Mass meeting mayhem 

Student organizations clash at meeting meant to discuss student accommodation and registration.  

Showing up to a crowded Wits Ampitheatre, students adorned in yellow and red regalia, members representing the EFF Student Command (EFFSC) and Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA) joined forces to discuss registration and accommodation issues with new and returning students.  

The Wits Student Representative Council (SRC), made up of majority EFFSC members, and the PYA initially had separate meetings planned but decided to merge their efforts on the evening of February 22, 2024.  

Bukisa Boniswa, SRC president said protest action is on the cards but would need to be “sustainable and directed to the right people”, specifically Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande.  

“Wits University has been having protests since I got here, [every year] we find ourselves in the same predicament. At some point, a level of consciousness needs to come to all of us because we can’t keep on doing the very same thing and expecting different results, that’s the definition of insanity,” said Boniswa. 

Viewing this as a party political jab, Chairperson of the ANCYL, Peterson Radasi, grabbed at the megaphone and began chanting “the SRC must fall!” A scuffle broke out when EFFSC coordinator, Sibusiso Mafolo, grabbed the megaphone from Radasi. Wits campus control officers had to intervene to restore order.  

“The president of the SRC started telling us about Jacob Zuma and Blade Nzimande which we highly disagree with. If we’re saying the doors of higher education must be opened, we all know who is closing them, and that’s the institution,” said ANCYL secretary, Kabelo Phungwayo. 

The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) introduced an accommodation cap in 2023, after discovering price fixing and corruption by university staff in some institutions. The R45 000 cap has left students with fewer affordable options.  

Since the beginning of the 2024 registration period, around 300 students from the Cape Town Peninsula University of Technology struggled to secure accommodation and slept in the university’s sports hall until they were evicted on February 14. Similarly, News24 reported that a group of 30 students from Stellenbosch University have been rendered homeless and sleeping on the university’s squash court and outside the main administration building.

“Wits accommodation prices start from R65 000, the NSFAS cap means that students must pay R20 000 before they register, where would they get that money?” said EFFSC coordinator, Sibusiso Mafolo.  

He added that around 500 individuals lack accommodation while there are approximately 1000 vacant on-campus rooms. “Wits should turn these into hardship accommodations and collaborate with private student accommodations to secure at least 20 beds for NSFAS-defunded students,” said Mafolo. 

Boniswa reassured the students that they were putting pressure on Wits management and that a way forward would be communicated on Monday, February 26, 2024.  

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

RELATED ARTICLES:



#WitsShutdown nears second week

While some are attending online classes, protesting students still have their proverbial boots on the ground as the #WitsShutdown drags on.  

Protesting students were joined by the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union affiliated workers picketing in front of the heavily guarded Wits Great Hall on Monday, March 6.  

The Great Hall piazza has been stage to increased tensions over the last few days, which saw projectiles including bricks and stones, flung from either side of the picket line. Most recently students trying to gain entry to the admin block were shoved and pepper sprayed by security officers.

Increased security in recent days, has seen the police called in to quell tensions. Photo: Mpho Hlakudi

SRC’s attempt to ‘fetch’ VC 

A group of students protested outside the Wits VC, Zeblon Vilakazi’s house in Parktown at around 22:00 on March 6, 2023, to pressure the university to meet outstanding demands. The protesters accused the vice chancellor of being “arrogant” and not taking their plight seriously after he refused to meet them, he was on campus at the time and agreed to meet with the SRC at a time yet to be confirmed. 

In a statement, the university said: “Following our engagement with the SRC, and further correspondence, the SRC has rejected the concessions presented today. Instead… about 200 students, led by the SRC, chose to march to the Vice-Chancellor’s home, and some threatened to burn it down.” The SRC denied the threat.  

“We will not put our arms down until our students are registered,” said Kabelo Phungwayo, the Wits SRC Treasurer General who said that he was left bruised after security guards assaulted him while protesting on Monday morning.  

Students kneel on the Great Hall piazza on March 6, 2023. Photo: Mpho Hlakudi

Deadlock after concessions 

Wits has made some concessions including the waiving the R10 000 first fee payment for students applying for accommodation, and the provision of free data for all students from April 1, 2023. Speaking at a mass meeting on Sunday evening SRC president, Aphiwe Mnyamana said that they “will remain resolute” until all their demands are met.  

Remaining demands include the allocation of additional beds for homeless students, scrapping of the R45 000 National Student Financial Aid Scheme accommodation cap, allowing indebted students to graduate and the lifting of suspensions.  

The university says many of these demands are simply unaffordable, the NSFAS shortfall for instance requires some R86 million.  

In a statement issued over the weekend, the minister of higher education, science and technology, Blade Nzimande said urgent meetings over the cap would take place in the coming days. Along with this, “price collusion by landlords”, would be investigated.  

Karabo Matloga, the Wits SRC compliance officer, told Wits Vuvuzela that, “We had a meeting on Saturday looked promising however, the letter that we received was simply a spit in our faces because it was not addressing the core issues we have.”  

The university said it is committed to working with the SRC subject to availability of resources and the university’s long-term sustainability.

FEATURED IMAGE: Student holding up a placard which reads, “Wits is not for good…”. Photo: Mpho Hlakudi

RELATED STORIES:

INFOGRAPHIC: Wits SRC vs Wits SET

The #WitsShutdown protests are ongoing as key demands remain unmet.

There has been much back and forth between the Wits SRC and the university’s Senior Management Team during the #WitsShutdown protests. We put some of the key issues side by side.

FEATURED IMAGE: A protesting student form the Wits EFF Student Command sings into a loudhailer. Photo: Mpho Hlakudi

RELATED STORIES:

Suspensions loom as #WitsShutdown continues

Protests on campus spilled out onto the streets of Braamfontein as students continued with their call to “leave no student behind”.

Campus Protection Services (CPS) beefed up their presence to include private security on Wits University’s main campus, which saw men and women dressed in orange and black act as the only barrier between protesting students and those continuing with the academic programme on March 2, 2023. Police officers were also stationed at some university entrances at various points in the day.

Following a mass meeting on the evening of March 1, 2023, protesting students ramped up efforts to have activities on campus grind to a halt. At different points in the day groups of students took the protest off campus and onto Empire Road, Smit Street and Jorissen Streets, blocking traffic with their bodies and burning tyres.

In video footage taken by TimesLive journalist, Thabo Tshabalala, some protestors could be seen vandalising property and threatening shop-owners to close up shop.

Along with this, classes taking place in various venues were disrupted. The university has condemned these acts and said this is no longer a peaceful protest. In a statement, Wits head of communications, Shirona Patel said: “We cannot be held to ransom by a small group of disruptors, and we now have no choice but to act firmly against those who contravene the University’s rules.”

The university’s Legal Office is now studying video footage, photographs and statements given to CPS, “with a view to suspending the disruptors in line with the University’s policies and procedures and taking appropriate legal action to ensure that the rights of others are not infringed,” Patel added.

Protesting students took their fight to the streets of Braamfontein on March 2, 2023. Photo: Mpho Hlakudi

Members of the Wits SRC told Wits Vuvuzela that they will not stop protesting until all their demands are met and students are able to register, as such their demands now include an extension of the first block by one week.

In a statement, the Wits SRC said that talks with the National Student Financial Aid Scheme and the department of higher education failed. Now, the SRC has called for the immediate removal of Blade Nzimande and his deputy Buti Manamela for poor performance. Along with this demand they are calling for the withdrawal of the R45 000 NSFAS accommodation cap, and the increase of the NSFAS allowance to R2000 to address the high cost of living.

FEATURED IMAGE: A burning tyre pictured on the middle of Empire Road in Braamfontein on March 2, 2023. Photo: Mpho Hlakudi

RELATED STORIES: