#FeesMustFall: A tale of two Witses – one for the rich, another for the poor

Wits University is made up of two separate and distinct universities – one for the rich and another for the poor – and university management is complicit in maintaining this dichotomy, writes SRC president SHAEERA KALLA.

Students at Wits are currently preparing for their end of year exams. Many will pass and excel, some will fail and be excluded. This is the nature of the exams, the ultimate humbling ground and levelling of the playing field. However the ultimate fallacy that we are made to believe is that the playing field is level, that the only factor which has sway over performance is our academic ability.

Wits University is made up of two distinct and separate universities. Dichotomous to its very core, there exists a University for the rich and a University for the poor.

During the recent Fees Must Fall protests, the divide between poor and rich was evident. Some students were fighting against an unjust system, for access to higher education for them and generations to follow.

Others were more concerned about the safety of their BMWs and even resorted to violence, racial abuse, and threats to protect themselves and their privilege from the protestors who they unashamedly called animals and hooligans.

The practical nature of this dichotomous university can also be seen in how Wits students prepare for their exams.

For some, who have not eaten for a day or two, the exam period will be punctuated with pangs of hunger.

Others will be fuelled by “brain food” and eat regular high protein meals scientifically proven to allow the brain to perform at a higher level.

During the exam period, some will study from textbooks that the University does not allow to be withdrawn from the library. Once the library closes, these students only have their class notes (often from sub-standard lecturers) to study from.

Others will sit with their personal copies of the textbook open, alongside recommended textbooks loaded up on an iPad, as they stream lectures on the topic from Harvard, MIT and beyond.

For some, who may find themselves struggling this exam period the only hope they have is to find the answer deep down in their core and intellect. They may be the first person in their family to attend university, and even if they try to consult their lecturer they get spoken to in a language they are not comfortable conversing in.

When others struggle, they can pay for a tutor, get help from a family friend who has graduated with the same degree or even approach the lecturer to have them go over these difficult concepts.

During this exam period, some will wake up at 5am to catch a taxi from home to the train station, a train into town, another taxi to Bree taxi rank and finally a taxi to campus. During this trip these students will also cover vast distances on foot. They will turn up, perhaps 10 minutes late for the 9am exam, already mentally and physically drained from the morning’s exertion. Or, they may wake up from where they’d slept, in a quiet nook in the library or other out of the way spots on campus. They will not be able to eat or shower before the exam.

Others will drive from an air-conditioned bedroom, in an air-conditioned car; their biggest hassle: finding a parking spot. They will enter the exam relaxed, physically and emotionally ready, and filled with the energy necessary to be focused for the full duration of the exam.

There are many other examples that can be used to illustrate the dichotomous nature of our university, from the deep scars of growing up in poverty, to the knowledge of bearing the sole responsibility of lifting brothers, sisters, families and communities out of poverty, to being taught in a second or third language and being made to feel intellectually inferior because of this.

Some students have been dealing with these problems throughout the year, and they become more pronounced during the exam period. Months of dealing with these problems may leave deep psychological and emotional scars. Some students rationalise that, when one has been born poor and black, these are challenges that must be accepted and dealt with in order to succeed.

The significance of this dichotomy to us in 2015, is how our university management creates an environment for these two dichotomies to exist, how the little that is done to assist poor students merely sugar coats structural problems.

University management is complicit in this mass exploitation of talented poor students because it has been part of maintaining a higher education system which is exclusionary and anti-poor, which is exclusionary and anti-black.

Malcolm X’s timeless words still ring true: “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made. And they haven’t even pulled the knife out much less heal the wound. They won’t even admit the knife is there.”

Our university system has for too long ignored the knife which is glaringly there, entrenched in the heart of the system, stabbing the poor student.

Shaeera Kalla is the former president of the Students Representative Council at Wits University.
– Featured image by Azra Karim

This article first appeared on The Daily Vox.