University of the Witwatersrand

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Group.png University of the Witwatersrand  
University of the Witwatersrand.jpg
MottoScientia et Labore
HeadquartersJohannesburg, South Africa
TypePublic university
Sponsored byOmidyar Network
Other nameWits
Has its roots in the important South Africa mining industry

The University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, is a multi-campus South African public research university[1] situated in the northern areas of central Johannesburg. The university has its roots in the mining industry, as do Johannesburg and the Witwatersrand in general. Founded in 1896 as the South African School of Mines in Kimberley, it is the third oldest South African university in continuous operation.

The university has an enrolment of 40,259 students as of 2018, of which approximately 20 percent live on campus in the university's 17 residences. 63 percent of the university's total enrolment is for undergraduate study, with 35 percent being postgraduate and the remaining 2 percent being Occasional Students.

The 2017 Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) places Wits University, with its overall score, as the highest ranked university in Africa.[2] Wits was ranked as the top university in South Africa in the Center for World University Rankings (CWUR) in 2016. According to the CWUR rankings, Wits occupies this ranking position since 2014.[3]


The Great Hall, on East Campus, where graduation ceremonies, ceremonial lectures, concerts and other functions are held.
East Campus as seen from the north of the campus. Solomon Mahlangu House and the high-rise buildings of Braamfontein are visible in the background.

Early years: 1896–1922

The university was founded in Kimberley in 1896 as the South African School of Mines. It is the third oldest South African university in continuous operation, after the University of Cape Town (founded in 1829),[4] and Stellenbosch University (founded in 1866).[5] Eight years later, in 1904, the school was moved to Johannesburg and renamed the Transvaal Technical Institute. The school's name changed yet again in 1906 to Transvaal University College. In 1908, a new campus of the Transvaal University College was established in Pretoria. The Johannesburg and Pretoria campuses separated on 17 May 1910, each becoming a separate institution. The Johannesburg campus was reincorporated as the South African School of Mines and Technology, while the Pretoria campus remained the Transvaal University College until 1930 when it became the University of Pretoria. In 1920, the school was renamed the University College, Johannesburg.

Open years: 1922–1959

Finally, on 1 March 1922, the University College, Johannesburg, was granted full university status after being incorporated as the University of the Witwatersrand.[6] The Johannesburg municipality donated a site in Milner Park, north-west of Braamfontein, to the new institution as its campus and construction began the same year, on 4 October. The first Chancellor of the new university was Prince Arthur of Connaught and the first Principal (a position that would be merged with that of Vice-Chancellor in 1948)[7] was Professor Jan Hofmeyr.[8] Hofmeyr set the tone of the university's subsequent opposition to apartheid when, during his inaugural address as Principal he declared, while discussing the nature of a university and its desired function in a democracy, that universities "should know no distinctions of class, wealth, race or creed".[9] True to Hofmeyr's words, from the outset Wits was an open university with a policy of non-discrimination on racial or any other grounds.

Initially, there were six faculties—Arts, Science, Medicine, Engineering, Law and Commerce—37 departments, 73 academic staff, and approximately 1,000 students.[10] In 1923, the university began moving into the new campus, slowly vacating its former premises on Ellof Street for the first completed building in Milner Park: the Botany and Zoology Block. In 1925, the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII) officially opened Central Block (which includes the Great Hall).

The university's first library, housed at the time in what was meant to be a temporary construction, was destroyed in a fire on Christmas Eve in 1931. Following this, an appeal was made to the public for £80,000 to pay for the construction of a new library, and the acquisition of books. This resulted in the fairly rapid construction of the William Cullen Library; opened in 1934.[11] During this period, as the Great Depression hit South Africa, the university was faced with severe financial restrictions. Nonetheless, it continued to grow at an impressive rate. From a total enrolment of 2,544 students in 1939, the university grew to 3,100 in 1945. This growth led to accommodation problems, which were temporarily resolved by the construction of wood and galvanised-iron huts in the centre of the campus (which remained in use until 1972).

During World War II, Wits was involved in South Africa's war efforts. The Bernard Price Institute of Geophysical Research was placed under the Union of South Africa's defence ministry, and was involved in important research into the use of radar. Additionally, an elite force of female soldiers was trained on the university's campus.

In 1948 the National Party (NP) was voted into power by South Africa's white electorate, and apartheid (Afrikaans for "separateness") policies started to become law. The racist separation policies sparked a response, in 1957, by Wits, the University of Cape Town, Rhodes University and the University of Natal, who issued a joint statement entitled "The Open Universities in South Africa", committing themselves to the principles of university autonomy and academic freedom.[12]

In 1959, the apartheid government's Extension of University Education Act forced restricted registrations of black students for most of the apartheid era; despite this, several notable black leaders graduated from the university. Wits protested strongly and continued to maintain a firm and consistent stand in opposition to apartheid. This marked the beginning of a period of conflict with the apartheid regime, which also coincided with a period of massive growth for the university. It was desegregated once again, prior to the abolition of apartheid, in 1990. Several of apartheid's most provocative critics, of either European or African descent, were one-time students and graduates of the university.

Growth and opposition to apartheid: 1959–1994

West Campus, formerly the Milner Park showgrounds, was acquired by Wits in 1984.
The Gavin Reilly Green on West Campus.

As the university continued to grow (from a mere 6,275 students in 1963, to 10,600 in 1975, to over 16,400 by 1985), the expansion of the university's campus became imperative. In 1964, the medical library and administrative offices of the Faculty of Medicine moved to Esselen Street, in the Hillbrow district of Johannesburg. In 1968, the Graduate School of Business was opened in Parktown. A year later, the Ernest Oppenheimer Hall of Residence and Savernake, the new residence of the Vice-Chancellor (replacing Hofmeyr House on the main campus) were both established, also in Parktown. That same year, the Medical School's new clinical departments were opened.

During the course of the 1960s, Wits acquired a limestone cave renowned for its archaeological material located at Sterkfontein. A farm next to Sterkfontein named Swartkrans rich in archaeological material was purchased in 1968, and excavation rights were obtained for archaeological and palaeontological purposes at Makapansgat, located in Limpopo Province.

The 1960s also witnessed widespread protest against apartheid policies. This resulted in numerous police invasions of campus to break up peaceful protests, as well as the banning, deportation and detention of many students and staff. Government funding for the university was cut, with funds originally meant for Wits often being channelled to the more conservative Afrikaans universities instead. Nonetheless, in the words of Clive Chipkin, the "university environment was filled with deep contradictions", and the university community was by no means wholly united in opposition to apartheid. This stemmed from the Wits Council being dominated by "highly conservative members representing mining and financial interests", and was compounded by the fact that the mining industry provided major financial support for the university. With a strongly entrenched "[c]olonial mentality" at Wits, along with "high capitalism, the new liberalism and communism of a South African kind, combined with entrenched white settler mores (particularly in the Engineering and Science faculties) ... the university ... was an arena of conflicting positions generally contained within polite academic conventions".[13]

The 1970s saw the construction of Jubilee Hall and the Wartenweiler Library, as well as the opening of the Tandem Accelerator; the first, and to date only, nuclear facility at a South African university. In 1976, Lawson's Corner in Braamfontein was acquired and renamed University Corner. Senate House, the university's main administrative building, was completed in 1977. The university underwent a significant expansion programme in the 1980s. The Medical School was moved to new premises on York Street in Parktown on 30 August 1982. Additionally, in 1984 the University acquired the Milner Park showgrounds from the Witwatersrand Agricultural Society. These became West Campus,[14] with the original campus becoming East Campus. In 1984, the Chamber of Mines building opened. A large walkway named the Amic Deck was constructed across the De Villiers Graaff Motorway which bisects the campus, linking East Campus with West Campus.

The 1980s also witnessed a period of heightened opposition to apartheid, as the university struggled to maintain its autonomy in the face of attacks from the apartheid state. Wits looked anew to the "Open Universities" statement of 1957, to which the University of the Western Cape now also added its voice. As the apartheid government attempted, through the threat of financial sanctions, to bring Wits under firmer control, protest escalated culminating in the General Assembly of 28 October 1987, at which the university reiterated its commitment to the values underlying the "Open Universities" statement.

University management itself came under increasing grassroots pressure to implement change within the university. A Wits-initiated research project, Perspectives of Wits (POW), published in 1986, revealed a surprising disconnect between the perceptions disadvantaged communities had of Wits and the image Wits had been attempting to convey of itself as a progressive opponent of apartheid. POW, which had involved interviews with members of organisations among disadvantaged communities in the PWV area, international academics, students and staff at Wits, and even a meeting with the then-banned ANC in Lusaka, revealed that to many in the surrounding disadvantaged communities, there was a perception of Wits as an elitist institution dominated by white interests. A need was identified for further transformation of the university. However, instead of translating POW's proposals into institutional plans for transformation, Wits reacted in a defensive manner and refused to even acknowledge many of the criticisms that had been raised. Within the university community the perception was different—it was felt that Wits was on the right track. The contradiction between internal and external perceptions would increasingly undermine the unity of the university community, as progressive elements on campus began to take more radical positions in opposition to apartheid. Internal debates about, among other things, the international academic boycott of South Africa and the role of academics in the anti-apartheid struggle led to increasing division within the university. University management was increasingly seen as isolated and out of touch, and began to be referred to by the metonym "the eleventh floor", referring to the eleventh floor of Senate House where top management at Wits is located.

Nonetheless, the university community in general continued to uphold its opposition to apartheid and its commitment to university autonomy and academic freedom. The remainder of the 1980s saw numerous protests on campus, which often ended with police invasions of the university. In 1990, when Nelson Mandela was released, the students of Men's Res, on East Campus, unofficially renamed the lawn outside their residence "Mandela Square".

The Science Stadium, on West Campus, completed in 2012.
In 2012 Wits celebrated the ninetieth anniversary of its upgrade to university status.

Post-apartheid: 1994–present

On 25 February 2000, university management began implementing a policy called "Wits 2001" under which work deemed 'non-core' to the functioning of the university (such as cleaning and landscaping) was outsourced to external contractors; the university's academic departments were also restructured: the university's nine faculties were reduced to five, the university's 99 departments were merged into 40 schools, and courses that were deemed redundant following a mass review were cancelled.[15] Wits management did, however, initiate programmes to ameliorate some of the negative effects of Wits 2001. These included the implementation of early retirement and voluntary severance packages to minimise retrenchments. Additionally, many of the affected employees' children were studying at Wits at the time, and received bursaries as part of their parents' employment contracts with Wits. The university therefore continued to offer bursaries to them until the completion of the degrees for which they were then enrolled, as well as offering bursaries to the children of affected employees who matriculated in 2000.[16][17]

Wits 2001 attracted widespread criticism from the workers and staff affected, as well as from students and other staff. The arguments behind the restructuring were criticised as badly reasoned, and the policy itself was criticised as being regressive and neoliberal.[18] The then-vice-chancellor, Professor Colin Bundy, said in defence of Wits 2001 that "[t]his fundamental reorganisation of both academic activities and support services will equip the university for the challenges of higher education in the 21st Century". Management issued a statement on 30 May 2000 responding to criticism of Wits 2001 from the National Education, Health and Allied Workers' Union (NEHAWU), the largest trade union among Wits employees, in which it defended Wits 2001 as constituting the "outsourcing [of] contracts for certain non-core functions, rather than any shift in ownership relations or governance" contra NEHAWU's claims that it constituted privatisation. Management further defended the changes as "improving the financial sustainability of Wits, taking pressure off management and students, and allowing for better academic and support facilities and services".[19] Along with "Igoli 2002" in Johannesburg, Wits 2001 was one of the policies implemented in the early 2000s which resulted in the formation of the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF).

Notable Alumni

Architecture and design

Business and entrepreneurship

  • Adam Levy, property developer
  • Adrian Gore, CEO of Discovery Holdings Ltd; Chairman of Destiny Health Inc. in the USA and Prudential Health Limited in the UK
  • Affiong Williams, founder and CEO of Reel Fruit, a Nigerian company that focuses on processing and distribution of locally grown fruits
  • Bridget van Kralingen, Senior Vice President, IBM Global Business Services
  • Charles Chinedu Okeahalam, economist and businessman, CEO of AGH Capital Group; former Liberty Life Professor of Financial Economics and Banking, University of the Witwatersrand
  • Derek Keys (born 1931), finance minister of South Africa, 1992-1994, in the cabinets of F W de Klerk and Nelson Mandela
  • Donald Gordon, founder of life insurance company Liberty Life in 1958 with R100,000 when he was 27 years old; awarded a knighthood in 2005
  • Elizabeth Bradley, Non-Executive Chairman of Toyota SA Limited; former Executive Director of AngloGold
  • Gail Kelly (born Gail Currer), Australian and South African businessperson; first woman CEO of a major Australian bank or top 15 company (2002)
  • Gary Barber, Chairman and CEO of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Bachelor of Commerce; certificate in the Theory of Accountancy
  • Gordon Schachat, co-founder of African Bank Limited and prominent art collector
  • Graham Mackay, former Chairman and Ex-CEO of SABMiller plc, the world's second largest beer brewer
  • Ivan Glasenberg, CEO of Glencore, one of the world's largest commodity trading companies; on the boards of mining companies Xstrata plc and Minara Resources Ltd
  • Koos Bekker, former CEO of Naspers
  • Lael Bethlehem, former CEO of the Johannesburg Development Agency; Investment Executive at Hosken Consolidated Investments
  • Ludwig Lachmann, economist and important contributor to the Austrian School
  • Maria Ramos, economist and businesswoman; CEO of ABSA Group since 2009; former CEO of Transnet
  • Martin Morgan, Chief Executive Officer and Director of DMGT
  • Meyer Feldberg, Senior Advisor to Morgan Stanley
  • Nathan Kirsh, South African-born Swazi business magnate, with a property empire spanning the UK, Swaziland and Australia; has Swazi citizenship; has residency status in the UK and the USA
  • Nthato Motlana, giant of South African business and the anti-apartheid struggle; one of the accused, with Mandela and 18 others, in the 1952 Defiance Campaign Trial
  • Patrice Motsepe, South African mining magnate; according to Forbes magazine, worth more than R17-billion after adding a further R7-billion to his net worth in 2009
  • Patrick Soon-Shiong, South African-American surgeon; founder, chairman, and CEO of Abraxis BioScience
  • Rodney Sacks, chairman, and CEO of Monster Beverage
  • Ronnie Apteker, founder of Internet Solutions, one of South Africa's largest internet service providers
  • Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, diamond and gold mining entrepreneur; financier; philanthropist; controlled De Beers; founded the Anglo American Corporation of South Africa
  • Sir Mark Weinberg, South African-born British financier; founder of Abbey Life Assurance Company
  • Sir Winfried Franz Wilhem Bischoff, Anglo-German banker; chairman of Lloyds Banking Group plc; former chairman and former interim CEO of Citigroup; knighted in 2000
  • Sol Kerzner, hotel and gambling magnate; created the most successful hotel group in South Africa, Sun International; Chairman of the Board of Kerzner International, based in the Bahamas
  • Tony Trahar, former chairman of Anglo American; educated at St John's College and the University of the Witwatersrand
  • Llewellyn Devereaux, author, inventor, speaker and the founder of The Genie Group.




Legal profession

Politics and public service

Science and technology



  • Dr Selig Percy Amoils, Inventor of the Cryoprobe, recipient of the silver Order of Mapungubwe in 2006
  • Dr John Brereton Barlow - Barlow's syndrome
  • Dr Julien Hoffman, paediatric cardiologist; cardiac physiologist; expert in the epidemiology of congenital cardiovascular malformations
  • Dr Mary Malahlela, first black woman doctor in South Africa
  • Dr Nthatho Harrison Motlana, activist, academic, businessman, Mandela family physician
  • Dr Saul Levin, U.S.-based psychiatrist
  • Dr Alan Menter (MBBCh, 1966, Wits), dermatologist; expert on psoriasis; Chairman of the Division of Dermatology; Director of the Dermatology Residency program for Baylor University Medical Center; Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School
  • Dr Basil Hirschowitz, inventor of the first fiberoptic endoscope
  • Dr George Cohen, radiologist; established Harry's Angels, the world's largest international flying medical specialist service, which performed over 5.500 operations by the end of 1977, and examined and treated more than 40.000 non-operative cases
  • Dr Catherine Nyongesa, radiation oncologist
  • Jonathan Lewis, surgical oncologist; biomedical researcher; developer of cancer drugs
  • Julien Hoffman, cardiologist, professor at UCSF
  • Lars Georg Svensson, cardiac surgeon
  • Dr Jack Penn, known for his innovative techniques in plastic surgery, notably the Brenthurst splint
  • Dr Priscilla Kincaid-Smith, "the mother of nephrology", appointed Commander of The Order of the British Empire (Civil) in 1975, for services to medicine; appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia; first woman to become President of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (1986–1988); won Australian Achiever Award in 1997 for a lifetime's work in renal health
  • Dr William Harding le Riche, epidemiologist; established the first non-segregated health centre in Knysna
  • Prof Glenda Gray, President of the South African Medical Research Council, pediatrician
  • Prof Phillip Tobias, palaeoanthropologist and Professor Emeritus at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg; known for his work at South Africa's hominid fossil sites; anti-apartheid activist
  • Prof Sydney Brenner, biologist; 2002 Nobel laureate in Physiology or Medicine, shared with H. Robert Horvitz and John Sulston
  • Professor Raymond Dart, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, 1925-1943, the longest term of service in that capacity; announced the discovery of the Taung skull, the first of Africa's early hominids, and named the species Australopithecus Africanus
  • Sir Terence English, cardiac surgeon
  • Dr Shereen Usdin, public health specialist
  • Professor James Ware, surgeon
  • Dr Sylvia Weir, pioneered the use of robotics in autism therapy
  • Dr Joseph Sonnabend, physician, scientist and HIV/AIDS researcher, notable for pioneering community-based research, the propagation of safe sex to prevent infection, and an early multifactorial model of AIDS.



Omidyar Network"A philanthropic investment firm"


Alumni on Wikispooks

Jillian Becker2 June 1932UK"Terror expert"UK "terror expert"
Angelique Coetzee1950South AfricaDoctorSouth African physician who discovered the Omicron variant.
Ivan Glasenberg1957Israel
South Africa
BusinesspersonCEO of Glencore, a mining company with close ties to Mossad.
Teresa Heinz5 October 1938Portugal
BusinesspersonInherited $500 million fortune after husband died in aircraft accident, later married John Kerry.
Tess LawrieUKResearcher
Advocate of Ivermectin.
Geoff Makhubo8 February 19689 July 2021South AfricaPolitician
COVID-19/Premature death
The Mayor of Johannesburg died suddenly of COVID in July 2021.
Winnie Mandela26 September 19362 April 2018Anti-apartheid activist and politician. Sentenced to jail in political trial.
Maria Ramos22 February 1959South AfricaBankerMember of the Executive Committee of the International Business Council at the World Economic Forum. In 2021, she was appointed to the World BankInternational Monetary Fund High-Level Advisory Group (HLAG) on Sustainable and Inclusive Recovery and Growth, which sounds suspiciously like the Great Reset.
John Sawers26 July 1955UKDiplomat
UK diplomat and former Chief of MI6
Fritz Schoon6 February 1982
Marius Schoon22 June 19377 February 1999Activist
South African teacher and anti-apartheid activist of Afrikaner descent.


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  2. Africa
  3. 2016
  4. University of Cape Town
  5. Stellenbosch University
  6. South African History Online, "Wits attains full university status"
  7. Munro, K. 2008. Hofmeyr House – from Principal's residence to heritage staff club. Wits Review July 2008 Vol 5, pp. 29
  8. South African History Online, "The inauguration of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) is celebrated", retrieved 13 December 2011
  9. Alan Paton, Hofmeyr, 1964, p.81
  10. South African History Online, "Wits attains full University status", retrieved 13 December 2011
  11. [1], Origins and Architecture of the William Cullen Library at Wits, retrieved 16 September 2019
  12. The Institutional Context of Restructuring External and Internal Determinants, retrieved 13 December 2011
  14., The Rand Show: the early years,retrieved 16 September 2019
  15. Wits University (web archive)], "Wits 2001 Academic Restructuring and Support Services Review: Keeping staff informed" (8 February 2000), retrieved 29 December 2011
  16. Wits University (web archive)], "Wits Council approves major changes" (26 February 2000), retrieved 29 December 2011
  17. Wits University (web archive)], "Wits Council reiterates support for restructuring plans"
  18. Crisis of Inequality at Wits (South Africa) by Kezia Lewins, retrieved 13 December 2011
  19. Wits University (web archive), "Wits Refutes NEHAWU Claims" (30 May 2000), retrieved 29 December 2011
  20. Oxford Academic Journals, Entomologist Extraordinary. A Festschrift in Honour of Botha de Meillon., retrieved 13 March 2020
  21. Taylor & Francis Online, Eulogies: Dr Botha de Meillon, retrieved 13 March 2020