Textbook shopping: A costly endeavour for Wits students

How do bookshops on Wits campus compare as they aim to fulfil student’s academic needs whilst keeping prices affordable?

Buying textbooks can be a stressful exercise for most students; as most of these books do not come cheap. But what is the role of bookstores when it comes to the final price tag? Wits Vuvuzela investigated by speaking to two main bookshops on campus to find out how they set up their prices.

I.H. Pentz Campus Bookshop, situated just outside of the Matrix, was founded in 1992 on Wits campus and operates as a sole proprietor. Van Schaik Bookstore meanwhile can be found at the heart of the Matrix. The original Van Schaik Bookstore was founded in 1914 in Pretoria, and currently operates as a private company.

Van Schaik has been owned by “a syndicate of private equity investors and a pension fund” since 2013. This Wits branch is one of 70 retail stores owned by Van Schaik across Southern Africa. I.H. Pentz, on the other hand, receives no outside funding and is therefore dependent on the business it generates on Wits campus.

When asked how they set up their prices, I.H. Pentz spokesperson said they look at public retail prices to determine their own. He said the business aims to supply students with a “specialised” service and attempt to “cater for everything”, from prescribed books to more obscure research and leisure reading titles.

I.H. Pentz carries 15 000 individual titles as part of its “curated collection”, and even holds books that they are aware “don’t justify shelf space” to provide students with as much variety as possible. They also deal with new, as well as second-hand books as a budget-friendly alternative.

On the other hand, manager of the Van Schaik Wits branch, Mmabosigo Makolomakwa said that they only deal with “brand new books”. The titles and the price they carry are determined by the Van Schaik head office and attempt to streamline student’s acquisition of prescribed books.

In 2019, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) abandoned their awarding of book vouchers as it found that students would trade these vouchers for cash. They dealt with the issue by giving students with a book allowance. Currently the allocation stands at R5 460 per annum. However, since the implementation of the allowance, I.H. Pentz said their “textbook sales have gone down”.

Figure 1: A comparative graph displaying how the NSFAS learning materials allowance has increased, versus the South African inflation rate as determined by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) from 2019 to 2024.

Meanwhile, Makolomakwa believes that the allowance is too low and makes students “opt for second-hand” books over more “expensive” new titles. Makolomakwa added that if you are an accounting student, there is a chance “you’re not going to get all your books”.

Depending on the type of subjects an accounting student decides to study, if they opt for brand new books, they could roughly be putting themselves in an R8 000 hole. This trumps the R5 460 learning materials allowance provided by NSFAS – and necessitates the purchasing of second-hand titles.

In some cases, however, buying second-hand titles may not be an option if new versions of textbooks are released every year. For example, if a student is doing tax accounting, they require South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA) Student Handbook packs that release new versions of textbooks every year.

Figure 2: A tabulated representation of the prices of the annually released SAICA Student Handbook: Volume 2 on online retailers Loot.co.za and Lexisnexis.co.za.

I.H. Pentz, on the other hand, believes that the allowance is “fair” because of the second-hand option they provide. For example, a brand-new copy of Biology: A Global Approach, Global Edition sells for R1 440 at I.H. Pentz, whilst you can buy it for R400 second-hand. The shop also regularly runs sales on second-hand books that can be bought for anywhere between R40 and R100.

Second-hand books on sale outside of I.H. Pentz for discounted prices. Photo: Tristan Monzeglio

Although Van Schaik Wits branch’s prices are dictated by their head office, Makolomakwa says she always listens to feedback from students and compares prices of online retailers like Takealot to make price their prices competitive.

Online retailers like Loot and Takealot appear to have cheaper textbook options than I.H. Pentz and Van Schaik for more widely accessible textbooks, but these initial prices do not account for delivery fees – and more obscure textbooks can be almost double the price.

Figure 3: Groupings of bar charts that comparing the prices of specific textbooks from different retailers: I.H. Pentz Campus Bookshop, Van Schaik Bookstore, Takealot.com and Loot.co.za.

The prices of textbooks vary heavily across retailers; and there is no clear winner when it comes to the affordability of new textbooks. However, because I.H. Pentz sells second-hand books, they have the upper hand on Van Schaik when it comes to providing students with cheaper options.

IAW2024: Solidarity for Palestine made simple this Human Rights Day

Wits societies’ joint initiative allows for anyone and everyone to show their solidarity with Palestine through the clothes on their backs or keffiyehs around their necks.

The Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) and the Muslim Students Association (MSA) are encouraging Wits University students to wear Palestinian items and colours during Israel Apartheid Month in March 2024, as the situation in the region deteriorates further.

This year a global effort has been made by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to stretch Israel Apartheid Week (IAW) over a month, which has been adopted by the PSC and MSA. Traditionally, IAW occurs during the week of Human Rights Day in South Africa.

Muhammed Suliman, MSA chairperson lamented that although “you have Human Rights Day… everyone fails to see the human rights violations that [are] ongoing” in Palestine right now. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, the total Palestinian death toll has climbed to over 32000, an injury toll of over 78000 and a further two million citizens have been displaced.

Abdullah Omar, an MSA Da’wah Committee member said the ongoing situation in Palestine is an “atrocity” that is an example of “what apartheid (in South Africa) could have been”, had it never ended.

Two Wits University students heeding the PSC call on the library lawns. Photo: Tristan Monzeglio
A PSC flag utilising watermelon symbolism and has “resistance is not terrorism” written on it. Photo: Tristan Monzeglio

Suliman said “the Palestine issue is not a religious one… it’s a humanitarian issue”. Academic Officer for the PSC, Noxolo Nxele, said “there’s a lot more to talk about and a lot more people to talk to” and this simple initiative is their effort to expand on the calls for a ceasefire while raising awareness.

Noxolo said there are a vast array of Palestinian resistance symbols (watermelons, olives and keys), that students can use to show their support for Palestine. From what Wits Vuvuzela has observed this week, there have been multiple students wearing keffiyehs and displaying watermelon themed flags in a show of solidarity.

The representatives from the PSC and the MSA also stressed that much more attention and support from Wits is required regarding the promotion of this initiative, as well as others of its kind.

In a statement, the university was only willing to comment on applications made by Wits PSC and the South African Union of Jewish Students, and said all planned events and demonstrations by either society was “approved in line with the University’s policies and procedures”.