Mthatha teenager, who wants to be a lawyer, defeats WSU and Minister Blade Nzimande in court

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The student will now be allowed to study law.
The student will now be allowed to study law.
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He hasn’t even seen the inside of a lecture hall yet, but he has already won his first case.

An Mthatha teenager took Walter Sisulu University, the university’s registrar and the minister of higher education to court and won.

While a matric pupil at St John’s college in Mthatha in 2022, Milela Mbana - 17 years old at the time - submitted an online application to the university to study towards an LLB qualification. His July 2022 application to WSU was not the only one he sent.

After finishing matric, he rejected other offers from other university because he had received a letter confirming his admission at WSU. He was to study at the main campus in Mthatha.

The university told him to accept or reject the offer within three days.

The Mthatha High Court heard that Milela accepted the offer on the same day by phoning the university and asking to speak to the registrar.

“He then took all the necessary steps to comply with the salient terms and conditions of the offer.  In this regard he made a payment of the registration fee in the sum of R4 600.00 into the bank account indicated in the admission letter. He emailed his proof of payment and requested registration clearance,” the court heard.

Milela told the court that he was then cleared on the same day, and was able to access the online registration portal. He then attempted to register on the same day the 7 February 2023 after being cleared and given access to the registration portal. 

His numerous attempts to submit his registration all failed as the registration portal indicated that the intake for the Bachelor of Laws degree programme was full. 

“He contends that having been offered space as one of the university’s students for the 2023 academic year and having duly and promptly accepted the offer and complied with all the terms and conditions of acceptance contained therein, it was unconstitutional and in breach of contract for him to be prevented from registering,” the court heard.

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Milela, through his lawyers told the court that both on his constitutional right to further education and on the contractual agreement in terms of which he was given 3 (three) days within which to indicate his acceptance or rejection of the offer made to him by the university. 

In a nutshell, his contention is that the respondents had no right in law to offer his space to another deserving student except if he had failed to meet the conditions on which he was assured of registration if he promptly accepted the firm offer within the specified 3 (three) day period.

The registrar, Dr Lulamile Ntonzima, in his affidavit said the university could only admit a certain number of students.

“The admission letter merely confirmed that the applicant met the admission requirements for the Bachelor of Laws degree,” Dr Ntonzima told the court.

The university received 509 000 applications for the different courses they offer, and they only had 7175 spaces available for first year students for the 2023 academic year.

The law faculty could only admit 75 first year students.

“Should the university over-subscribe it gets penalised by the Department of Higher Education and Training.  The university will not receive subsidies from the Department of Higher Education and Training for over-subscribed students in circumstances in which the university will not be able to provide funding in respect of the over-subscribed students for food and residence costs, tuition and the required textbooks,” says Dr Ntonzima in his papers.

The court found that university does not explain what it expected an ordinary reader or recipient of the admission letter to understand where it says that he had three days within which he was required to indicate his acceptance of the space allocated and offered to him. 

Also, the university doesn’t explain what first come first served means in relation to the explicit indication in the admission letter that the applicant had 3 (three) days within which to accept the offer.

Dr Ntonzima told the court that they have no record of Milela’s call accepting the offer.

Judge Mbulelo Jolwana in his judgment says it is difficult to understand the respondent’s case on how it got to be that the course was fully subscribed, in light of the fact that on their own showing Milela had three days within which to register.

“It is not explained by the respondents how and on what basis they allowed the course to become fully subscribed after telling the applicant that he had three days to accept the offer by registering.

“It was not open to the offeror, the registrar, to change the clear terms of the offer before the expiry of the three-day period specified in the letter by taking the space that the registrar said was available to the applicant and prematurely give it to the next deserving student.

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“It was never disclosed in the admission letter addressed to the applicant that there were only 75 spaces that prospective students would be competing for and that each one of those spaces would be allocated on a first come first served basis.  The letter does not say so. 

“What the applicant was told was that he had three days within which to accept his space.  It surely cannot be that the three-day period and the respondents’ interpretation of space availability and first come first served co-exist harmoniously.”

Judge Jolwana found that conduct of the respondents falls to be declared to be in violation of section 29(1)(b) of the Constitution. 

“The respondents must therefore be ordered to immediately allow the applicant to register for the Bachelor of Laws degree in the 2023 academic year for which he was admitted. 

“I do need to emphasize that the first respondent, as a public institution, is obliged to promote and respect the rights of ordinary people as contained in the constitutional framework.

“It is also subject to constitutional scrutiny like all public institutions and is bound by the constitutional norms such as transparency and accountability and the respect for the constitutional rights and aspirations of the people of this country.”

Judge Jolwana ordered the university and Dr Ntonzima to pay the costs of the application and to assist Milela to register and enrol within two days of the order being handed down.

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