Hope for Witsie homeless

WORK, SLEEP, REPEAT:  Applied Drama MA student Limpho Kou reenacts a “sleeping” situation amongst Witsies working and studying in the CNS labs in Senate House, to draw their attention to the issue that their peers live and sleep in computer labs and libraries on campus.    Photo: Lameez Omarjee

WORK, SLEEP, REPEAT: Applied Drama MA student Limpho Kou reenacts a “sleeping” situation amongst Witsies working and studying in the CNS labs in Senate House, to draw their attention to the issue that their peers live and sleep in computer labs and libraries on campus. Photo: Lameez Omarjee

A new project to create awareness about homeless students sleeping in campus libraries and computer labs, is gaining attention.

The project was spearheaded by a Wits master’s student, as part of her academic research. It aims to give voice to students living in computer labs and libraries on campus.

The hope is that through exposing this on-going issue, there would be some solutions by the Wits community to help those who do not have the financial means for proper accommodation.

Creating awareness

As part of a project for theatre as activism, education and therapy, masters in applied drama student Susie Maluleke chose the topic as she remembers seeing students sleeping in the CNS labs on campus since first year.

The project plan consists of hosting workshops at the project sites: the computer labs and libraries, to ask students whether they know that their peers use the same space for sleeping or living.

Additionally, with the help of classmates, Maluleke will put up displays of make-shift sleeping spots, “I’m going to provide a blanket to create a sleeping display, but not a comfortable sleeping place to make people realise the space is used for different purposes.”

Maluleke identified the students through their “huge bags”.

“You could see these people weren’t living anywhere outside that space.”

At the time Maluleke felt there was nothing she could do, but now she has an opportunity to address the issue by creating dialogue around it and find help for these students by talking about it.

A friend of hers knew someone who spent two years living and sleeping in the labs, “because they didn’t qualify for financial aid from NSFAS”. Students struggle to afford accommodation off campus and transport costs for places outside Johannesburg are also hard to cover.

“You get to go to Wits but you might not be able to afford to eat or live.”

Maluleke had a friend who was sleeping in the computer labs because she could not afford to pay for taxi services from Wits to Soweto every day. “They don’t have bus services, they don’t have scholarships.”

She was particularly struck by the fact that there was no visible information in labs indicating where students could seek help. “It saddens me. There must be something that can be done about these people.”

Impacting campus

Lecturer Cherae Halley who gave the students the project as part of their course said they were required to find a community or site to address a social issue for their final year project. In previous years, students raised awareness about the sexual assault by lecturers on students, according to Halley.

Even though this is course work, this project could possibly help the homeless students, through raising awareness.

Her supervisor Anthony Schrag commended Maluleke for taking on a local and context specific project that resonated with national issues. “We have these positions of privilege that people sort of access but not really access. You get to go to Wits but you might not be able to afford to eat or live.”

The project is only in its beginning stages and will continue until the end of the semester. However, Maluleke hopes the impact of the project will be big enough to continue even after she graduates. She hopes that Wits would create a body for students to go to for help.

She does, however, know of a student in the same situation who received help from Wits Services.

“She is trying to challenge those departments and challenge them to do more about it. If she makes an impact future students that arrive here might not find themselves here, said Schrag.

Maluleke will only know how successful the project is once it is complete. “Success for me will be creating dialogue within those spaces. Make people engage or talk.” Schrag agreed, “With art you don’t really know until you do it.”
Halley sees the potential of the project to grow and impact the Wits community.

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The hours of darkness spent in study areas

Sleeping students in the 24-hour section of Wartenweiler library at about 4am

Sleeping students in the 24-hour section of Wartenweiler library at about 4am

While the university administration defends its right to renovate its Savernake residence, for millions of rands, students continue sleeping in the libraries as winter rapidly approaches.

The ongoing problem of students sleeping in libraries has not been resolved yet even though the news has recently been in the mainstream media.

Meanwhile the students are playing musical chairs ducking and diving from security.

When Wits Vuvuzela camped out in Wartenweiler library last week till 9pm to see if students can hide out in the library, we found that students can dodge security and sleep under desks and in toilets till the next morning. A security guard, who chose to be anonymous, verified this.

The Wartenweiler library closes at 9pm and only the 24-hour section is open.

Prof Tawana Kupe, Deputy Vice Chancellor for finance and operations said students could not sleep or stay in the library after it has closed because the library is fully alarmed. Kupe said he had not received any reports of wrongdoing in the library.

President of the SRC, Sibulele Mgudlwa, said he had seen students sleeping in Wartenweiler, Commerce, Law and Management (CLM) 24-hour section, CLM FNB, Wits Science Stadium and at CNS. Mgudlwa said, “Everyone is aware of this problem and no one is willing to assist in resolving it”.

SRC seeks to identify people sleeping in libraries and direct them to the assistant Dean of CLM, Pam Townsend and the University Registrar or the Dean of Students, Prem Coopoo.

The SRC said it did not have funds to help students with accommodation.

A 2nd year LLB, Craig Gumbo who has witnessed sleeping students in libraries said, “A white student used to sleep in the printing room every night. He used the same clothes and carried washing powder with him”.

In a media briefing held to address the issue of Savernake, contrasted to the problem of homeless students, among other issues, Adam Habib, incoming Vice Chancellor said, “These two issues need to be addressed separately” and “it is unfortunate to put the two together.”

“We will try our utmost best to identify, intervene and assist these students.”

Kupe said in a newsletter: “In this budget, Wits will spend about R65-million from its own coffers on financial aid and scholarships (up from R59 million in 2012), in addition to administering over R162 million in National Student Financial Aid Scheme funding and other bursaries and scholarships.”

The university administration did not give any concrete ideas about how it would solve the problem of the homeless students.