Protests mar first day of classes at Wits

Classes at Wits University were disrupted on the first day of the academic year.

Members of the Wits SRC lead a protest on the Wits main campus in Braamfontein. Photo: Onke Ngcuka.

A GROUP of about 200 students, led by the Wits Student Representative Council (SRC), disrupted lectures on Monday morning, February 4, in an attempt to shut down the Wits main campus.

The SRC said the protest was in response to a statement released by the university on Sunday, saying only students with debts of R10 000 and less would be allowed to register for 2019.

“As per the Council-approved concessions for 2019 below, only students who owe the university R10 000 or less will be allowed to roll over their debt and to register this year. These students will also be required to sign an Acknowledgement of Debt form and make arrangements with the university to pay off the debt,” read the statement, signed by vice principal Andrew Crouch.

It said the university could not afford “to allow student debt to accumulate as this will result in the university not remaining financially sustainable”.

The statement contradicted what was agreed at a meeting held on Thursday, January 31, according to the SRC, which says the figure agreed to was R100 000.

SRC president Sisanda Mbolekwa told Wits Vuvuzela that, “We met with the dean (of students, Jerome September) on Thursday, we tabled our demands to the vice principal as well. He (Crouch) agreed to these concessions, come Sunday night he releases a counter-statement telling students they can’t register anymore.”

However, according to Crouch, agreements reached at Thursday’s meeting only applied to the Hardship Fund.

The protesting students congregated inside Solomon Mahlangu House before storming lecture halls across East Campus.

One lecturer, Nompumelelo Seme, showed solidarity with the protesting students who entered her property law lecture in Umthombo building, by adjourning her class.

“I think that as property law students and law students in general, we should be concerned more about justice,” Seme told her class.

“These are causes we cannot turn a blind eye to. I apologise to those of you who feel a sense of discomfort but these are real issues,” she added.

The protesters then proceeded to West Campus where they clashed with private security and disrupted lectures at the Science Stadium before returning to Solomon Mahlangu to debrief.

The SRC has vowed to continue with the protests until the university reverses its decision.

“We’re saying that no students should be in class while other students are excluded and not registered, that’s why we are going around classes. No classes must happen until our demands are met,” Mbolekwa said.

SRC launches Hardship Fund for missing middle students

By Naledi Mashishi

Wits SRC and management collaborate to assist ‘missing middle’ students with registration fees, accommodation and historical debt.

The Wits Student Representative Council (SRC) and the Wits University management have joined hands to launch the new Hardship Fund to help ‘missing middle’ returning students. Applications for the fund closed on Thursday, January 24.

The fund is designed to help students whose annual household income falls under the R600 000 threshold and whose academic average is at least 50%. It was approved by Senate in November 2018 and formally included in the 2019 budget. The university has contributed R10 million to the fund and an additional R1 million was donated by a private donor.

SRC fundraising officer Solomzi Moleketi says that the fund was created to address systemic barriers to education that students encountered. The fund helps returning students pay their registration fees, secure accommodation, and covers up to 50% of a student’s historical debt. However, in cases where the debt exceeds R80 000, the fund will only cover up to R40 000
in order to allow as many students as possible to be assisted by the fund.

“So far we’ve helped 77 students which has cost just under R3 million,” Moleketi told Wits Vuvuzela. “We are also working out a partnership with South Point to assist with accommodation.”

The Hardship Fund is one of a number of funds that have been launched by SRCs over the years to assist students, including the Wits Humanitarian Fund which was started in 2009 and the Emergency Fund which was launched in 2018. Moleketi argues that the over the years there has been a consistent growth in funding, and the university using its funds to assist students has been an ongoing conversation stretching back to 2011. 

“We are hoping there will be more sustainability with this fund because of its inclusion in the budget. We hope that it will continue next year,” he said.

However, according to Wits chief financial officer Prakash Desai, the R10 million provided by the university was approved by Senate as a once-off item.

“During 2018, savings from other budget line items were redirected towards student hardship. Only a limited number of students are supported on the review of a substantive case made for hardship and on academic merit,” Desai said.

Beneficiaries of the fund are decided by a discretionary committee made up of the SRC, the Deputy Vice Chancellor: Academic, the Dean of Students, the Registrar, and the Finance Executive. According to Moleketi, there are an additional 400 cases to be reviewed. 

FEATURED PHOTO: The Wits SRC and management are assisting ‘missing middle’ students with a new Hardship Fund.

Photo: File