It has taken almost a century, but Wits may have cracked the code to avoiding protest action.   

The 2021 #WitsAsinaMali protests about students’ financial challenges are being credited with changing the way the Wits SRC handles student grievances, and they may even be the last protests as the university moves into its next century. 

The death of a 35-year-old passer-by, Mthokozisi Ntumba on March 10, 2021, after being hit by a police officer’s rubber bullet during protests on the streets of Braamfontein, compelled most student leaders to “look for new ways [of handling student grievances]”, says SRC president Cebolenkosi Khumalo.  

Students protest in Braamfontein on March 10, 2021 during the #WitsAsinaMali action before Mthokozisi Ntumba was gunned down. Photo: Alfonso Nqunjana 

Coming after the 2015 #FeesMustFall (#FMF) movement, that Khumalo considers “the first protests that challenged the system”, 2021 “changed everything”, he says. That is why when he ran for office in 2021/2022, it was with the main intention of changing the way things are done.  

He says he made it clear upon assuming office that, “It is my aim to ensure that we don’t have a protest as long as management can be willing to negotiate and be with us on the table and assist us in our own initiatives.” 

Khumalo, himself nearly financially excluded in 2018, says that a space has been created where there is no need for students to protest as they can bring their grievances to the SRC. He says this space has not always been available as student protest action has been prominent throughout the university’s history. 

On its part, the university says it is accommodating of student needs. Dean of student affairs Jerome September says, “The university is committed to addressing the issues faced by students, to work closely with the SRC and other partners like government, in finding creative ways of addressing these within what our resources allow.” 

Student clashes with police have been a feature of protest action over the last 100 years. Aarti Bhana, a 2016 Wits  journalism honours graduate, has experience in student protests as both a participant and a student journalist. “Universities have a history of protest culture” as people view university as a more “revolutionary” space for change, she says. 

She vividly recalls the #FMF protests of 2015 and 2016, with the former being more peaceful, with students showing police peace signs, than the latter, which turned violent when police became “trigger happy”, according to Bhana. 

The green smoke of tear gas drives protesting students in Braamfontein back onto Wits Main Campus during the 2016 #FeesMustFall campaign. Photo: Nozipho Mpanza 

On October 10, 2016, violent clashes broke out outside the Great Hall between students on one side, and private security and police on the other. 

Bhana says that she and her friends discussed how “exhilarating it felt to be part of something that was probably so momentous… like history in the making”.  

September considers the #FMF protests as “an important example of how Wits students placed issues of national and global importance, on the national agenda”. 

As his term draws to a close in October 2022, Khumalo says, “I think if the management supports the new SRC the same way they supported me, Wits won’t experience [a] protest… If they change and they are not willing to come to the table, there is going to be [a] protest.” 

University management “has a range of mechanisms in place to address student concerns/issues. These include regular engagements with the SRC and other student bodies around issues facing students, and a range of initiatives to find solutions to these,” says September.  

He does, however, urge students to appreciate “that many of the issues and/or challenges faced by students require the intervention of partners beyond the university, like government and/or other social partners”. 

Wits has challenged the status quo both pre- and post-1994 and the university maintains that role, says September. 

FEATURED IMAGE: Security is fully geared as students demonstrate on Yale Road during the 2016 #FeesMustFall protests. Photo: Kyle Oberhozer