Action will be taken on the terrible conditions suffered by students living at Esselen residence, Vice Chancellor Adam Habib promised at a town hall meeting on Tuesday.
Wits Vuvuzela reported in February that students living at Esselen had to endure horrible smells and sewage caused by the derelict Florence building next door, which is allegedly a hijacked building.
“We’ve got a bunch of gangsters who have hijacked the building next door and we don’t have security police or police services to go in to remove them. We have to get either the municipality or the provincial or the national police service to actually intervene in that,” Habib said.
Hijacked buildings are properties that have been taken over by criminals without the permission of the building’s legitimate owner. The criminals then collect rent from the buildings residents.
Habib said the university could not take direct action against the building because it was hijacked. Taking the building back from the hijackers was the responsibility of the city of Johannesburg and Mayor Parks Tau.
“We are engaging with the mayor though. We called and we have scheduled a meeting for next week with the mayor’s officials and with executives from Wits to work out how we are going to clean that place up.”[pullquote align=”right”]”We’ve got a bunch of gangsters who have hijacked the building next door and we don’t have security police or police services to go in to remove them”[/pullquote]
The Florence building was not the only issue raised at the town hall, students also complained about the lack of a bus shelter at the residence. One student complained that the university had already made “empty promises” to supply the shelters.
Habib said the university had looked into supplying bus shelters but could not because they would have to be built on municipal property. The university has no power to intervene without going through the city administration.
“Bus stops are established on municipal grounds and we had to engage the municipality around building bus stops on their grounds,” Habib said.
Habib said the problem went beyond bus shelters to hazards on city property such as missing manhole covers that the university was forbidden from replacing.
“The problem is if something doesn’t happen in the municipality we can’t fix this thing,” he said.
However, Habib promised that if the municipality would not take action, then Wits would make improvements without permission and challenge the city to sue the university to remove them.
“We might need to say to the municipal government ‘Please do this and if you don’t do this by this time then we’re building it and then sue us.’” Habib said.
“That’s the only way to deal with this. It’s a very dangerous thing I won’t lie to you but we have to take a position with municipality,” Habib said.
Tuesday’s town hall was the first one this year. Only about half of the Great Hall filled with students and staff members. This was a low turnout compared to town halls last year that were packed with students on both Main campus and Education campus.
The town hall meeting opened with the sombering news from Habib that a Wits female student was raped off -campus. He said the university was investigating the attack.
The panel consisted of Habib, Student Representative Council (SRC) president Shafee Verachia, Centre for Applied Legal Studies director Bonnie Meyersfield, and SRC vice president (external), Shoki Masha.
In addition to Esselen residence, the town hall also discussed sexual harassment, international students, medical aid for staff and student fees.
Habib said Wits could not avoid raising student fees when the university’s costs continued with inflation. He said Wits received a subsidy from government but that had only increased well below inflation.
“Our cost structures are increasing every year. So if I have to take income from some place, it has to come from somewhere. You can’t talk about fees if you don’t get increases on government subsidies and that is the challenge that we face,” said Habib.