FEATURE: On pursuing a degree at Wits, two options remain —Eat or drop out  

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 food insecure; 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.  

A graphic representation of meals distributed at Wits University by different dining halls and WCCO food banks during lunch time, September 5, 2023. Visualisation: Sfundo Parakozov

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. 

Wits LLB Postgraduate student and Volunteer, Nelisiwe Mgiba harvesting cabbages from the WCCO community gardens. Photo: Sfundo Parakozov  

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

RELATED ARTICLES: