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.”
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.
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
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 foodinsecure; 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.
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.
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
Aspiring graduates who were wrongly defunded by the government’s financial aid are left in the dark as they try to rectify the situation
The National Student Financial Aid Scheme’s (NSFAS) remedial process of defunding students who were financially assisted based on incorrect information, leaves some in a precarious position — as the financial aid scheme erroneously stopped supporting students who qualify.
Thabo Ngubane*, a third-year Wits mechanical engineering student found himself squatting in the library and bathing in the gym after NSFAS incorrectly defunded him without warning.
He told Wits Vuvuzela that he realised that he was defunded in June when he checked his application portal and noticed that he was flagged for having a household income of more than R350 000.
But he insisted that the scheme has made a mistake: “My mom works in HR and earns less than 350k [and] my dad passed away,” he explained.
In July, NSFAS said it initiated the process to act on the findings of the Auditor General and the Special Investigation Unit (SIU). This is after in April, an SIU investigation revealed that NSFAS had paid more than R5 billion, from 2018 to 2021, to students who did not qualify for bursaries.
Aphilile Zulu, a second year NMU BCom Accounting student said she received an SMS in June stating that her funding was “revoked because of missing documents, while I’ve [been] receiving NSFAS for the past five months”. She is currently appealing the matter.
Masego Modisane, who currently owes UNISA R6000 in school fees said when she checked her account on the NSFAS portal, “it said that I had exceeded the n+2 rule” despite being in her final year of studying towards a BA in criminology.
According to the Nsfas website, the N+2 rule states that a student can take up to two additional years to complete their qualification, if need be, on top of the number of years it takes to complete their studies.
Meanwhile, Wits SRC’s compliance officer, Karabo Matloga said that the financial aid scheme should have at least allowed students who were currently enrolled to continue with their studies. “They have made the commitment [at the] start of the year therefore it is also their responsibility to fulfil that commitment for the year.”
In a statement NSFAS said, “We have, however, received complaints that some students were defunded incorrectly. If such cases are true, this is regrettable.
“A process of verifying these complaints will be immediately initiated and were proven otherwise, remedial action will be taken.”
Wits Vuvuzela made multiple attempts to contact the scheme for comment on how long the remedial process for students who were wrongfully defunded will take; but is yet to receive a response.
*Name changed to protect identity.
FEATURED IMAGE: Wits engineering student studying in the computer lab with his sleeping bag and belongings beside him. Photo: Nonhlanhla Mathebula.
Student leaders have secured at least 300 beds for scholar without a roof.
The Wits Student Representative Council (SRC) has managed to secure 300 beds for students who have been without accommodation since the beginning of the academic year.
This comes after the SRC’s meeting with Dunwell Properties’ COO Thando Cele on April 19, to try resolve the Wits accommodation crisis. A deal was then struck to provide beds for students that are without a roof.
In a written response to Wits Vuvuzela, Cele said that “the deal was initiated by Dunwell’s drive to participate in solutions to resolving student accommodation challenges.”
The SRC said in a tweet on Wednesday, May 17 that “the first 180 NSFAS appealing students have been successfully allocated beds and the remaining 120 beds will be issued as per the increase in demand from affected students.”
The deal comes after students protested at the beginning of the year over financial exclusion and accommodation. The student protests were fuelled by the NSFAS R45 000 accommodation cap as well as the lack of response to students that are appealing their funding status. The cap was instituted as a way to manage price fixing and profiteering by private providers, this is according to higher education minister Dr Blade Nzimande.
Karabo Matloga, SRC compliance officer, told Wits Vuvuzela that Dunwell Properties reached out to them and said they have beds. They then agreed in the meeting to accommodate all the NSFAS students, including those that are appealing.
Dunwell will offer accommodation to students who have appealed for NSFAS and are still awaiting their respective outcomes, students will be able to reside at our building without confirmation of funding”, emphasized Cele.
Matloga, added that “this mechanism is mainly to reduce the pressure from the ‘hardship fund’ so that the university can focus on students that are not NSFAS funded and are not funded by bursaries.” The hardship fund is established by the university to assist students with financial assistance and accommodation based on their socio-economic circumstances.
Students were seen sleeping in libraries and in labs while waiting for NSFAS’ decision on the appeal process.
A third-year accounting science student, who did not want to be named said, “I was struggling a lot, it was affecting me bad mentally and I felt isolated because I was sleeping in a lab.” “I was also struggling academically”, he added.
FEATURED IMAGE: Wits students walking into Dunwell offices to sign their leases after receiving communication from the SRC. Photo: Sbongile Molambo
The financial aid scheme missed its own deadline, March 31, to resolve all appeals.
As many as 450 Wits students remain unclear about the status of their NSfas funding appeals.
This was revealed after an April 17 meeting that the SRC had called to deal with an increasing number of students who are being evicted by private residences because it is not clear if they will be funded, according to treasurer general, Kabelo Phungwayo.
The meeting, which took place in the SRC boardroom at the Wits Matrix, was attended by more than 80 students who spilled into the hallway for lack of space.
A second-year bachelor of health sciences student, Isikelele Mpoto, told Wits Vuvuzela that she was facing eviction from her accommodation. She said she was funded by NSfas for a year-and-a-half, until she was academically excluded.
This year she had travelled from the Eastern Cape to attend a Wits Readmission Committee hearing on January 17, and could not afford to go back home. Her mother, who is the sole wage earner in the family, and is supporting five children, then took on the burden of paying for her accommodation, hoping that NSfas would take over.
“My mother had to take out loans [for my accommodation]. She cannot always send money, so sometimes I eat once a day, and I still have to cross-night and study,” said Mpoto, who, like many students, does not have a book allowance or stipend to get essentials.
Phungwayo said that during the fee protests in February, the SRC had met with NSfas and brought up the issue of students who were sleeping in libraries and toilets, because of the financial uncertainty created by the slow pace with which NSFAS was communicating the statuses of their appeals. NSfas had then promised to resolve all appeals by the end of March and established an appeals tribunal to fast-track the processing of the 70 000 appeals they had received nationally, for 2023. This did not happen, according to Phungwayo.
He added that since 2020, students have had to use a centralised portal to lodge appeals, and the SRC recommends that appeals be relocated to individual universities, to avoid this kind of breakdown in progress.
Samora Mbomba, the regional coordinator of the South African Students Congress who has been working with the SRC on the matter, says that the problem is that once on the NSfas portal, “students were asked to upload certain documents, but when they go to upload those documents, the portal says no documents required.”
She says she has recently been in contact with the National Assembly chairperson of the portfolio committee on higher education, science and innovation, Nompendulo Mkhatshwa, a former SRC president, who had requested the names and identity numbers of the affected students. Mbomba says she believes that things will move a bit quicker now.
The SRC announced on its Twitter page that any students who had missed the April 17 meeting were welcome to come to the office every day between 3pm and 7pm, so they could be added to the list.
Wits Vuvuzela contacted the Wits NSfas office on April 18, and was told to write an email to the office of the Wits CFO. Executive secretary to the CFO, Marelize van Niekerk then forwarded the email to the financial aid and scholarships office manager, Charlene Timmerman, who did not respond. Wits Vuvuzela followed up with further emails to Timmerman on April 20 and 24 but has yet to receive a response.
FEATURED IMAGE: Wits students who have yet to receive outcomes of NSfas their funding appeals, met in the SRC boardroom on April 17. Photo: Morongoa Masebe
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.
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.
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
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