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WITS: History

The University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg (known as Wits) is located in Johannesburg (South Africa), the vibrant, culturally diverse and leading commercial city on the African continent. The history of the University is inextricably linked with mining, scholarship excellence and political and civic activism.

Birth of a University

The origins of Wits lie in the South African School of Mines, which was established in Kimberley in 1896 and transferred to Johannesburg as the Transvaal Technical Institute in 1904, becoming the Transvaal University College in 1906 and renamed the South African School of Mines and Technology four years later. Other departments were added as Johannesburg grew and in 1920 the name was changed to the University College, Johannesburg. Full university status was granted in 1922, incorporating the College as the University of the Witwatersrand, with effect March 1st. Seven months later the inauguration of the University was duly celebrated. Prince Arthur of Connaught, Governor-General of the Union of South Africa, became the University's first Chancellor, and Professor Jan H Hofmeyr its first Principal. Building began at Milner Park on a site donated to the University by the Johannesburg municipality.

In the beginning

In 1923, the University gradually vacated its premises in Eloff Street to move to the first completed teaching buildings at Milner Park (the Botany and Zoology block - housing the departments of Geology, Botany, Zoology and Applied Mathematics). The University had, at that stage, 6 faculties (Arts, Science, Medicine, Engineering, Law and Commerce), 37 departments, 73 members of academic staff and little more than 1000 students. In 1925 the Prince of Wales officially opened the Central Block.

During the period between the two world wars severe financial restrictions were imposed upon the University. Nevertheless, student numbers were quite impressive - in 1939 2 544 students enrolled; that grew to 3100 in 1945. The sudden increase in student enrolment after the Second World War led to accommodation problems, which were temporarily resolved by the construction of wood and galvanised-iron hutments in the centre of the campus. These huts remained in use until 1972.


The period between 1947 and the 1980's was marked by considerable growth - student numbers increased rapidly to 6 275 in 1963, 10 600 in 1975 and 16 400 by 1985. In 1951 the University awarded its 10 433rd qualification, in May 1981 its 50 000th and by 1988 its 73 411th.

The acquisition of additional property in adjacent areas became imperative. The medical library and the administrative offices of the Faculty of Medicine moved to a new building in Esselen Street, Hillbrow during 1964. The Graduate School of Business was established in Parktown in 1968. In 1969 the Ernest Oppenheimer Residence was formally opened in Parktown. 'Savernake', the official residence of the Vice-Chancellor, also located in Parktown, was made available to the University during 1969. In the same year the clinical departments in the new Medical School were opened. However, the Medical School moved premises again and is now situated in York Street, Parktown - the new complex was opened on 30 August 1982.

Expansion into Braamfontein also took place. In 1976 'Lawson's Corner', renamed 'University Corner', was acquired. Senate House, the University's main administrative building, was occupied in 1977. 'The Wedge', a building formerly owned by the National Institute of Metallurgy, was taken over by the University in 1979. The Milner Park showgrounds were acquired in 1984 from the Witwatersrand Agricultural Society and renamed West Campus. Today, the campuses are some 101 hectare in extent. In 1989, the Chamber of Mines Building for the Faculty of Engineering on the West Campus was opened, and the brick-paved AMIC deck was built across the M1 motorway to link the East and West campuses.

The University's interests have not been confined to development and expansion at Milner Park and adjacent areas. In the 1960's the University acquired from the Stegmann family the farm 'Sterkfontein', with its world-famous limestone caves, rich in archaeological material. In 1968 the neighbouring farm, 'Swartkrans', also a source of archaeological material, was purchased. In the same year, the University acquired excavation rights in caves of archaeological and palaeontological importance at Makapansgat in the area now know as the Northern Province.

The Liberal Tradition

From the outset, Wits was founded as an open university with a policy of non-discrimination - on racial or any other grounds. This commitment faced its ultimate test when the apartheid-government passed the Extension of the University Education Act in 1959, thereby enforcing university apartheid. The Wits community protested strongly and continued to maintain a firm, consistent and vigorous stand against apartheid, not only in education, but in all its manifestations. These protests were sustained as more and more civil liberties were withdrawn and peaceful opposition to apartheid was suppressed. The consequences for the University were severe - banning, deportation and detention of staff and students, as well as invasions of the campus by riot police to disrupt peaceful protest meetings.

With the dismantling of apartheid and the election of a democratic government, the role of Wits as a resource became increasingly important: staff members and researchers are approached on a daily basis by the media, commerce and industry to give their expert knowledge and opinion on a wide variety of topics.

Academic Excellence

Over the years the University of the Witwatersrand became internationally recognised for academic excellence and extensive research activities. During the Second World War members of the University staff took an active part in the original development and construction of radar. Wits was the first South African university to have a nuclear accelerator, to have a computer, to study building materials and early Afrikaans, to produce a systematic climatological atlas of Southern Africa and to achieve a successful graft of plastic cornea. The country's first dental hospital and school was established by the University. It was also a local first in the field of physio- and occupational therapy and the first South African institution to open a clinic for the treatment of speech defects. The first blood transfusion service in the Union of South Africa was started by Wits medical students; the Medical School undertook the first clinical survey of childbirth in African tribal conditions. The University's scholars have also greatly advanced the theory of human origin and evolution. And there are many more such examples.

Continued Growth

Today, with five faculties (Commerce, Law & Management; Engineering & the Built Environment; Health Science; Humanities; Science) and 33 schools, Wits offers its almost 18 000 students approximately 3000 courses. Over a third of the student body comprises postgraduate students. Library facilities consists of two central libraries and 12 branch libraries with students having access to over 1,5 million books. Approximately 3 500 students are accommodated in a number of residences and student villages. There are 42 sport clubs and many cultural opportunities in the form of over 60 student societies, the Wits Theatre, art galleries, concert hall and 14 museums.