#WitsShutdown: Suspensions must stop or ceasefire will flop

A brief reprieve at Wits University, as protesting students momentarily call off protest action.  

The deputy president of the Wits student representative council (SRC), Kamogelo Mabe declared a 24-hour ceasefire on March 8, as the group prepares to finally meet with Vice Chancellor, Zeblon Vilakazi.

The ceasefire is conditional, Mabe called for all ‘bouncers’ (security officers) to be removed from campuses and for no further suspensions to be enacted by the university.   

“This is a stance that we are taking as student leaders. We are not intimidated, we are not pressured into any position, but we are simply saying that we are, for the last time, revisiting this conversation,” said Mabe at a press briefing. 

Several student protesters including the Wits SRC president, Aphiwe Mnyamana remain suspended from the university. The suspensions bar the students from entering the university premises including residences, making them effectively homeless and unable to continue with their studies. 

Speaking to eNCA, the university’s spokesperson Shirona Patel welcomed the ceasefire and said that they were willing to meet the SRC’s demands to facilitate dialogue. Patel added that the university has already acceded to the SRC’s demand to remove the police presence in and around the university and will reduce the number of private security guards as the situation deescalates. 

“I’ve been here before the pandemic, and I’ve seen like protests like in 2019 and I’m a bit unfazed by it because it’s something that like we almost expect now so it’s a bit disheartening to me that like we’re still having these conversations even though I’ve been here since 2019 this is 2023 and it’s still the same conversation,” said Owethu Tema, a third-year architecture student 

Similar protests are taking place at the Tshwane University of Technology, the University of Pretoria, and the University of Cape Town, among others. The same issues persist at these institutions, students simply cannot afford both the high cost of education and the living expenses that come with being a student.  

FEATURED IMAGE: Left to right: Wits SRC members Karabo Matloga, deputy president Kamogelo Mabe and secretary general Tshiamo Chuma at the press briefing on March 8, 2023. Photo: Mpho Hlakudi

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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

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GALLERY: Tensions rise on third day of protests

From the early hours of Friday morning, the ongoing #WitsShutdown protests became physical.

Things came to a head between protesting students and private security officers and Campus Protection Services (CPS) on March 3, 2023. What started out as security using their shields to bar students from entering buildings or using certain entrances, quickly escalated into water, bricks and other projectiles being hurled by some protestors.

Members of the South African Police Service (SAPS) have now entered the fray, with multiple nyala’s standing at the ready in front of the Great Hall steps to provide reinforcements.

FEATURED IMAGE: A traffic cone about to be flung at security officers. Photo: Mpho Hlakudi

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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

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Wits SRC: Students cannot be displaced on our watch

Some Wits University students have joined the countrywide protests over historical debt and unaffordable student accommodation.

Scores of students, staff and visitors were turned away at the Yale Road North and Empire Road entrances of Wits University on the morning of March 1, 2023, as a group of students led by the student representative council (SRC) used their bodies, plastic road barriers and rubbish to block entry.

Students blocking the Empire Road entrance to main campus, as protests over historic debt and accommodation reach Wits University after weeks of similar protest action across the country. Photo: Seth Thorne

The attempted shutdown is aimed at addressing a number of students who have been unable to register due to existing debt and those without accommodation. Many can not afford the rentals charged at some university residences and private off-campus residences alike, forcing them to take shelter in libraries, toilet stalls and other unsuitable spaces.

When approached by Wits Vuvuzela, some members of the SRC were reluctant to speak on the record but said their demands to management had not been met and the shutdown would be in place until they were. In an interview with eNCA, deputy secretary of the SRC, Vuyiswa Mochochoko said, “over 10 000 students” have been financially excluded and are in need of assistance to continue with their studies.

In a statement, the university said the protest came as a “surprise” as they had been working with the SRC up to a few hours before the protest to assist qualifying students with their registration. “Wits has matched the R6,2 million brought in by the SRC rand for rand. In effect, there is a pot of R12,4 million available in the SRC Fund for qualifying students,” the statement says.

The university added that 36 200 students (96% of the student population) have successfully registered for the academic year and R28 million raised through the Wits Hardship Fund has been used to assist with some of these registrations and to provide emergency accommodation.

While the SRC is demanding that all students with debt below R150 000 be allowed to register, these are the concessions the university has made so far:

  • allowing students who owe R10 000 or less to register, 
  • allowing students whose total household income is below R600 000 to apply for registration assistance by paying 50% of the outstanding debt due and by making an arrangement to pay the balance of the debt during the course of the academic year, and 
  • allowing students who owe R15 000 or less to graduate.
A group of protesting students block the Yale Road entrance onto main campus near the Origins Centre. The protest on March 1, 2023 saw some students being pulled out of lecture halls in an attempt to shut down all activities on campus. Photo: Mpho Hlakudi

The protesters disrupted lectures and assessments, which may prompt the need to move online if the situation on the ground continues.

“We were supposed to write a test today and we couldn’t write it and I studied for it and I planned and now like the whole week is like, was a waste, all my studying. I’m really mad that we didn’t get to write that test and now we have to do it next week but we have another test next week so you know, I was very upset about that. Yeah, no, its going to be so stressful,” said Isabella Pedra, a second-year Bsc occupational therapy student.

Shannon Henning, a second-year BSc student told Wits Vuvuzela that, “I feel like if it was more peaceful more people would join them but I feel like when there’s vandalism, like the whole Yale Road is covered in litter now and I’m like, if I was a student I don’t wanna be represented by that. I would rather join something that’s peaceful than something where you’re breaking things and you’re littering everywhere, I don’t wanna be associated with that type of protest action.”

As reported by Wits Vuvuzela earlier this year, several universities and technical vocational education and training colleges have seen protests over the same issues being raised by the Wits SRC.

FEATURED IMAGE: A protesting student holds up a placard which reads, “We must register” on March 1, 2023. Photo: Mpho Hlakudi

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Thousands of ANC and DA protesters took to the streets of Johannesburg on Wednesday, January 26, blocking roads around Chief Albert Luthuli House.

DA supporters swarmed Gandhi square near Luthuli House while the ANC Youth League marched around the ANC’s headquarters. The former to demand action on loadshedding and the latter to ‘protect’ their party in a counter-protest. Here’s how events unfolded and how the police managed to keep control.

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