Dr Pedro Mzileni’s ‘land thieves’ probe under way at the University of Free State as petition launched in defence of academic freedom

The University of the Free State. Picture: Facebook/UFS

The University of the Free State. Picture: Facebook/UFS

Published Sep 27, 2023


The University of Free State’s Vice Chancellor Professor Francis Petersen says the two latest race incidents involving a senior academic and two students were not a defining factor for the institutional culture and transformation of the university.

Petersen spoke to the media during a press conference held via video link on Wednesday.

UFS sociology lecturer Dr Pedro Mzileni is under investigation for allegedly labelling white people as “land thieves” during a lecture, while another investigation after a clash between a white student and a black student is being investigated after a racial slur was allegedly used by the white student at the Bloemfontein campus.

Petersen confirmed two separate investigations led by external parties were under way.

“These incidents do not define us,” said Petersen.

He said an internal investigation by the university’s human resources department had been completed regarding the Mzileni matter, but the report had yet to reach his office.

He confirmed that an independent investigation was still under way.

“Our approach is that if the person is not proven to be guilty, they must carry on the way that they do,” he said.

Meanwhile, academics at the university are calling for a fair process regarding the Mzileni investigation, with a petition calling for signatories to ensure his academic freedom was protected.

They have started a petition calling on academics around the country to “push back against the victimisation of a fellow academic as part of a dangerous and damaging global right-wing move to silence teaching and critical discourse on continuing racism in our society and institutions”.

Over 1,860 students, activists, academics, public officials and unionists have signed the petition so far.

Part of the letter addressed to Professor Petersen reads, said the complaint by AfriForum was part of “a global right-wing effort to silence anti-racist teaching both in schools and in universities”.

They said if the complaint was successful, it would become “impossible to teach the history, jurisprudence, and politics of South Africa”.

“Is there any reasonable party which does not accept that our country has a history of systematic anti-Black racism that has motivated the dispossession of land and dignity through a project seeking white settler-colonial supremacy?

“Other than upholding existing structures of racist exclusion we see no imaginable purpose to that effort, so we ask you to refuse Afriforum’s attempt to poison the well of democratic education,” they said.

Petersen said the UFS had made great strides in achieving transformation, inclusivity, social cohesion and on the university's institutional culture.

“When I started in 2017, we established the unit for institutional change and reconciliation for social justice, to work with students and staff to deal with the challenges,” said Petersen.

Meanwhile, AfriForum Youth spokesperson Rene van der Vyver said they were aware of the petition and it was “disturbing that people want to defend someone who is guilty of radical racist comments” during lectures.

“It is clear that he is guilty of very racist comments. We as AfriForum Youth are for academic freedom, but we are not going to support indoctrination of his ideas, which is very racist,” she said.

Van der Vyver said numerous students of minority racial groups were offended by Mzileni’s remarks, but they did not feel safe expressing dismay as some of the students allegedly cheered on Mzileni and laughed as he made the statements during the lesson.

She said the students felt discomfort, recorded the incident and submitted to them.

“If you look at the history of this type of behaviour on campus, it is scary to stand up and express your beliefs.

“I would like to see Dr Mzileni undergo some type of mentoring so that he understands that there are guidelines to academic freedom instead of making racist comments. If he is not willing to do that, he must not be allowed to lecture,” she said.

She also said they were in possession of a letter from the SA Human Rights Commission, confirming an investigation into the matter.