Wits University students became the first in South Africa to take a clear stance regarding the Israel and Palestine conflict, through their weeklong encampment.   

On Monday 13 May, a small collective of students (unaffiliated to the Palestinian Solidarity Committee) set up tents on Wits’ Library Lawns, in a show of visible solidarity at the self-named ‘Wits Liberation Zone’

The group wants Wits to take a clear, pro-Palestine stance in the ongoing Israeli assault of Palestinian land. Something students have been doing at universities across the world in recent weeks.  

Students set up camp in solidarity with Palestine and all victims of oppression. Photo: Kabir Jugram

Part of their demands was a call for Wits to provide full transparency regarding their ties to Israeli-aligned companies and divest from oppressive regimes worldwide. In addition, an end to what they felt was targeted harassment and censorship of pro-Palestinian activism on campus. 

The liberation zone extended support to students affected by the recent water and electricity outages in Braamfontein that saw students go without these amenities for over two weeks, as well as students facing mid-year financial exclusion. Thus, free food for students was a feature throughout the past week.  

And while a noble cause, the movement was not without its difficulties. In the week Wits Vuvuzela spent observing the encampment, issues ranging from students sleeping in tents soaked by rain on Monday to campus security taking down a marquee designated for reading sala on Tuesday were observed.  

Physical and academic safety were also top of mind, students told Wits Vuvuzela they feared persecution for their participation.   

On Thursday morning, the group marched to the Great Hall alongside the Wits SRC (who advocated against mid-year exclusions) to bring their demands to the Wits senate.  

The Liberation Zone marched to Great Hall alongside the SRC on Thursday. Photos: Kabir Jugram

In a written reply after the senate meeting seen by Wits Vuvuzela, Wits condemned Israel’s actions in Palestine and called for an immediate ceasefire.  

“As members of the Senate we believe that the actions of the Israeli Defense Force constitute a form of collective punishment globally… which is inhumane and ethically indefensible,” further adding that “we support an immediate humanitarian ceasefire to stop the deaths of civilians and to ensure that food, medical and all forms of needed aid are urgently provided to the civilians in Palestine”.  

Absent from the response was information about disclosures and mid-year exclusions. A disappointed student said, “Long story short, Wits did the bare minimum and only answered one of our demands”.  

Now, the encampment is at a crossroads, as they were only permitted to be on the Library Lawns until Friday, May 17, but many in the group want to prolong their stay until all their demands are met.  

“We remain resolute in our pursuit of full divestment. It is important to note that we are not calling for the dissolution of the camp, but rather advising students to be mindful of the safety implications involved” said a representative of the Liberation Zone. 

This story is still developing as students plan to camp beyond their permitted period. 

Note* some names and quotes have been omitted from this article to protect students involved in the ongoing protest.