/ 1 June 2012

Wits: building a better future

The Chamber of Mines building on Wits' Braamfontein campus.
The Chamber of Mines building on Wits' Braamfontein campus.

A “treasure trove of African art” is how the University of the Witwatersrand  describes its new arts museum, which opened its doors to the public in mid-May.
It has a collection of 9 000 works of mostly traditional but also contemporary African art and artefacts.

The R40-million museum is one of several infrastructure developments in which the university and public and private funders have invested heavily. A whopping R1.5-billion was pumped into the programme in 2009 to “modernise, renew and upgrade [the university’s] physical and educational resources”.

The projects will boost Wits University’s research capacity and increase its student intake. In fact, the building programme underpins its ambition to be listed in the top-100 global universities by 2022.

“Wits University has been investing in [its] infrastructure development programme over the last four years for the benefit of our staff and students,” said vice-chancellor Loyiso Nongxa. 

Shirona Patel, the university’s spokesperson, said the investment had gone into new buildings and in upgrading existing infrastructure, which comprises more than 260 buildings on 440 hectares.

New public health building
“There are more than 70 active projects running at present,” Patel said. It includes the R120-million school of public health building, a four-storey state-of-the-art facility on its Parktown campus next to land that has been allocated for the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital. She said the university wanted the school to provide a “new base to train public health specialists in the country and Africa” and its building would be completed later this year.

Work on the hospital would begin this year, she said, but it was not a Wits project, although the university would provide academic support and research capacity.

The university’s projects include upgrading the academic facilities on the education campus in Parktown, which is costing R53-million. On completion in February next year, the campus will boast refurbished classrooms and a new lecture theatre with 500 seats.

More than anything else, the opening of the art museum in May illustrates the progress Wits University is making, although the FNB building and the Chamber of Mines building are the first major academic facilities to be completed and opened to date.

“The university’s infrastructure development programme made significant headway in 2011,” Patel said, when the FNB building was opened.

It houses the university’s school of accountancy and was the first major building to be completed. The three-storey building on the Braamfontein campus was revamped at a cost of R81-million, which included contributions from the Wits Foundation, the department of higher education and training, First National Bank, PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Professional Provident Society.

Government involvement
Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande officially opened the building in April last year. The department is a major contributor to Wits University’s entire infrastructure development programme.

The Chamber of Mines building, a five-storey building on the Braamfontein campus, is home to the faculties of commerce, law and management, as well as the schools of mining engineering and electrical and information engineering. It was officially opened this year.

The Science Stadium might sound like a high-performance sports centre, but it is not. It is a high-class -science facility comprising five large lecture theatres with a capacity of 1 500 seats, 14 tutorial rooms and three large laboratories for undergraduate training in chemistry, -physics and biology.

Patel said it could accommodate 3 500 students. Costing R179-million, its first phase was opened to students in 2011. Construction of the “stadium’s” second phase would start later this year, she said. “Phase two will accommodate the mathematical sciences.”

Patel said the venue had a long sports history, hence it was still referred to as a stadium. “It is a first in South Africa — an old stadium turned into a state-of-the-art science facility. It was once a cattle ring, part of the Rand Show. [Apartheid-era prime minister Hendrick] Verwoerd was shot here. You can still see parts of the heritage site that we have preserved, [including] an old bandstand and a grandstand.”

Student accommodation
Student accommodation has been included in the development. Two new residential facilities in Parktown have increased the number of students in its residences.

Students moved into the new Wits Junction complex in July last year, when its first phase was completed at a cost of R511-million.

A new batch of students is soon expected to move into the residence, which has a total of 1 209 beds.

Emmanuel Prinsloo, director of campus development and planning, said: “The university is accepting delivery of the third and final phase at the end of May 2012 and looks forward to receiving applications from students to live in this complex.”

A new R26-million building with 93 beds was recently completed at the Sunnyside residence. Students moved into the new wing at the beginning of the current academic year.

Nongxa said: “We are confident that this renewal and regeneration will assist in helping us to create an environment conducive to fostering teaching, learning and research at the highest levels and which will enable us to compete with the best in the world.”