The fundraising campaign will help more than 8 000 Wits students who are experiencing financial difficulties.

The Wits SRC has received its first donation toward its R21-million in 2021 fundraising campaign, which is aimed at raising funds to help students owing fees who may face financial exclusion.

Former Constitutional Court justice Richard Goldstone was the first donor to the campaign, officially launched on Wednesday, February 17. According to Wits SRC president Mpendulo Mfeka, Goldstone donated an amount of R10 000.

“Richard Goldstone is a patron to our campaign. We are waiting for more donations and we hope his donation can continue to inspire others to contribute to this cause,” Mfeka told Wits Vuvuzela. 

The SRC has reached out to corporate entities, civil society and students for assistance in raising the funds that will go some way towards helping more than 8 000 Wits students that the SRC says face financial exclusion.

“We have about 8 142 student who are at financial risk and for them to come back into the university [to register] we need R21-million and that will only pay half of their debt and enable them to come back into the system,” Mfeka said.

Students are at risk of financial exclusion by the university if their debt from the previous academic year exceeds R10 000. Failure to settle outstanding fees prevents students from registering for study until they have settled at least 50% of their debt.

In a statement released with the launch of the campaign, the SRC said the risk of exclusion came as a result of the severe economic impact of the covid-19 pandemic on students and their families. “Students have lost bursaries as many of these companies closed down, parents have lost employment and therefore are unable to pay fees,” read the statement.

Kanakana Mudzanani, the SRC treasurer general, told Wits Vuvuzela that in 2021 the university has seen a sharp increase in potential financial exclusions. “Under normal circumstances, we’d be looking at 2 000 students being financially excluded. What you are actually seeing now, as a result of the effects of the lockdown, is that number has quadrupled,” he said.

Senior communications officer Buhle Zuma has disputed that 8 000 face exclusion as alleged by the SRC. “Wits University would like to clarify that the figure of 8 000 refers to students who owe money to the university, some of whose NSFAS payments or bursaries have delayed payments, and who have not yet registered for the 2021 academic year. This does not mean that they will be financially excluded,” Zuma told Wits Vuvuzela.

She added that the university supports the SRC’s efforts to create awareness on the hardship that some students face. However, even though the university recognises “the adverse impact of the coronavirus on students and their families,” the university itself has not been spared hardship, according to Zuma.

“The pandemic has also impacted on the university and the higher education sector. Government support has declined in real terms and student debt has increased dramatically over the last five years due to the effects of #FeesMustFall, the economic downturn and the covid-19 pandemic,” she said.

Mudzanani told Wits Vuvuzela that he was disappointed that the Wits Hardship Fund had only used R2.9-million of the R10-million available since January to help students who are experiencing financial difficulties. He blamed this on the university’s “unnecessary” policies which dictate the fund’s terms and conditions of use, saying he failed to understand, for example, why students who are in good academic standing who have received financial assistance from the fund in previous years cannot apply for assistance again.

The fund is a financial assistance resource made available to undergraduate and postgraduate students who fall below the gross annual household income of R600 000 per annum and need help paying for a portion of their tuition or accommodation fees.

Mfeka told Wits Vuvuzela that the SRC was in conversation with university officials to push the last day of registration from March 5 to March 30, to give the SRC more time to raise funds. He added that they were hoping the university would allow affected students to attend classes when classes officially commence for undergraduates on Monday, March 8.

FEATURED IMAGE: Students waiting for assistance outside the Wits SRC office. Photo: Akhona Matshoba