Banathi Nkehli
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Kerri-Anne Swanepoel
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On 4 April, Law House issued a letter addressed to the entire student body within the Faculty of Law titled “Re: Closure of Whatsapp module groups”. In terms of this letter, the Law House executive committee was tasked with “the closure of all official module groups”. This was in reaction to students on the group engaging in abusive behaviours directed at lecturers. The following Whatsapp groups were notorious for such conduct: 2022 IGZ320 (Intellectual Property Law), 2023 RVW210 (Statutory Interpretation), and 2023 PBL310 (Administrative Law). These problems are not new, and they persisted until the groups were reconstituted on 18 April, limiting the ability to send messages to only group admins. Following this reconstitution of the groups, Law House has engaged in the process of deleting those offensive messages directed at staff. There has been no confirmed official disciplinary action against this conduct.

The notice

In the letter, the primary reason for closing the Whatsapp groups was “an incident of gross misconduct in the form of the slander of teaching staff”. The letter cited this as a joint decision made by the Law House executive and the Office of the Dean. However an interview with Gracie Sargood, the academics officer of Law House (the portfolio responsible for the establishment and management of the groups), revealed that the decision came as an instruction to Law House from the Office of the Dean. Sargood stated, “No, it was not our decision. […] I received the directive from the Dean’s Office.” When asked why the groups were reconstituted with the limitation that only admins could send messages, Sargood stated, “To try and accommodate the students as best as possible, I asked the Dean’s Office to only open the groups for admins only, with the admins being the class reps.”

Misconduct on the groups

The content on the Whatsapp groups directed at staff members ranged from xenophobic to sexist comments. On the 2022 IGZ320 group, the class representative, Ethan Kanniah, engaged prominently in xenophobic comments directed at Dr Chijioke Okorie, a Nigerian professor. Kanniah’s comments and conduct on the groups were so severe that he was removed from his position as class representative of IGZ320. Some of the worst comments Kanniah made included, “Not using deodorant, we don’t tolerate such things in this great nation.” Following the outcome of a bad semester test, Kanniah said, “We are all just yams being crushed and pounded for Okorie’s jollof rice.” Once he was removed as the class representative, Kanniah wrote an entire goodbye speech on the group, where he was unapologetic of his conduct: “I did what I could but the powers that be have removed me as class rep […] I was the yam, who would not be crushed.”
In the RVW210 group, comments directed toward the lecturer, Advocate Noluthando Ncame, included, “One
contraceptive method, just 1 nje! Could have prevented this.” In the PBL310 group, comments regarding Professor
Melanie Murcott included, “I am gonna rizz her up to get more marks.”

Why are these messages being deleted?

Following the reconstitution of the groups, the offensive messages about staff members specifically were deleted across the various groups. Sargood confirmed that these messages were deleted and explained, “I have deleted messages on the groups previously, but I cannot say for certain if I deleted those messages [targeted at staff].” When asked why the messages on the group were being deleted, Sargood explained, “What I can say, if messages were ever sent on the group that were not on the purport of the description of the groups, which was for academic purposes,
then from time to time admins have deleted them.” Sargood further stated, “Multiple members of Law House are admins in groups. It could be another member of Law House that deleted them.”
Regarding the ethics of deleting the messages targeted at staff, “In my position as the academics officer, I would like to merely state that if messages were ever deleted, it was in the purport of what the groups were intended for. It was
not ethically motivated. At this stage I was merely following a directive for what the groups were established for.”