Accommodation costs beyond means of Wits students who have lost bursaries

Wits SRC president Thuto Gabaphethe hands over a memorandum of demands to Gauteng MEC for education Panyaza Lesufi saying that provincial government must intervene in the student accommodation crisis.
Wits SRC president Thuto Gabaphethe hands over a memorandum of demands to Gauteng MEC for education Panyaza Lesufi saying that provincial government must intervene in the student accommodation crisis.
Image: Sisanda Aluta Mbolekwa

“I share your frustration, I share your pain. I know the difficulties of being a student without accommodation.”

This is what Gauteng education MEC Panyaza Lesufi told protesting University of the Witwatersrand students on Thursday.

The students, represented by the student representative council, marched to the Gauteng legislature ahead of the state of the province debate. Led by SRC president Thuto Gabaphethe, the group of about 50 students asked the provincial government to assist in their demands over accommodation at the institution.

About 200 students have been registered but are homeless, according to the marchers.

“We have identified that there are unoccupied buildings owned by government, when there are students languishing in Braamfontein, being forced to sleep in libraries, laboratories, Park Station, MTN and Bree [street] taxi ranks. These buildings must be opened for students,” Gabaphethe said.

LISTEN TO WHAT THEY HAD TO SAY:

Lesufi and former Wits SRC leader Fasiha Hassan, who is now a member of the provincial legislature, met the students and accepted a memorandum they handed over.

Lesufi addressed the students, saying: “I know the difficulties of being a student, not knowing where your meal will come from. I know the pain of not planning your future because of circumstances beyond your control.”

He assured the students that government was on their side.

"We have taken stock of all the buildings that are owned by government and are underutilised or standing empty. When that report reaches the desk of the executive, some of us who are former presidents of SRC and former student leaders will raise that those buildings which are close to institutions must be made available to students.

“We are going to negotiate with institutions of higher education to find a mechanism allowing those buildings owned by government to be utilised by students and for educational purposes,” the MEC said.

Among the students' demands were that, apart from opening up government-owned buildings for student housing, there needed to be better engagement between the government and the private sector regarding accommodation rates.

A second-year mining engineering student, Mthobisi Dlamini, was among the protesters.

The 21-year-old — the firstborn of six children — is now without accommodation and sleeps in the university's computer labs.

“I do not have anywhere to go because my home is in KZN. It is impossible to travel to Wits every day from another province. I have been struggling to get accommodation and basic necessities like bathing essentials and food.

“As the first one to go to university at home and in the village, everything is on my shoulders. The reason I didn’t perform well in my first year was that to support my single mother, I would tutor other students to make money to send to my family,” Dlamini said.

He told SowetanLIVE sister publication TimesLIVE that because he neglected his academic work and would miss out on class because of his tutoring, he subsequently lost his funding.

“It is difficult to concentrate in class because of my homelessness. I constantly worry about the safety of my belongings that I leave in the computer labs. I really hope that government will hear us and assist,” Dlamini said.

Wits spokesperson Shirona Patel said the university was aware that some students were staging a picket outside the Gauteng legislature to highlight the purported lack of student accommodation.

“We would like to clarify that there is sufficient supply of accommodation in the Braamfontein area. The real issue is that the cost of private accommodation is sometimes unaffordable to students and particularly out of reach for those students who have lost their bursaries and financial aid due to poor academic performance,” Patel said.

-Mbolekwa is a former Wits SRC president, now on a graduate learnership programme at TimesLIVE

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