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One thing Wits can never be is on the wrong side of justice

By Mighti Jamie

* These were my words to Adam Habib in January. They’re still relevant today.

Dear Adam Habib

One thing Wits can never be is a cold-blooded business, focusing only on the bottom line. One thing Wits can never be is a dream killer. One thing Wits can never be is on the wrong side of justice. The greatest women and men walked through the halls of our university, coming together to free the people from bondage. One thing Wits can never do is perpetuate apartheid. This is the home of Mandela, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Ruth First, it would be an abomination to their legacies to turn this institution into a money-making scheme.

We have hopeless children who only have one way out of the cruel grasp of poverty: their only hope is to read their way to a better life. That is really all you have when your parents are poor and your community broken. When your dream to be a doctor sounds strange to people you played on the streets with all your life.

Wits should never have gone down the road of chasing away poor students who qualify to learn at Wits. A good headmaster doesn’t kick out a child who has ability but cannot pay, he fights to keep that child in. A good shepherd leaves the 99 safe and rich sheep to go out into the dark to find the one lost sheep.

You are our leader, our vice chancellor and principal. You are our shepherd, to be honest you have not been a good one. Instead of fighting the lions of poverty and government inefficiency you have pulled out your accounting books and told us about affordability. You’ve put financial security over the hopes and dreams of the poor.

The debater in me tried to understand the strength of your case. I am sorry to say, I could not in the end side with you.

It may take money to run a university, it may even cost you money to bailout students. Yet that’s not good enough when compared to the moral duty every shepherd has to protect his sheep. More directly, the moral duty every headmaster has to educate his children.

Take a salary cut, all of you.

Our university can never ever be a place that turns away the poor and needy. The brilliant black child who went through the hell of hunger, the most savage war of torn homes, the brutal jungle of lazy teachers and government: We cannot snatch away that child’s victory because it’s inconvenient for our wallets. They go back to sleeping on the floor and you go back to a mansion and three-course meals.

There is no excuse to relieve you of your moral duty.

I spent two years of my life selling earphones on the steps of the university, my dream each day was to be one of those kids who had an assignment to hand in. Through that most difficult period it was the kindness of friends that kept me going. Fezani would let me hangout in Sunnyside till 11, Neileng shared her food with me and Ahmed would let me use his card so I could sleep in the computer labs.

I finally raised the money to get into Wits, but no one should have to go through that hell. Wits failed me as a student, there was no money to help a poor student. I wasn’t digestible to the chequebook of the university.

The tragedy of my story is that it’s not spectacular or unique, it’s a common story at Wits. Students hide it so well, but poverty is our intimate companion at Wits. That is the greatest tragedy.

This letter is a challenge to you and a reminder to the student body, to remember the story of the good Samaritan. We cannot be the priest who was rushing to church to pray, or the legal expert who looked away. When someone has been brutalised by life, we must sacrifice to give them a chance to prosper.

I love Wits university, it’s the best place to be in the world. I believe some of the young people rubbing shoulders at Wits today will save Africa from its dark side and guide Africa to its full potential. I am grateful for each day I am a student. I do not love what this place is becoming. Wits can never be a hideaway for the rich, white child and the child of tenderpreneurs.

A student card is a freedom card, to deny freedom to any child is the greatest injustice.

Regards,

The earphones guy.

Mighti Jamie is a law student at Wits and president of the South African Universities Debating Council.