who are not conversant in Afrikaans.”

The court found that the decision to alter the language policy was warranted and retaining the previous Afrikaans policy was not reasonably practical, as this resulted in “the exclusion of non-Afrikaans speakers from full participation in tuition and other institutional benefits”.

The court said evidence which had been presented to it showed that near universally, Afrikaans-speaking first-year entrants to the university were able to be taught in English, with only a small minority being the exception.


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