/ 11 March 2021

Wits VC pleads with Nzimande for guidance

Professor Zeblon Vilakazi 0726 Dv
Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, the new vice-chancellor of Wits University. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

The installation of Professor Zeblon Vilakazi as the vice-chancellor and principal of the University of the Witwatersrand was postponed after a man was shot by police in Braamfontein on Wednesday.

Mthokozisi Ntumba, 35, was hit by three rubber bullets during a student protest. He was walking on De Beer Street in Braamfontein from a clinic.

Wits students have been protesting against the exclusion of some students who have historical debt and cannot reregister because of their outstanding fees.

Vilakazi said on Thursday that the university regrets the death of Ntumba because of the bad handling of the student protest. 

“I also want to put it on record that the university management didn’t call any police on students. What happened outside the university premises is a matter of public order concerning JMPD [Johannesburg metropolitan police department] and SAPS [South African Police Service],” Vilakazi said.

“We will also be following up with the Independent Police Investigative Directorate to ensure the incidents of yesterday are speedily investigated. The law must be applied. We have reached out to students to make use of the trauma counselling services available in the university. That is deeper than the financial problems.

“We will not be running a university of free thought if we do not allow protest, but these must be handled well and safely. At the moment we are focusing on arresting the situation at hand and ensuring safety on campus.”

Vilakazi said the issue of student debt was a national issue. 

“I would like the minister of higher education today, to hopefully address solutions and guidelines on how universities can manage fee increases. Just give us a direction of which route to take. We need guidance. Wits alone cannot address the issues we are facing,” he said.

Wits spokesperson Shirona Patel said 1 200 students have applied for financial assistance and 750 of them have been assisted. 

She confirmed that the total student debt is R1-billion.

Vilakazi announced that R10-million from the Hardship Funding, which is only for accommodation or the registration for students with socioeconomic difficulties, has been availed to students who have fallen through the cracks because their parents lost their jobs.

Since Monday, about 25 000 students have been part of the online academic programme. 

“Academics are continuing online,” said Vilakazi. “We are adamant that we will move to a hybrid model of learning meaning mixing both online and physical learning modes. 

“We are meeting the student representative council as university management today to resolve certain matters and see if we cannot reach an agreement. We might not agree on everything of course,” he added.

Wits staff members are apparently working from home from Thursday because of the violent protests.

VC installation postponed

Vilakazi was supposed to be installed in a livestream ceremony at 6pm on Thursday. The event has been postponed because of the student protest.

Isaac Shongwe, chairperson of the Wits University Council, extended their condolences to Ntumba’s family.

Vilakazi has been at the helm of Wits for only two months. He started his new job on 1 January 2021 after taking over from Adam Habib. Among the problems he inherits are the financial woes of the university and the mounting student debt.

As someone who was in the past the deputy vice-chancellor for research and postgraduate studies, Vilakazi said he was familiar with issues confronting Wits.

“As the  management team our job is to manage this. We put our hands up, some of us, to take up these positions in the middle of a Covid crisis. I did not walk into this blindly … I am sure we will manage it and, believe it or not, the university will emerge stronger after this,” he told the Mail & Guardian.

Vilakazi has, for the past seven years, been leading research at the university. It has been under his leadership that the university’s research output has doubled.