/ 7 May 2024

Wits students call on university to divest from Israel

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Students gathered outside Wits Great Hall calling on the university to voice their stance on Palestine. (Umamah Bakharia/M&G)

Students at the University of the Witwatersrand have called on the institution’s management to divest its relations with Israel in the wake of students protesting at universities around the world in solidarity with Palestine. 

On Tuesday afternoon, students gathered in front of the Great Hall building to hand over a memorandum of demands. 

The demonstration, organised by the university’s Palestine Action Committee and the Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC), follows previous correspondence with the university’s management in November “to which a partial response was given”. 

“We are extremely troubled to learn that Wits remains implicated in doing business with Israeli companies, accepting donations from the Israeli embassy, and employing a former IDF [Israel Defence Forces] officer as one of the university’s professors,” reads the letter handed to the dean of student affairs, Jerome September. 

The letter calls on the university to act per its mandate to “lead in … using [its] knowledge and influence to advance society by … promoting social justice … from the Global South”, according to the Wits Strategic Framework.

The students are now calling for the full disclosure of the university’s relations with Israeli and Israel-aligned institutions and companies, a public position in solidarity with  Palestine, and an end to what they call the censorship and intimidation of pro-Palestinian activists and activities on campus.

“We are hopeful that as the PSC and on behalf of the students we will get a positive response from Wits on Palestine in the coming days,” said Palestine Solidarity Committee executive Humaaira Mayet. 

The student representative council (SRC) has endorsed the memorandum and said it would follow up on the memorandum’s demands at the university council and senate. 

“We stand in solidarity with the people of Palestine and many other regions in the world that have been subject to oppression; we will stand by those organisations that are bringing this memorandum to the attention of Wits management,” SRC president Bukisa Boniswa said. 

Reena King, of the South African Jews for Palestine, said: “Academics are not speaking up against the genocide in Gaza and it is unacceptable that we have any association with Israel in terms of academic support and academic collaboration.”  

The demonstration was attended by faculty staff and students wearing keffiyehs and raising Palestinian flags.

Although the PSC says it will not stage an encampment as in the case of Columbia University and others, it has given Wits management seven days to respond to its demands. 

Responding to queries from M&G, Wits management said it had received the memorandum.

“The University can confirm that student groups handed over a memorandum to University executives. The memorandum will be reviewed, and the University will respond to the students in due course. The event was peaceful,” Wits spokesperson, Buhle Zama said.