Vice-Chancellor’s Town Hall Meeting on 16 April 2015 in the Great Hall

Q: Do you have a plan to address the historical disparities in salaries and the training of professional staff? The Labour Laws were recently amended, such as the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, the Labour Relations Act and the employment equity act to ensure that staff at the University are not exploited and are in line with legislation?

Answer: The salaries of our professional and administrative staff, except in certain categories, were found to be above the national norm when we conducted a benchmarking exercise.  I am happy to look at proposals on the training of support staff.

The shop stewards representing outsourced workers asked that we create four scholarships for their (outsourced workers) children and we did that. I am happy to look at proposals; however, people need to understand that we are also facing many constraints.

We are obliged to comply with labour laws and we will continue to try to meet the legislative laws in this regard.

Q. The current Medical Aid proposal on which you are soliciting votes on, via the survey, does not meet the needs of low income earners. If the workers vote against the current proposal is the University prepared to offer an open scheme?

Answer: We have committed to offering a medical aid that is affordable for poorer staff.  If we can’t meet the needs of poorer staff then we need to look at the possibility of having an open scheme. We must be mindful that by law, you can’t be a permanent member of staff without a medical aid. We are trying to find a package that offers the maximum amount of services for the lowest price.

The first low-cost option was deemed unsuitable by staff and we are now doing a survey to look at another one and if it doesn’t meet the needs of the workers we are going to have to decide what to do.

Q: Ever since the Transform Wits agenda was put forward by Masters Students in the Political Studies Department we have not seen you come to address us. Where does the Vice-Chancellor stand in terms of curriculum transformation and the broader transformation issues on campus?

I am meeting with Wits experts on issues of social inclusion and transformation. The question that needs to be addressed is: What can Wits do given the lack of transformation and marginalisation that both staff and students, particularly young staff, feel at Wits and institutions of learning around the country”?

A series of meetings are planned with Faculties and the first conversation will take place with the Faculty of Humanities.  But I would like to tackle what people mean by transformation:

1.       Renaming of spaces and buildings

Firstly, Wits University does not have statues named after political figures. We must have deeper conversations around naming so that it is not simply about replacing a white name with a black name but it is about naming in a way that is unifying.

One of these unifying ways is to consider the indigenous traditions of naming. The names are derived from evocative descriptions or descriptors of the place. I am not suggesting we must not name after individuals but we need to have a deeper conversation about how we name and under what context – there is a naming committee at Wits.  It is important to bear in mind that there are people who have paid for buildings and we have signed contracts with them that they will provide these buildings and they retain the naming rights.

2.       Transformation on admissions policy for disabled students, black students and female students

At the moment the number of black students has gone up but we are not doing well on students with disabilities and I would like to open up a discussion on how we can improve our position on admission of disabled students.  We have opened positions in the Faculty of Health Science for students from rural and poor backgrounds and providing bursaries to learners from the Quintile 1 and 2 schools which are ranked as having some of the most disadvantaged backgrounds in the country. This is our attempt to transform the student profile and society.

3.       Academic staff transformation

Only a third of our academic staff are black. In the professoriate we are marginally better than other universities but we need to improve these numbers.

4.       Insourcing and Outsourcing are part of the transformation agenda at Wits

In order to protect workers and ensure that contractors abide by the law – Wits stipulates to all its contractors that the University will terminates its contract if the company is found to exploit workers.

The current dispute between workers and a service provider to should be handled by the union involved and the union should not defer its responsibility to the University. I am prepared to say that Wits will assist as far as it can as a humane institution but the union must take responsibility and take further action  because workers pay their due to the union.

To NUMSA, I am going to engage with your demands in a way that is feasible and plausible and will throw the university in a financial crisis. The demand to insource the outsourced will have serious implication for poor students and school fees.

Q: My concern is that international students doing accounting science  are unable to meet their academic and professional training obligations (such as serving articles in a firm) due to the changing immigration laws and labour legislation prohibiting international students from acquiring work. We find it hard to sign up with accounting firms. If I go back home I have to start afresh again because I would not have completed the requirements to qualify as a chartered accountant with the South African Institute for Chartered Accountants. How can the University assist?

Answer: This will be investigated and we would be happy to motivate for change in the legislation.

Q: Wits has poor wi-fi speed and connectivity compare to other universities? 

I have asked for a complete overhaul of our IT system but it is going to cost us a fortune. More on this will be communicated in due time.

Q: Wits should reconsider the study period stated on the admission letter given to international students. As a masters student who has been given a one year study permit, the implication of this is that in less than six-months I will be moving from one post to another trying to prepare for a another permit instead of focusing on my studies?

Answer: The problem with visas is that there are new regulations do not allow for multiple years at a time. However, Higher Education South Africa has written to the minister of Higher Education about the crisis at the Department of Home Affairs because this is negatively affecting universities. Academics are not able to get work permits and it is hindering students.

Q: VC you committed to transformation at Esselen but it’s over a year now we have not seen change?

Answer: Yes there is a problem with the Esselen residence and I have made a public statement on the state of this place. There are two sets of problems at Esselen. There are internal problems that the university can resolve and some problems are external to the residence and the University. The Florence Nightingale building next door to Esselen which has been hijacked by illegal occupants has an overflowing sewerage which is a problem and it is the problem of the municipality.

We have been trying to get the municipality to enforce the laws for over a year and to take responsibility for the areas that are under their control. The municipality has repeatedly broken all the agreements that we have had with them and reneged on its commitment.  Their actions mirror the service delivery crisis in the country.

In October last year students were presented with an option to move into a privately-managed accommodation but this would have resulted in increased costs and resulted in the loss of some of the extra-services provided by the University.  At the end Esselen was still a better option.

Q:  It is indeed disheartening, disappointing and hypocritical that that the VC who so vocally shows for Kenya or Xenophobia does not do the same for Palestinians. We would like to know why that is so? All lives matter and no life is more important than others.

I have publicly condemned the Gaza war and the Israeli estate in my personal capacity. The university has drawn the condemnation of the Israeli ambassador in South Africa for allowing the launch of the Gaza report titled No Safe Place: a report from an independent medical fact-finding mission to Gaza 2014.

However, it is important to remember that the university is a free space for ideas, a free space to have debates and it will be guaranteed to all – even if we do not agree with them. It is a principle that the university upholds. Wits believe in a common humanity and we must believe in this even when it is uncomfortable for us. When I criticise the Israeli state because it violates the rights of Palestinians I also criticise the Saudi Arabians, the Syrian state when they violate the rights of their people. That is the principle of being humanist and it is something all student and student bodies should come to terms with.