Communal leaders and Jewish students have been integrally involved in ensuring a protest-free start to the academic year at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), with the registration process taking place peacefully.
Over the past few years, protests have erupted during registration because so many previously disadvantaged students have been unable to afford registration fees as well as other historical costs.
Many have taken to the streets in frustration after having been turned away by the university for unpaid fees. Protests turned to violence and vandalism and led to arrests.
Last year, a Wits student-led protest in Braamfontein led to the death of a bystander, Mthokozisi Ntumba, 35, who was allegedly shot by police during the clashes between them and protesting students.
The shooting left haunting images of the young father’s body lying on the pavement of Braamfontein. It occurred in the midst of protests around the campus as students raised grievances about unaffordable registration fees, a delay in National Student Financial Aid Scheme funding, and other issues such as accommodation woes.
Ntumba had just left a doctor’s office when he was allegedly shot. There was mayhem on campus and in the streets of Braamfontein, and several students were arrested and charged with public violence. The trial against four policemen accused of killing Ntumba is ongoing.
But, this year, things have been dramatically different.
Members of the Student Representative Council (SRC), South African Students Congress, and several members of the South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS) have tried to find an innovative solution to prevent the annual registration-related violence and mayhem.
Earlier this month, Wits SRC President Cebolenkosi Khumalo embarked on a marathon walk from the university’s Great Hall to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to help raise funds and awareness of the plight of students facing financial hardship. Students started the #PavingTheNext100 campaign, encouraging donations from corporates and civil society.
Several Jewish students and others accompanied Khumalo along the way.
Two thousand students will benefit from the R12 million raised jointly by the university and several sponsors, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Investec Bank and other student educational trusts.
Zev Krengel of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies approached the UAE explaining the issues, and was instrumental in obtaining R1.5 million from the UAE embassy.
“This is an incredible success story. The South African Jewish community and students have done their bit to make sure students can get back to university by helping to raise money to help them register. This has stopped the violence we have seen in Braamfontein in the past. Jewish students accompanied the proactive president of the SRC, Cebo Khumalo, as he walked to the Union Buildings to raise funds and awareness.”
Student Shmuel Krengel, who assists the SRC president, accompanied Khumalo for 25km of the 60-odd kilometre walk on 2 February.
“It was an incredible day. We started at 05:00 in the morning,” he said. “Cebo got to the Union Building at about 18:00. Last year, Cebo said that we needed to come up with a plan to help 2 000 students at risk of exclusion due to financial difficulties. He wanted to try something different that would stop the violence, Krengel said.
“The walk wasn’t just about raising money, it was symbolic, and brought to life the need for conversation on the enormous problem of student debt, higher education in general, and the problems around registration.
“As a Jewish student, it’s important to engage in the real problems facing South African students today. This is the society we live in, and we need to play a role to make this a better place for all.”
Wits SAUJS leaders Bethia Milner and Natanya Porter also took part in the walk to help raise funds and awareness.
“As a student union operating in a context where student debt is one of the largest issues students face, we felt a responsibility to participate in a march dedicated to combating this precise issue,” said Milner, the chairperson of SAUJS at Wits.
“We were on the ground with the SRC in Pretoria. We marched with SRC President Cebo, and helped transport SRC members to the Union Buildings. We prioritised helping on the ground, we put in time and energy to ensure that this march was successful,” she said.
“A large sum of money was raised, which will go a long way towards ensuring that students are given the opportunity to achieve their potential and receive an education because this is the only way our country will ultimately recover from the harms of the past. As Nelson Mandela said, ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.’”
Porter, SAUJS Wits vice-chairperson, said, “I don’t think it’s fair that students are excluded based on funds, and if there’s something I can do to help and show my support, I’ll do it. An uneducated South African will have an impact on us all. I believe we all have a role to play in solving this issue.”
Gabi Farber who is a member of the ANC Youth League Wits leadership told the SA Jewish Report there had been no protests this year.
“It has been a completely different environment to last year, where we were running in the streets getting shot at, suspended, and fighting tooth and nail for students. This year, we’re walking them straight to the admissions desk and getting them registered.”
Farber said it was important for Jewish students to get involved.
“We cannot fully experience privilege if others cannot experience that same privilege. Judaism prioritises education and as Jewish students, why should we be different?
“We have an obligation to tikkun olam [to heal the world] whether that be at Wits University or in South Africa. Wherever we go, we are missionaries of Hashem, and have an obligation to represent our Jewish values. For me, that means supporting the fight for free, decolonised education in South Africa. It’s the only way to fix our country, because once you give someone an education, it’s something nobody can ever take away.
“What I want to make unequivocally clear is that support doesn’t mean liking a post, it means truly getting involved and being on the ground. We can choose to be passive or active citizens of our beautiful but fractured country. I have chosen the second option, and hope with all my heart that other Jews will do the same,” Farber said.