Protesting Wits students flee as members of the police fire rubber bullets at them. Picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency (ANA)
Protesting Wits students flee as members of the police fire rubber bullets at them. Picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency (ANA)

Financial exclusion due to historical debt at the heart of Wits protests

By Zodidi Dano Time of article published Mar 10, 2021

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Wits University students have shut down the institution after about 6 000 students were financially excluded due to historical debt.

Johannesburg - Frustrated Wits University students have moved to shut down the institution after about 6 000 students were financially excluded due to historical debt.

On Tuesday, a group of 50 students closed some roads and entrances to university. The students claim they are unable to register for the academic year because they still had balances for previous years’ tuition fees .

The students argue that the university does not understand their financial hardships, which have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

The protest claimed the life of a 35-year-old man who was allegedly shot by police during the stand-off.

The man had reportedly been been returning from a nearby clinic.

On Monday, the university announced that it would go ahead with the start of the academic year after about 35 000 students successfully registered.

The students are calling for the financial exclusion cap to be increased to R150 000, but the university says it can only assist those with a debt of up to R120 000.

Wits spokesperson Shirona Patel said approximately 27 000 out of 37 500 registered students were on some form of financial aid, scholarship or bursary.

“Wits has made available a Wits Hardship Fund worth R10 million to assist students who are experiencing financial hardship and who have historical debt (up to R120 000). They can register and secure accommodation provided that they meet the criteria.

“Wits also established a Wits Covid-19 Relief Fund worth R10m to assist students whose families have been adversely impacted by the pandemic,” she said.

The students’ funding crisis takes place at a time when the National Students Financial Aid Agency Scheme (NSFAS) has run out of money.

The agency has used its budget of R35 billion to pay for the 2020 extended year - brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande said that there was a delay in first-year funding applications due to the financial crisis.

On Wednesday, Nzimande and the rest of the Cabinet were set to discuss the matter. Nzimande has also sent for a delegation to Wits to help bring calm to the institutions.

The Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) have called on Nzimande to attend to the Wits matter urgently.They urged him to meet with the university’s vice-chancellor , the Council and the Student Representative Council (SRC) to address this impasse, and to find amicable and financially-viable solutions to allow students to register.

“Thousands of students are still not able to register at Wits — and other institutions — because of financial exclusion and historical debt. These students do not qualify for funding from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) and they have nowhere else to turn. Despite the financial assurances made by Wits in setting aside some money for students with debt, it is not enough to assist all students who require this aid,” the IFP said.

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