Wits alumni gives R1.5m to students facing hunger, exclusion after Covid-19

The #Wits100 challenge, a call for alumni to give back to the university ahead of its centenary next year, has already raised R1.5m from a single donor. File photo.
The #Wits100 challenge, a call for alumni to give back to the university ahead of its centenary next year, has already raised R1.5m from a single donor. File photo.
Image: Sandile Ndlovu

A former University of the Witwatersrand Student Representative Council (SRC) president pledged $100,000 (R1.5m) in student aid as Wits celebrated its 99th birthday on Monday.

This was in line with the #Wits100 challenge which is a call for alumni to give back to the university ahead of its centenary next year. 

Rex Heinke, the 1971 SRC president, and a member of the Wits Fund Board in the US, pledged the large amount of money after hearing about the plight of students, especially after the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to a statement by the university, student leaders from 1968 to 2021 convened in September to discuss how they could rise to the #Wits100 challenge and give back.

“Over 13 presidents, including former justice and Wits chancellor justice Richard Goldstone and Prof Max Price, former dean of the faculty of health sciences, attended the momentous occasion.”

Wits vice-chancellor and principal Prof Zeblon Vilakazi welcomed the diverse group of presidents describing them as a cohort of “great Witsies who despite their eclectic mix of skills and attributes have one thing in common and that is living true to the values of Wits University”.

He said it was heartening that leaders wanted to serve Wits beyond their student years.

Price embraced the convention and advised that more student leaders get involved. 

Linda Vilakazi, the first black president of the SRC and co-founder of the SA Student Solidarity Foundation for Education — an alumni society to support students — welcomed the challenge and committed to impel former student leaders to support the #Wits100 campaign, including those from the Black Student Society.

“I am putting my hand up and I am definitely going to go all out,” she said.

Wits outgoing SRC president Mpendulo Mfeka said issues confronting students include a lack of accommodation, financial exclusions, hunger and mental health — the latter exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Food is a real crisis and there are students who do not know from where they are going to get their next meal. This issue has escalated as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic, where many families have lost employment and businesses,” he said.

During Mfeka's term the SRC leadership raised R4m to assist students.

This motivated Heinke to pledge the $100,000 in aid of student support and challenge other presidents to support the campaign.

“I recently learnt about some Wits students not having enough food to eat and no sufficient place to live. It pained me enormously to hear that and I had to do something to help. My wife and I will be contributing this year and next year to ease the hunger and housing shortages of Wits students,” he said.

According to Heinke, in 1971, during the height of apartheid, “Wits was a beacon of light and hope” and exposed him to the atrocities of the oppressive undemocratic system. Through his challenge, he hopes to shine a light on students’ lives.

“Wits needs your help now to build a new generation of SA leaders to fulfil the dream of a free and democratic SA. You showed your commitment and your leadership by becoming an SRC president. Now it is time for you to again commit and lead Wits, and to become part of the #Wits100 anniversary campaign.”

Heinke’s contribution will be channelled towards the Wits Food Bank and the Wits Covid-19 Relief Fund, established last year. The Wits Food Bank, established in 2013, assists about 5,000 students per year.

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