Roads blocked as students protest against 'financial exclusion' at Wits

Some Wits students protested against the financial exclusion of some students with historical debt. File photo.
Some Wits students protested against the financial exclusion of some students with historical debt. File photo.
Image: SIHLE MAKU/THE TIMES

Protesters calling for financially excluded students to be allowed to study at Wits University blocked Empire Road in Johannesburg on Tuesday.

Students took to the streets under the banner #asinamali (we do not have money), protesting against the financial exclusion of some students with historical debt.

Wits student representative council (SRC) support officer Solami Buthelezi said their primary goal was to have all students register.

“We have been very clear from the onset that our primary goal is that all students must register. We want Wits University to follow suit after other institutions that have financially cleared all students to register.

“We have just come from an unprecedented year where there was a mass loss of life. I think there needs to be some form of understanding,” she said.

Buthelezi said NSFAS was showing students the middle finger.

“NSFAS is giving students the middle finger, it is defunding students recklessly, and it’s defunding the entire course based on what they say is important for the economy.

“Students can’t register. NSFAS hasn’t given out confirmation. First-years are very vulnerable because they don’t know where to go. Wits are not willing to help us but we forced their hands,” she said.

The police responded and dispersed some of the protesters.

Johannesburg metro police department spokesperson Wayne Minnaar said protesters had blocked the intersection of Empire and Yale roads. The road was strewn with rubble.

“They have moved to the campus next to Charlotte Maxeke. Officers will monitor the protest,” he said.

Wits spokesperson Shirona Patel said staff were redirected to other entrances in the morning.

“The protesters then marched to Parktown, where they blocked a public road leading to the hospital. The police were on site and dispersed them.

“This group of protesters are demanding free education for all, registration of all students with historical debt and there are some issues around NSFAS,” said Patel.

Wits commenced with its academic programme online on Monday. Patel said about 95% of the students had already registered.

Patel said in terms of assisting students financially, the university made available a Wits Hardship Fund of R10m to assist students experiencing financial hardship and with historical debt of up to R120,000 to register and secure accommodation, provided that they meet the criteria.

“Wits has also established a Wits Covid-19 relief fund worth R10m to assist students whose families have been adversely impacted by the pandemic.

“In 2020, about 900 students were assisted through the Wits Hardship Fund. This year, more than 600 students have been assisted. Wits has not charged interest on fees accrued in the 2020 academic year.”

Patel said the university was doing all it could to help students in need but could not offer free education to all students.

The university was “seeking long-term solutions to these funding challenges,” she added.

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