The accommodation crisis has forced students to use the university’s study services area as a place to sleep.

It is 11pm and the FNB Computer Laboratory on West Campus is full, with about 30 students working on the terminals.

As the minutes tick towards midnight, students trickle out of the Lab until there are about 15 spread over the two levels. Most have heads resting on the desks, seemingly taking a nap, even though they have books open.

A closer look identifies mini blankets on laps, and plastic bags with groceries under the desks. Music from earphones goes silent, to be replaced by coughing, sniffling and snoring.

One student who is on the phone, pauses to respond to Wits Vuvuzela’s query whether he is one of the students who sleep at the Lab. “Yeah, sure, I am one of them,” he says. “But you came at a wrong time,” adds the one next to him. “It’s easy to identify a lot of us earlier in the morning,” the student says.

Wits Vuvuzela approaches a cleaner who is vacuuming the floors at the Lab. Patricia* says that the squatting at the labs is putting her work in jeopardy because if the inspectors find the place dirty in the morning, she may be fired.

“We cannot remove [the students] because we are parents and we understand poverty. We just shift their duvets and clean underneath at night,” she says.

Over at the Commerce, Law and Management (CLM) Computer Lab, on the upper level, there are two students who seem to be studying, while four are sleeping, two on the floor, and the other two on chairs that have been pulled together. None of them is covered with a blanket even though the air conditioning is lowering the 1.30am temperature even further.

Two students are laughing, playing cards. When Wits Vuvuzela approaches them, it turns out there is a third under the table, who says he is hiding from our camera.

There is a bad odour that lingers around them, which confirms what they tell Wits Vuvuzela that they have not washed properly for a month.

“We are even afraid to come closer to people because we think they can see our sorrows,” says Phumo*, looking a bit teary. “Don’t show my face,” he adds.

The second-year BSc student tells Wits Vuvuzela that he was excluded from res because he failed last year. He says it has been difficult to secure funding after he lost NSFAS funding due to his academic performance. He has been squatting at the CLM labs since February 3.

“This works as a domino effect. It affects you from the beginning of the year, and you don’t find a rhythm as a student,” he says. “We are exhausted, we sleep very late and we wake very early so that students who come to study in the morning cannot see us.”

Reymon Nguni, a first-year BA law student says he has been sleeping at the CLM library for two weeks. He says he applied for accommodation last year but did not receive any response. However, after multiple visits to the central accommodation office, his application was unsuccessful.

“This affects me academically because I cannot be effective at school. We are exhausted and the mind is exhausted,” the 30-year-old says

SRC president Thuto Gabaphete told Wits Vuvuzela that about 200 students continue to sleep in computer laboratories and in libraries without assistance from the university’s management. “We directed students to management, but Wits said that the university has nothing to say about the 200 students sleeping in computer labs.”

The dean of students, Jerome September, told Wits Vuvuzela that it’s a complicated issue and priorities for getting accommodation are based on academic performance and how far the students’ homes are from Wits.

He said that over 800 students have been assisted in 2020 with an additional amount of R7-million as a contribution towards accommodation and those that were not allocated accommodation did not meet the requirements.

“We are trying the best of our ability to try to help as many people as possible. We are stretching our resources and appealing for other parties to come and help us,” September said.

He said his office was aware of the squatting in the libraries and labs, and this is against university policy.

“Formally, students are to sleep at student accommodation that is provided and not in other spaces, but up to date we have understood the situation and our job is to hopefully work with students and to try to get assistance as soon as we can.”

The director of Campus Housing and Residence Life at Wits, Basil Mugwena, told Wits Vuvuzela that the recently converted Campus Lodge student accommodation provided only 95 beds and is over 70% full.

“In order to qualify to be [accommodated in res], a student must have passed the previous academic year and must be able to pay for the accommodation,” he said.

Back at the CLM Lab, it is after 2am and the temperature is a chilly 10°C. This Wits Vuvuzela reporter takes out her dressing gown from her bag and puts it on, pulls three chairs together and lies down, using her rolled-up jacket as a pillow.

FEATURED IMAGE : Students sleep at the CLM Library at West Campus. Photo: Zikhona Klaas

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