South Africa


Wits SRC announces campus shutdown to protest against accommodation caps and financial exclusion

Wits SRC announces campus shutdown to protest against accommodation caps and financial exclusion
Students outside the Great Hall at Wits University 7 February 2019. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sowetan / Sandile Ndlovu)

Students at Wits University are protesting in a shutdown initiated by their SRC over NSFAS accommodation caps and financial exclusion. Many students at the university are sleeping in libraries as they cannot afford housing because of the NSFAS caps.

A campus shutdown at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) was announced by the students’ representative council (SRC) on Wednesday, 1 March. 

In a statement, the SRC claimed the university was in a “state of emergency” because of ongoing issues related to housing and financial exclusion. Students protested outside the Yale Road north entrance and the university deployed Campus Protection Services to monitor protests. The SRC encouraged students to not engage in academic activity and said it “cannot be business as usual”. 

The SRC noted that many students were without housing and sleeping in libraries because they cannot afford university residences. An important factor in Wits’ housing issues is the National Student Financial Aid Scheme’s (NSFAS’s) announcement that allowances for accommodation will be capped at R45,000 this year — an amount deemed unfeasible by many because of the high costs of living and housing. One of the demands of the SRC is that this  R45,000 cap is “scrapped with immediate effect”. 

The NSFAS accommodation caps have fuelled tensions on campuses across the country, including the University of Cape Town, where a shutdown over unhoused students and fee blocks was initiated on Monday, 13 February.

Another issue raised by the SRC is students being unable to register because of debt. Over the past few weeks, the SRC launched a campaign to raise funds for these students and received a R1-million donation from the Motsepe Foundation to assist in clearing student debt. 

The SRC has demanded that “all students owing R150,000 or less should be allowed to register for the 2023 academic year”. 

Karabo Motlogo, a Wits SRC member, told TimesLIVE: “Some students owe more than R100,000 so that means the fund cannot help them… they cannot register. The academic year started two weeks ago; registration closes this week and the university is not intending on extending it.” 

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Other demands from the SRC include:

  • The R10,000 upfront fee for Wits residences be waived, and students be allowed to move in;
  • The university must allocate an additional R30-million towards the Hardship Fund accommodation allowance to secure more beds for homeless students; and
  • All students who are recipients of the Hardship Fund should be allowed to register and not pay the residual amount.

Nonhlanhla Siwela, a poet and medical student at Wits, believes the decision to protest is “necessary”. 

She told Daily Maverick: “Every year students are unfairly discriminated against based on differences in socioeconomic backgrounds. NSFAS had a mandate to mitigate these differences but fails to do so, further exacerbating existing struggles students face.

“Currently, they have introduced a R45,000 cap, which is below the bare minimum and is inadequate to provide to students in dire need. This has led to mass exclusion and failure to register, find accommodation and food for students who depend on NSFAS.” 

Wits released a statement saying the protests had “come as a surprise” after the SRC and management had been engaging for weeks on the issues. 

“Management has been working with the SRC over the past few weeks to help secure funding, largely from the private sector, to enable academically deserving students to access higher education. Up until last night, officials were in contact with the SRC trying to get as many qualifying students to register as possible. 

“It therefore comes as a surprise that despite these arrangements and the working relationship… that some members of the SRC and some students have elected to protest. Wits has matched the R6.2-million brought in by the SRC rand for rand. In effect, there is a pot of R12.4-million available in the SRC fund for qualifying students.” 

The university said it was aware of students sleeping in libraries because they could not afford accommodation. 

“The university has secured 350 beds from accredited private accommodation service providers to assist students in need, including those that have been sleeping in libraries and other spaces. These students are being assisted on a daily basis as beds become available. 

“The university and private service providers are also navigating NSFAS’s decision to cap accommodation costs at R45,000 per annum, which is regrettable. Wits appealed the decision and lobbied for a differentiated approach that takes the real cost of accommodation into account.”  

The SRC held a mass meeting at the university’s Amphitheatre on Wednesday night. DM


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