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Wits University students clashed with police and private security guards on Friday as they intensified their demands for academic registration, accommodation and the scrapping of at least part of their debt.

Acts of intimidation, looting of shops and damage to property were reported but the students vehemently denied this and claim it is an attempt to silence and discredit their rightful demands. “All we ever wanted was the local economy to close as they cannot continue with business as normal while we are facing these challenges. All our activities were very peaceful,” said one of the student leaders, Karabo Matloga.  

Chief among their demands is that all students who owe the university up to R150,000 and all 6,000 students on the SRC list, be registered, and the shortfall created by the NSFAS (National Student Financial Aid Scheme) R45,000 annual cap on accommodation be covered by the university. Due to these challenges and the high cost of accommodation, Matloga said, and the failure of NSFAS to respond effectively to their plight, some students have resorted to sleeping in libraries.

Some students have been selectively suspended following the protest. Matloga says the suspensions are unlawful as they were imposed without their side of the story being heard. He says as long as the university fails to attend to their demands, they’ll remain on the streets and the university should be making means to cover the lost academic time.

“We want free and decolonised education, and a conducive learning environment, which will enable us to finish our courses in record time. At this moment that is not happening and we can’t fold our hands,” said another student leader, Bonginkosi Mbuyane.

Wits says it will continue to discuss the issue of the R45,000 cap on the accommodation allowance by NSFAS

Such frustrations by the students were also highlighted by trade union federation, Saftu (the South African Federation of Trade Unions) during their recent press briefing outlining their intention to join the national shutdown called by the EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters) on the 20th of March 2023: “The recent wave of protests by the students, is a classic expression of revolt against the academic and financial exclusion of working class children from universities. The more than 4-million applications by prospective students when 20 universities collectively had less than 200,000 spaces in 2023 for these young people, graphically demonstrates this crime against young people, which is perpetuated by austerity.”

Responding to some of the demands, the university says it is committed to welcoming as many academically deserving students as possible. It cannot enroll students who have performed dismally simply because they feel they must be admitted. If they are not passing, says the university, they are taking the place of other academically deserving students.

On NSFAS’s cap on accommodation, the university says they can’t change NSFAS policies but that accredited private accommodation service providers have agreed to accommodate students within the R45,000 cap. The university claims to have challenged NSFAS on this restriction and will continue to do so. They have also secured 350 beds plus 150 additional beds to assist students in need, particularly 40 vulnerable students who had no place to stay.

Some concessions the university says it has already made include allowing students who owe R10,000 or less to register and allowing students who owe R15,000 or less to graduate. Students whose total household income is below R600,000 qualify for registration assistance, whereby they need to pay 50% of their outstanding debt and arrange to pay the balance during the course of the academic year.