FEATURE: On pursuing a degree at Wits, two options remain —Eat or drop out  

Scores of Witsies are forced to eat little or nothing at all as they attempt to cross the finish line at Great Hall, where they will obtain their qualification.   

Each year, students are burdened with the high costs of university fees, academic pressure and accommodation crisis. Added to this, some students with limited financial resources are forced to choose between studying on an empty stomach, or simply giving up on their dreams to obtain their degrees. 

According to a statement released on August 14, 2023, by the Wits Student Representative Council (SRC), the university has an inherent severe food insecurity crisis, hindering the productivity of students. The communication was released as a response to NSFAS’ failure to provide allowances to some of its beneficiaries – which further deepened the crisis.  

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations defines food insecurity as when a person does not have regular access to safe and nutritious food for normal growth, development and a healthy lifestyle. It can be experienced at a mild, moderate or severe level. 

What makes matters worse, most Witsies who are experiencing hunger are ashamed or reluctant to say that they are struggling. Wits Vuvuzela also discovered that hunger is not only a reality for financially aided students, but also for those who are self-funded. 

Makopa Letsoalo, a postgraduate Bachelor of Education student had to self-fund her degree as efforts to get financial aid bore no fruit.  Her parents could not assist her as they juggle odd jobs to stay financially afloat. She disclosed to Wits Vuvuzela that she had to spend days without eating or having very little to eat as she had no means to buy food. She also had to rely on collecting food packages from the Wits Citizenship and Community Outreach (WCCO) or charities and campaigns where food was given out. “We [students] don’t expect people to be dying of hunger at Wits, we have put [the institution] on a pedestal, and we’re forced to carry a false identity,” said Letsoalo. 

Senior program advisor of the WCCO, Karuna Singh added that people feel stigmatized when they are poor or hungry because society expects them to be self-sufficient. “People will look at a student in the queue and say why does this person have a weave or long nails but can’t afford food,” said Singh.  

South Africa is the most unequal country in the world with high unemployment rates, poverty and rising costs of living, which are the main causes of inaccessibility to good nutrition. According to a study conducted by Wits, one in five South African households are food insecure; this also impacts the university as some of these students come from those homes. 

Wits has students from different backgrounds – but most of them come from suburbs and townships as opposed to those living in rural areas and farms. However, 70% of the students who come from some of these well-to-do backgrounds are still in need of financial assistance – which slightly impacts their access to food. While 30% come from underdeveloped backgrounds. Under-privileged students are evidently fewer; however, they make up for most of the food insecure population at the institution.  

The role of student financial aid 

Most students at Wits rely on bursaries, with NSFAS currently aiding 9 950 students according to the SRC treasurer general, Kabelo Phungwayo.  

Phungwayo said that “2200 NSFAS beneficiaries did not receive their allowances in August 2023.” However, some students admitted to facing this dilemma since the introduction of Tenet, three months ago. Tenet is a direct payment method into students’ accounts, established to make receiving funds easier as opposed to waiting for the university to send the allowance.   

However, the method has received much backlash than praise from students who took to social media to complain about it. In response to the outrage, Phungwayo said the SRC is working on giving out food parcels and toiletries for those in need. 

Second year Bachelor of Education student, Nozipho Khumalo recently dropped out because of the inconsistency of the national aid.  She explained that for three months, she did not receive her allowance from NSFAS: “I’ve had to eat once a day [and lived] without toiletries. I do not eat on weekends since we don’t get food [from the WCCO] on those days.” She further said she will probably continue with her studies next year “if the situation gets better.” 

Another Wits student, Zeldah Merria said that the allowances are not enough because on average, a student receives R1 650, this is after the allocation went up by R150 in 2022. However, a study conducted by Wits (in consideration of essentials such as bread, potatoes, eggs, etc.) it indicated that monthly groceries/meals for one person cost approximately R2000 to R4000. The study was done when the rand was between R14 to R16 against the dollar-it is currently pivoting around the R19 mark, which means the money needed for meals is much higher now. 

Attempts at curbing hunger? 

The university has six dining halls, 41 food retailers, and the WCCO across its campuses as a way of ensuring that students have adequate access to food, however- the WCCO is the only place where students don’t have to pay for meals.  

Eateries such as Olives and Plate, Zesti Lemonz, Vida Café are incredibly expensive and attract students who can afford them, while dining halls cater to students who pay in advance for their meals.  

A graphic representation of meals distributed at Wits University by different dining halls and WCCO food banks during lunch time, September 5, 2023. Visualisation: Sfundo Parakozov

The WCCO consists of the Masidleni daily meal project (which serves lunch), the Wits Food Bank (which distributes meal packs on 3 weekdays between 3 and 4pm) the meals can be taken home, and the food gardens, which has student volunteers who grow vegetables for those in need and for the food bank. 

Wits LLB Postgraduate student and Volunteer, Nelisiwe Mgiba harvesting cabbages from the WCCO community gardens. Photo: Sfundo Parakozov  

The food bank also relies on donations and therefore risks running out food -which happened in 2016 when former SRC member Thami Pooe encouraged students to find alternative sources of food while the bank waited on donations. In response to this, Singh told Wits Vuvuzela that there is always an anxiety of not having enough food because the demand is high, and they depend on the generosity of others.  

Letsoalo has now started collecting her meals on Monday, September 4, at the dining hall after she managed to save up money. “I have been saving for quite some time from the money I made while sewing and altering clothes for students and from my teaching practical,” said Lestsoalo. 

She explained that she noticed differences between the WCCO and dining halls. “I realized that you can never fear running out of food at the dining hall because they cater for everyone that paid.” She added that whilst one might feel “embarrassed and anxious” queuing for food at the WCCO, you feel proud collecting it from the dining hall, as it’s an “elite space.” 

“Imagine if I lived like this all my academic years, I would do so well, having the WCCO was great, however the university needs to ensure that it’s dependable. I’m starting to enjoy varsity now knowing that someone is cooking for me,” she told Wits Vuvuzela. She added that the WCCO closes during recess “there’s no food and no lunch, what about the students who are still here and need it.” 

Creating a food secure future 

Although poverty largely contributes to food insecurity, climate change is contributing to the problem. To conscientize people about this, the WCCO held a workshop series from August 14 to September 6, 2023, focusing on climate justice and food sovereignty. 

August 14 was an introductory seminar where Professor Vishwas Satgar spoke about the role of the WCCO and its partnership with organizations such as La via Campesina, The Climate Justice Charter Movement, South African Food Sovereignty Campaign and the Co-operative and Policy Alternative Centre.  

Singh said the education program was aimed at teaching students about how weather patterns influence their access to food. “We’re hoping to get people to grow and control their own food, but also understand that the climate crisis doesn’t affect everyone equally, the poor will experience it at a larger scale.”  

Students have been attending the program consistently, “I think what I took from this is that there’s nothing we can really do to prevent climate change because its already here, but we need to make sure that we don’t leave people behind when working towards food sovereignty,” said attendee, Leniese Kock who also volunteers at the community gardens.  

Food insecurity is a crisis larger than expected at this institution, it is now a question of what can be done to ensure that students do not drop out because of hunger.

FEATURED IMAGE: A graphic showing a frustrated Wits University student that has to choose between eating or studying. Visualization: Sfundo Parakozov


FEATURE: SRC’s term is a mixed bag

The 2022/2023 Wits Student Representative Council assumed office with great ambitions and many promises for students, but did they deliver?  

During what was a special year for the University of the Witwatersrand as it turned 100-years-old, the 2021/2022 SRC celebrated a mini milestone of their own by serving a full term without any protest action taking place on campus. A rare occurrence as it has become the norm to expect the annual demonstrations brought on by issues linked to academic and financial exclusion.   

Their successors on the other hand – the 2022/2023 cohort – assumed office with a responsibility to maintain this peace on campus while acting on frustrations raised by students like the National Student Financial Aid Scheme’s accommodation cap and the registration of students with historical debt. These and the issues below are some of the stumbling blocks the SRC has had to face.   

The elections 

SRC elections take place annually over a space of two consecutive days. The polls open at nine in the morning and close at eight in the evening on both days, with the goal of achieving at least 25% voter turnout. Last year, this was not the case. 

The 2022/2023 SRC election failed to meet the 25% threshold by 8pm. Only 24,08% of the 41 794 students at Wits had cast their votes and the deadline had to be extended for an additional hour. An occurrence last seen during the 2020/2021 elections. To make matters worse, by the time the polls closed, the total number of voters had only increased by a percentage point. 

A pie chart representing the students that participated in the 2022/2023 SRC elections as compared to those that did not. Visualisation: Otsile Swaratlhe

What was introduced to the students as a council of 21 members, now only has 18 student representatives. Following the #WitsShutdown, elected President Aphiwe Mnyamana, support officer Lisa Sabaca together with clubs, societies, organisations (CSO) and student governance officer Solami Buthelezi were suspended and are currently still attending their respective disciplinary hearings. 

The 2022-2023 officially elected SRC members and their respective offices. Visualisation: Otsile Swaratlhe

The #WitsShutdown was a call by the SRC to mobilize students to bring all campus activities to a halt through protest action. With issues around financial and academic exclusion at the core of the protest.  However, some of the actions taken under this hashtag, like the destruction of public and institutional property were deemed reckless, illegal and lawless – resulting in the suspensions.

Kamogelo Mabe is now the acting President and has delegated the tasks of the CSO and student governance officer to the office of the deputy president. 

Promises, promises  

While there are no set goals for the SRC as a collective, it is important to hold them to the promises made while campaigning. Ten members of the Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA) – a SASCO (South African Students Congress) & ANCYL (African National Congress Youth League) alliance – ran for SRC with the same manifesto. All of them made it into the council. In it, they demanded a safe house on campus for victims of gender-based violence (GBV), reducing international students’ 75% upfront payment to 30% and called for allowances to be processed and paid by the first of each month. 

Bukisa Boniswa was the only member of the EFFSC (Economic Freedom Fighters Student Command) – that made it into the SRC. Their manifesto was longer and included demands like a 24-hour bus operating beyond Braamfontein, campus health operating 24 hours and a Visa facilitation service office on campus for students’ consultation. 

It is worth mentioning that Lesego Makinita and Solami Buthelezi ran as independent candidates, but Makinita was a former longstanding member of the PYA and Buthelezi is a SASCO member. 

Buthelezi’s campaign was women centred, demanding free sanitary pads, a GBV safe house like the PYA and the introduction of a rule that will exclude students with sexual offences from staying at Wits residences. Makinita’s campaign focused broadly on improved accommodation, transportation, health services and financial assistance for students. 

What was delivered on 

The 2022/2023 cohort introduced the century of inclusion fund. These were funds aimed at registering students with debt and bringing back students who faced  financial exclusion.  

An infographic of the contributions that made up the SRC’ R12.6 million Century of Inclusion Fund. Photo: Otsile Swaratlhe

The money for this was raised through several initiatives that brought in a total of R12.6 million. Falling short of the R33 million required to help students in need.  

Accommodation in and around campus has always been a challenge. However, NSFAS’s introduction of a R45 000 cap on accommodation, exacerbated the problem.  

Working together with the Wits Citizenship and Community Outreach (WCCO), the SRC was able to help students apply for a hardship fund that was dedicated to securing free accommodation for students. Moreover, this fund was also able to help students waiver the R10 000 needed upfront before moving into Wits residences.  

They also met with the COO of Dunwell Properties, Thando Cele for a donation of beds, and secured 300 beds for students that were sleeping in toilets, offices and libraries on campus. 

Lastly, the promise to address feminine hygiene was also fulfilled. Through the installation of sanitary pad dispensers, the SRC finally delivered on their #EndPeriodPoverty campaign, which was initially spearheaded by last term’s SRC deputy president, Lesego Louw. 

Issues NOT addressed 

In the presence of these achievements, are some dropped balls. The #WitsShutdown for instance saw several key SRC thrown out of office and delayed the start of the academic year for those who participated in particular. Most of the student population continued with classes in a blended mode when the protest threatened in-person attendance.

Moreover, 559 NSFAS beneficiaries have been defunded since the second semester began. According to a tweet by the SRC, of the 10 000 students that are covered by the financial aid scheme, only 1 425 of the students had received their allowances by July 11th and about 3 000 of them were yet to be onboarded to the new system.  

While having promised to demand a consistent payment system for allowances, National Research Ffoundation (NRF) and Gauteng City Region Academy (GCRA) beneficiaries have never received allowances on the same day for two consecutive months.  

A statistic of the students that are covered by NSFAS at Wits and how many have been defunded. Photo: Otsile Swaratlhe

Additionally, students allege that the SRC has been unable to assist with ongoing maintenance issues at residences such as rolling blackouts outside of loadshedding hours at the residences on west campus, water cuts and sometimes lack of hot water at Junction in Parktown. 

With this year’s elections around the corner – voting set to start on September 19 – there are many things to be considered before casting your vote.  

While one’s campaign will always contain promises, it is important to think about feasibility and the challenges that being in the SRC comes with.  

FEATURED: The officially announced members of the Wits 2022/2023 Student Representative Council (SRC). Photo: Supplied/@Wits_SRC


‘I saw fire erupt from the ground’ – eyewitness 

Another explosion mere weeks after the last, rocked the Johannesburg CBD on Tuesday.  

This blast was accompanied by a one-storey high fire on the corner of Bertha and De Korte streets in Braamfontein at 15:15 on September 5, 2023.  

A Total Braamfontein petrol attendant, Emmanuel Legau, told Wits Vuvuzela he heard a loud bang and then, “I saw fire erupt from the ground, and I saw someone rolling on the floor, near the where the fire broke [out].” 

The explosion in an open manhole with an Egoli Gas maintenance team in it, led to their gas truck catching alight and then the flames quickly spread close to the entrance of South Point’s Epozini student accommodation.  

A fire erupts from a gas pipe explosion during an Egoli Gas maintenance, causing damage to a truck, a nearby building and the traffic lights. Photo: Terri-Ann Brouwers.

According to the city’s mayor, Kabelo Gwamanda, the team was carrying out “preventative maintenance” on pipeline infrastructure, to be proactive and not have a repeat of the Bree Street explosion just six and a half weeks ago.  

The fire was luckily extinguished within half an hour. Spokesperson of Emergency Medical Services (EMS), Nana Radebe-Kgiba said “five people were injured and assessed on the scene,” with one Egoli Gas employee rushed to the hospital. All the injuries are said to be moderate.  

Firefighters manage the last flames of the Braamfontein gas explosion fire. Photo: Terri-Ann Brouwers.

In a statement, Egoli Gas called the fire on the gas line “unfortunate” and said they will be working more closely with the City of Joburg when carrying out maintenance in future to ensure public safety.   

Floyd Brink, member of the Mayoral Committee (MMC) said an investigation is underway to determine the cause. 

The aftermath of the Braamfontein gas explosion fire. Photo: Terri-Ann Brouwers.

FEATURED IMAGE: A crowd look on as a from a gas pipe explosion engulfs a maintenance truck and a nearby vacant building. Photo by Terri-Ann Brouwers.