STUDENTS disrupted academics at Wits and marched to the City of Johannesburg (CoJ) buildings to hand over a memorandum of demands to mayor Herman Mashaba, on Thursday, September 27, calling for affordable student accommodation.

The Wits Student Representative Council (SRC) and All Residence Council (ARC) called for an academic shutdown so that interested students could join the march to protest against a rumoured 10% increment in residence fees for 2019.

The protest was a joint action between Wits student political formations such as SASCO, PYA, EFF and PASMA, and students from the University of Johannesburg and the Central Johannesburg College, who all marched under the banner #AccommodationIsLand.

Their demands included: the scrapping of council rates for universities and TVET colleges; council rates for private student accommodation providers such as South Point to be capped in order to stabilise prices; some of the 71 hijacked buildings identified by the CoJ for expropriation to be handed to universities along with money for institutions to develop them into student accommodation; and for a satellite clinic and police station to be opened in Braamfontein.

According to ARC chair Mookameli Moeketsi, the ARC and SRC consolidated the list of demands in March and thereafter emailed it to Mashaba, who didn’t respond. “We want to show them that we are serious about accommodation and we are prepared to fight for it,” he said.

Protesters gathered at the Wits Theatre in the morning and began to march through campus, disrupting lectures by pulling the fire alarms in buildings and singing in lecture halls until students evacuated. A History 102 test was also disrupted by marchers.

“This is about student homelessness. The ‘Harvard of Africa’ can’t be having students sleeping in libraries and toilets,” said a third-year economics student who asked not to be named.

Private security was visible around campus and blocked students from entering Solomon Mahlangu House.

Wits dean of students Jerome September said the university had denied the SRC’s request for lectures to be cancelled after midday because the university is approaching final exams.

“The university’s academic programme will continue as scheduled and students who wish to participate in today’s march do so on a voluntary basis. The necessary security arrangements have been made to ensure that university activities continue without disruption,” he said.

By the time the crowd left campus, it had grown to about 500 students and proceeded to march through the streets of Braamfontein. As the protesters approached, businesses closed their shutters and workers affiliated with the EFF joined the protesters.

Protesters held placards with slogans such as: “accommodation is land”, “free healthcare facilities in Braam”, and “liberate the student, liberate the land”.

Throughout the march, students were addressed by Wits SRC president, Orediretse Masebe. “At the end of the day we are here because we are black and we are landless,” Masebe said.

Mayor Mashaba met the protesters outside the CoJ buildings. They demanded that Mashaba respond to the memorandum within seven days and that he arrange an emergency meeting with Wits vice-chancellor Prof Adam Habib, and South Point executive director Ndumiso Davidson, at 9am on Friday, September 28.

Mashaba accepted the memorandum, stating that he would look at the demands and respond timeously. However, he could not commit to calling an emergency meeting. “I don’t want to lie to students. I don’t know what Habib’s diary looks like and I have commitments I cannot get out of,” he said.

Mashaba stated that the CoJ would send a comprehensive report in response to the demands within the next two weeks and that the demands were in line with the urban regeneration plan that the CoJ was currently working on.

“We’ve made it clear that 30% of the hijacked buildings that have been identified must go to student housing and be offered for rent between R800 – R1200 per month. We are engaging with private investors and offering them incentives such as reducing the cost of rates,” Mashaba told Wits Vuvuzela.

September told Wits Vuvuzela that the university was already engaged with the CoJ on matters such as reducing rates and increasing accommodation for students. “The lack of accommodation is an issue that requires a long-term solution. The university is working with student representatives and the public and private sectors at various levels to intensify efforts to seek medium and long-term challenges to resolve the accommodation crisis,” he said.

He also said that no decisions regarding 2019 fees or accommodation increases had been made yet.

The protesters have threatened to escalate the protests if they do not receive a response to their demands within seven days. They also demanded that Wits observe an academic shutdown on Friday, September 28, in solidarity with protesters.

FEATURED IMAGE: Protesters, led by SRC transformation officer Bonga Gebashe, marched through campus and Braamfontein under the banner #AccommodationIsLand.
Photo: Takalani Sioga