/ 6 March 2023

As student march to Wits vice-chancellor’s home, higher education sets up new committee to deal with protesters concerns

Wits Protest
File photo: The pilot project involves 39 public higher education institutions, including the University of Johannesburg and the University of the Western Cape. (Photo by Ihsaan Haffejee/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The students representative council (SRC) has dismissed claims that University of the Witwatersrand students wanted to burn the vice-chancellor’s home on Sunday night. 

The students began protesting on Wednesday over the exclusion of those who cannot register for the new academic year because they owe the university money or cannot secure accommodation at residences because they cannot afford the deposit.

The SRC demands that all students who were registered in 2022 and are academically eligible to return to Wits should be allowed to register for the 2023 academic year — including part-time and occasional students.

Furthermore, the SRC wants National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) students in off-campus accommodation not be required to pay a deposit. The balance of the accommodation cost and all accredited buildings must make provision for NSFAS-funded students at the scheme’s rates.

This comes after NSFAS this year introduced a new policy to cap its student accommodation allowance at R45 000 a year.

The SRC said in a statement that they had decided to walk peacefully to the home of vice-chancellor Zeblon Vilakazi, seeking to be addressed by him on the demands raised by the SRC on behalf of the students.

“It is misinformation that students meant any harm, threat or violence as students walked to the vice-chancellor’s home peacefully and accompanied by campus security for safety reasons,” the SRC said in its statement.

“As per norm, the vice-chancellor arrogantly still did not present himself to address the masses of students outside his home.”

In response, Wits spokesperson Shirona Patel said the university is managing the situation as best as it can, adding that violent behaviour is unacceptable as a way of resolving problems.

“We will continue to engage [with the students] but also to preserve the integrity of the academic project, the safety of our staff and students and the university’s infrastructure. It is important and necessary for the academic programme to continue,” said Patel.

She added that after extensive discussions with the SRC on Saturday, Wits’ senior executive team met on Sunday, 5 March, to consider the demands put forward by the SRC.

In response, the university said this demand had been amended to the original demand which was that all students owing up to R150 000 be allowed to register. 

The university said: “Given resource constraints, the university is not able to allow all students across all programmes, whether full-time, part-time or occasional, to register without them meeting the re-registration requirements.”

The SRC then said it rejected the university’s exclusion of students who cannot register because of the university’s set criteria.

“We reject the universities’ stance as their set concessions does not address the pertinent issue at the heart of this protest,” said the SRC.

Students also demand that the university absorb the R86 million accommodation budget shortfall created as a result of NSFAS capping on-campus accommodation at R45 000 a year.

The university responded to this demand by saying they agreed to establish a working group with the SRC for the purpose of working on a response to the accommodation funding crisis created as a result of the NSFAS cap. 

“This working group will also jointly engage NSFAS and all other relevant parties on seeking solutions to this crisis, as Wits University is not able to absorb this shortfall because it would compromise the financial sustainability of the institution,” said the university.

Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande met Universities South Africa (Usaf), an umbrella body representing the 26 public universities, to discuss the concerns raised by students.

A statement issued on Saturday after the meeting said the issue of the recently introduced NSFAS R45 000 accommodation cap was discussed.

The meeting resolved to establish a committee comprising the department of higher education and training, Usaf and vice-chancellors from all affected institutions to consider solutions for those affected by the cap.

Furthermore, the committee will meet urgently next week to look at cases and practical solutions. It would take into account a number of contradictory facts affecting the implementation of the R45 000 cap.

Wits SRC president Aphiwe Mnyamana said most of the NSFAS recipients were beneficiaries of grants from the South African Social Security Agency, which meant they cannot pay an additional R35 000 for accommodation.

“So this means next year 60% of our NSFAS students will not be able to register because of the cap,” said Mnyamana.

Nzimande also reiterated the arrangements were made for all NSFAS-funded students to be registered by all institutions without paying an upfront registration fee.

Nzimande strongly condemned instances of violence, saying that violent protests are wholly unacceptable and provide no solution to student concerns.