FINANCE FEATURE: The struggle for accommodation at Wits

For students starting their studies at Wits University, there is no greater convenience than living a walking distance away from campus. However, the price of that convenience is slowly driving students away.

At the beginning of 2023, Wits University’s daily operations were partially stopped by the #WitsShutdown. The Wits Student Representative Council (SRC) mobilised students to protest against unaffordable accommodation amongst other issues.

In 2021, the most affordable room at a Wits residence – a four-bedroom flat at Braamfontein Centre – cost R45 966 per annum. Just two years later, the price has gone up by R5 820 and it now costs R51 786 per annum. This fee increase and a R45 000 cap on accommodation allowances by National Student Financial Aid Scheme, have made it difficult for students to find housing in and around Wits.

Living at a Wits residence

As of 2022, there were 41 794 students enrolled at Wits. Of those students, only 15% of them can be accommodated by the 17 Wits residence buildings in and around the Braamfontein and Parktown campuses.

To make matters worse, nine out of the 17 residences give priority to first-year students and other undergraduate students, two are strictly for postgraduate students and the remaining six residences accommodate irrespective of ones year of study.

Before this year’s protests, students were required to pay a compulsory initial installment of R10 000 before moving into a Wits residence. This is separate from the 10-month rental price, ranging from R41 786 for a shared room to R99 077 for a single studio apartment.

There are two types of residences at Wits, catered and self-catered residences. Self-catered students are provided with communal and individual kitchens, while catered students eat at the five dining halls across the Braamfontein and Parktown campuses.

Catered students pay for both accommodation and meals. The meal prices range from R18 720 for ten meals per week, to R34 570 for 19 meals per week. Students have three meals per day during the week and only twice per day on Saturdays and Sundays.

Living at a private residence

To address the 85% shortfall, Wits approved 69 privately owned residences that range from at least 22m to 4.9km away from either Braamfontein or Parktown campus. All private residences are for students that cater for themselves and depending on the ownership, some provide buses that transport students to and from campus.

Rates at a private residence differ from the rates at a Wits residence. For example, living in a Southpoint student accommodation building would cost at least R38 680 for a room shared by three people and up to R97 650 for a single studio apartment, on a 10-month lease. This excludes the once-off R1 100 registration fee.

Some private residences like Apex Studios make students buy their own electricity when their monthly coupons run out. Others don’t have backup generators for loadshedding, this includes Wits residences that are off campus in Braamfontein, namely Noswal Hall, Amani House and Braamfontein Centre.

Private residences accommodate 21 539 students, and most of those are students heavily reliant on bursaries and sponsorships. According to a report by Wits, “More than 27 000 students Wits students are fortunate to receive funding for a portion of their fees and other expenses from a broad base of external funders.”

The crisis

On December 5, 2022, the CEO of Universities South Africa (USaf), Dr Phethiwe Matutu released a media statement to announce that NSFAS proposed to cap accommodation allowances at R45 000. This was done “to mitigate the escalating cost of student accommodation,” the statement read.

Students across universities in South Africa were denied places to stay because of the cap. The cap created a shortfall in accommodation fees for most students. A shortfall students could also not afford to cover. Many students left their homes only to find that they would be sleeping in libraries and outside accommodation offices when they came to university.

SRC Compliance Officer, Karabo Matloga (20) told Sunday Times that he stays at Apex Studio – which is 22m away from Wits’ main campus. He has his own fridge but shares a kitchen and bathroom with three other people. That costs him R52 500 on a 10-month lease, leaving him having to cover the outstanding R7 500. Fortunately for Matloga, his mother helps him cover the balance. Matloga is one of the 10 000 students covered by NSFAS, but what about the other 9 999?

Moreover, NSFAS has defunded 559 students since the beginning of the second semester in July 2023. Funds were stopped immediately and fees already covered reversed, leaving those students stranded in the middle of the academic year.

Gloria Mokoena (25) *, a third-year Wits physics student told Wits Vuvuzela, “It seems like a lot of people do not know why NSFAS is [defunding us]” because “I was told our household income is more than R350k,” she said. According to Mokoena, this is not true because her father passed on when she was still young, and her mother is the only breadwinner in the house.

Mokoena said that she has now had to resort to camping in the library and showering in the gym. “If I travel every day, I will not have enough money for food during the day because it is just enough for transport,” she said.

Postgraduate students are also affected by this accommodation crisis. Recipients of the National Research Foundation (NRF) Honours funding were only able to move into student accommodations after the academic calendar had already started. While Wits opened on February 21, students only started receiving feedback on the status of their applications on March 8. Students cannot move into a residence without a letter that proves that the student is funded or will be able to afford the fees.

In March of this year, the financial aid scheme promised to intervene when students are denied accommodation over the cap but plans for next year are yet to be known, and no permanent solution has been applied to this crisis.

*Name changed to protect identity

FEATURED IMAGE: Some of the homeless students are squatting at Wits residences and private student accommodation. Photo: File


Young woman confronts her blackness 

A 20-year-old Wits medical student compiled a poetry album to share the lived experience of a black South African woman that is tired of shrinking herself to be palatable. 

The Rainbow Nation is Black by Nonhlanhla Siwela is a poetry anthology which has also been released as a 19-track deluxe album which interrogates identity, race and gender.   

The deluxe version was released on September 1, 2023 after the initial release of the 12-track album on September 25, 2021. The deluxe album is an extended version of the first and includes more poems while exploring three themes from the original book.  

The first theme – white – includes the poems Our Boys and Cry, Black men, Cry which encourages black men to express themselves in a way that is not guided by patriarchy and social expectations. Siwela articulates this well in Our Boys, “When will somebody tell the elders that our boys are underage, that our boys are exactly that, just boys,” she writes.  

A black woman’s trauma in a gender-based violence (GBV)-ridden South Africa was a topic explored in the second theme – grey. Using poems like: Bring Back Our Girls/Uyinene Is Not Dead; Only Love and My Biggest Fear as a guide, Siwela shared how a black woman’s life in South Africa belongs to anybody but herself. She went as far as saying that her biggest fear “is to die because somebody’s son thinks he is God”.  

Through a poem titled I Wish, Siwela confronts her blackness as a South African woman. This is the last theme – black. Without wishing to be a part of any other race, she speaks of a blackness as a burden to her existence. As someone that went to St. Johns school for girls, she did not enjoy having to introduce herself by a nickname so it can be easily pronounced, yet children from other races never had to shorten or simplify their names for anyone.  

A Young Poets Mind – as she refers to herself, started writing when she was 15 in 2017 at St. Johns Diocesan School for Girls in Pietermaritzburg. As a scholarship learner from grade eight till grade ten, she recalls how her mother would constantly remind her how grateful she had to be for that opportunity and “not be too Zulu [at St. Johns]”. 

To her, this was a moment of realisation. “All this time I have had to make myself more palatable to the white system, even at my school. It felt like [the school] was doing me a favour,” she told Wits Vuvuzela. This is when the writing of I Wish began. 

When Uyinene Mrwetyana was murdered, she started organising silent protests at her school and wrote a lot of poetry around it, including Uyinene Is Not Dead. “[The poem] was [recited] in assemblies at different schools in KZN, that is how much I saw my poetry impacting people,” Siwela said.  

Friend and third year medical student, Paballo Mofokeng (21) described Siwela’s poetry as her introduction to a whole new world of the arts and culture. “I always associated the arts with classical music and all of that stuff, I didn’t think it could apply to modern kids and modern people, until Nonhlanhla,” said Mofokeng. “Also, the poetry that we did in school was not directed to black kids, [it] was not directed to black girls,” she said. 

The deluxe album is available on all digital streaming platforms and serves as a multimedia companion to the text.  

FEATURED IMAGE: Nonhlanhla Siwela enjoying a page from her poetry anthology, The Rainbow Nation is Black. Photo: Otsile Swaratlhe


Horrors of domestic violence explored in new book

“Believe women when they ask for help and believe men when they threaten women,” said Dr Nechama Brodie. 

Dr. Nechama Brodie signing her new book Domestic Terror at its launch at Rosebank on September 6. Photo: Seth Thorne

Incidents of domestic violence are not isolated – they show patterns of systemic violence in South Africa. This is the chilling reality explored in Dr. Nechama Brodie’s new book Domestic Terror: Intimate partner violence in South Africa.

The book tracks South African women’s experiences with domestic violence over a 100 year period, many of them living in fear and terror in their own homes,  some murdered by the intimate partners they shared those spaces with. 

Brodie, a veteran journalist, writer and lecturer at the Wits Centre for Journalism was in discussion with broadcaster and journalist Azania Mosaka at the book’s launch at Exclusive Books, Rosebank on September 6.

“By definition, terror is the deliberate instillment of fear…when controlling partners feel as if they are losing control, they up the levels of violence to instil more fear and for them, control,” said Brodie. There are many instances of instilling fear, from smashing a phone to stalking – anything that may cause emotional, physical or any other form of distress. 

“Women are often killed with protection orders in their handbags. Police should intervene ‘on the small stuff’ (warning signs) before the ‘big stuff’ happens.”

Dr Nechama Brodie

There is a huge failure of the police and justice system when women seek protection from their domestic partners but are not taken seriously. A more intersectional approach which includes healthcare services and the judiciary is needed she emphasised.

A big takeaway from this book is that the warning signs are usually there. Friends and family see abusive relationships and may know about the abusive nature of partners (mainly men) but ignore it until it is too late. Some families and friends paint violent partners as “devoted” and ignore calls for help from women by sending them back to the abuser for “the sake of the family” explained Brodie.

Journalist and presenter Azania Mosaka facilitating the conversation at the book launch on September 6. Photo: Seth Thorne

“Bodies show a life of terror,” said Mosaka, referring to a 2019 case of a 54-year-old woman who was murdered by her partner and had her body dumped in a veld, left to decompose. Pathologists had to examine her bones, with her cause of death (ultimately finding that she was beaten with a brick) indistinguishable from previous injuries – some healed, some had not. Almost every bone imaginable was broken at some point.

For those who survive and report their abuse, the risk of being retraumatized is high during the trial process. Character assassinations, slut shaming and sanitizing the abuser’s image are some of the things victims face in court. “The fact that she was drunk or spoke back does not excuse her for being murdered…this links to the historical nature of the societal entitlement of men over women’s bodies,” explained Brodie.

This is Brodie’s third book on true crime in South Africa. She admitted that she thought she could not finish the book halfway through because of the subject matter, but it was more important to finish writing it. “The terror was far too real. It is a heavy book to read because some of the stories become relatable,” she shared. 

Having read the book, member of parliament Glynnis Breytenbach said it is “hugely important, impeccably researched . . . It must be said, and it must be read”.

Attendee, Tannur Anders says she wants to read the book because “Dr. Brodie is an incredible researcher and journalist. [Her] extensive data-driven work provides valuable insights to better understand South Africa.”

FEATURED IMAGE: Dr. Nechama Brodie poses proudly with her third crime book at its launch on September 6. Photo: Seth Thorne.


#MakeADifference takes care of students in need

A new wellness campaign is raising awareness around food insecurity among university students.

The office of student success (OSS), under the faculty of health science (FHS) has been running a novel campaign, #MakeADifference, since June, which aims to encourage donations towards basic needs care-kits that include food and toiletry supplies that are given to Wits health science students in need, while simultaneously raising awareness of food insecurity in South African universities.

The #MakeADifference campaign was developed by master’s students in community-based counselling psychology (MACC), in partnership with the OSS, a student wellness department.

Erick Kabongo, a MACC student, says the campaign is intended to, “capture different aspects of a students’ well-being” and this includes ensuring access to basic necessities such as food and toiletries.

“Class issues vary and some students get access to things while others don’t. If we aid students with basics such as food and toiletry, we are allowing them to compete fairly within their academic pursuits,” says Boikhutso Maubane, a counselling psychologist at OSS.

Before the campaign launched, the OSS had a food bank that would receive donations irregularly and only catered to a small pool of students who expressed need. “What was important this year was being able to really provide for students, especially during these trying economic times in South Africa,” Maubane told Wits Vuvuzela.

Despite being disrupted by the covid-19 pandemic, the campaign has increased the visibility of the food bank to potential donors as well as students who may need support.

Since June, OSS has distributed over 70 care-kits and has recently received 74 care-kits valued at R200 through a single donation, which will be distributed to students for the remainder of the year. Care-kits consist of non-perishable foods and basic toiletries.

Anelisa Mofokeng , administrator at the OSS, says an average of 10 students fetch a care-kit when available from the office. Students are identified through the health science course coordinators or they approach the OSS independently. There are roughly 70 students who form part of the campaign’s database and receive an email when care-kits are available.  The office prioritises self-funding students when distributing care-kits but NSFAS students are not excluded from receiving aid.

Due to the pandemic, the campaign has been forced to function largely online, taking away the ability to engage with the Wits community. However, Maubane says the campaign has still managed to make a difference in this difficult time and it still has a lot to accomplish for the benefit of student communities.

FEATURE IMAGE: The #MakeADifference campaign supports health sciences students in need. Photo: Vetiwe Mamba 

RELATED LINKS: Wits Vuvuzela, Students society raises funds for shelters, July 2020.

Wits Vuvuzela, NSFAS students in catered residences to get food allowances, August 2020.