15 Famous people you never knew were Witsies

The University of the Witwatersrand is more than a 100-years-old and along the way the university was called home by  almost as many famous South Africans. It was at this institution where many of the anti-apartheid movement leaders met and where athletes and artists found the drive to succeed. HERE are the 15 people you never knew were Witsies.

  1. Nelson Mandela – First democratic president of South Africa


Mandela first attempted studying at the University of Fort Hare. In his first year he participated in a SRC boycott against the quality of food and got suspended temporarily, but never graduated. He then fled to Johannesburg to avoid an arranged marriage and met Walter Sisulu, who organized him a job as an article clerk at a Jewish supporter of the ANC and then SACP’s cause. He finished his BA through UNISA night schooling and went to Wits in 1943 to study Law, where he met most of his anti-apartheid comrades.

  1. Ruth First- Anti-apartheid activist

ruth first

Johannesburg born to Jewish Latvian parents and killed in 1982 by a letter bomb addressed to her university office in Mozambique. First attended Wits University and received her BA degree in 1946. At Wits she became part of a couple of student political societies, where she met her future husband, Joe Slovo along with anti-apartheid friends Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada.Soon after graduating she was appointed as the Editor-and-Chief of a controversial newspaper, The Guardian, which was banned by the state. In 1963 First was arrested without charge under the Ninety Day Detention Law, being the first women to be imprisoned under this law.

  1. Joe Slovo- Politician & anti-apartheid activist

TKfcPjSlovo is the atheist son of Luthuanian Jewish parents, who became a prominant figure in the anti-apartheid struggle who was vital in the negotiations for a democratic South Africa. After leaving high school he worked as a dispatch clerk before going to study law at Wits University with the help of a Jewish organisation. Slovo never matriculated, but graduated from Wits with distinctions. He joined the SACP and later became its leader, working with the ANC leaders, who were his friends from Wits. Slovo was the co-founder of Umkhonto we Sizwewhich he also led while in exile around in Europe and Africa. Slovo later became the first Minister of Housing in the new South Africa, but died of cancer less than a year after taking office.

4. Ahmed Kathrada- Politician & anti-apartheid activist

ak“Kathy” grew up in a rural town in the West Transvaal and later became the parliamentary counsillor for President Mandela. From the age of 12 Kathrada was a anti-apartheid activist by joining the Youth Communist League of SA. He only spent three months at Wits University before going to Europe to work for a hand-full of youth movements. Although, while in prison he completed four degrees. On returning home, he became active in the ANC and stood in line with Nelson Mandela at the Rivonia Trials and was given and served the same sentence.

5. Helen Suzman- Politician and liberal anti-apartheid activist

hsThis East Rander was the first women to serve in the South African parliament. In the 36 years she was in parliament, she advocated for a democratic South Africa and defended the black community. Suzman studied economics and statistics at Wits University in 1934 and married Dr Moses Suzman in her first year. This two time Nobel Peace Prize nominee first lectured at Wits before going into politics with the United Front. She died in 2009 on New Years Day with the Queen of England’s given title as Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, while being ranked 24th in the Top 100 Greatest South Africans.

6. Thuli Madonsela- Public Protector of South Africa

nkandla-must-fallFrom a young age Madonsela was a anti-apartheid activist for the ANC and UDF. This born and raised Sowetan went on to become part of the team who drafted the highly accredited South African Constitution (1996) and in the process turn down offers from Presidents Mandela and Mbeki to become part of parliament. With a BA Law degree from the University of Swaziland and an LLB from Wits she was appointed Public Protector by President Zuma in 2009 to make her “best contribution as a human being.” With investigating and exposing political leaders for corruption, Madonsela was named one of the ‘100 Most influential people in the world‘ in 2014 by Times Magazine.

7. Phillip Tobias- Academic, archaeologist and anti-apartheid activist

tbThis Durban born, three time Nobel Prize nominee did his BSc honours in Histology and Physiology in 1947 and received his Bachelor of Medicine soon after in 1950 from Wits. He was imperitive in the excavation of the Sterkfontein caves and worked on almost every major archaeological site of his time. With Louis Leakey, Tobias identified, decribed and named the Homo Habilis .Among his other achievements are 12 honorary doctorates and South Africa’s Order for Meritorious Service.  He lectured as the Professor Emeritus at Wits until he died in 2012.

8. Johny Clegg-  Singer, song writer

johnny clegg
Johnny Clegg perfoming ‘Asimbonanga’ at the 466664 concert 2007.

The “White Zulu” was born in England in 1953 to an English father and Rhodesian mother. At a very young age Clegg’s parents divorced and he first moved with his mom to Rhodesia before settling in South Africa at the age of six. Clegg was arrested when he was 15 for violating the apartheid laws banning people of different races from socializing after curfew hours. He went to Wits university to study Anthropology and even taught the subject at the institution after graduating. In the 70’s the inspiring musician became the lead singer of Juluka and in the 80’s he started up Savuka. Both bands went on to be a great success with  Clegg as the lead-singer, despite the prejudice that came from apartheid as they had mixed race members. Wits later awarded the “White Zulu” a Honorary Doctorate in Music, although his biggest award was the Ikhamanga Award (highest honour for a citizen) from President Jacob Zuma in 2012

9. Claire Johnston- Singer, song writer

66125_4220478183297_271092900_nJohnston made her debut as an artist at the age of 10 while replicating the character of orphaned red-head Annie in Johannesburg. This England born South African continued to be noticed for her singing skills by her peers and at the age of 17 she was asked to become the lead singer of the truly unique sound of the band Mango Groove. After matriculating she went to study English, Philosophy and Politics at Wits University. Johnston managed to balance her studies with concerts and received her degree in 1988. Mango Groove blew-up and became a massive success in South Africa and Europe.

10. Gary Bailey- Football player, presenter and commentator

mPdBZZEnglish born Gary Bailey grew up in Johannesburg with a passion for football. He ended up returning to his birth country to win two FA Cups and feature 294 times in the Football League with the red Manchster United jersey. Bailey capped the English national team twice before returned to SA to run out for the Kaizer Chiefs from 1988-1990. While Studying at Wits he played goalkeeper for the university team from 1976-1978. He later married Michelle McLean, the 1992 Miss Universe, in 2013. Bailey is now a football presenter and commentator for SuperSport and Radio 702.

11. Bruce Fordyce- Athlete and writer

62851fb9301c19d2be7db2ce0a5e571aAfter his studies ‘Dycey’ went on to win the testing Comrades Marathon a record holding nine times and finished it 30 times. Fordyce also won the London to Brighton Marathon three times was the World Record holder of the 100 km marathon, but still holds the record for the 50 mile marathon. The Chinese born South African started his tertiary education at Wits University in 1977 as a BA student and went on to do his BA Honours in 1980. While at Wits Fordyce and a couple of other students started-up the athletics club and developed it into the best varsity athletics club of the time. Fordyce has authored two books and currently works as a sports columnist.

12. Mark Plaaitjes- Athlete

TDlstfPlaaitjes is the title holder of two South African national marathons and two for cross-country running. The Johannesburger was prevented from competing internationally, because of the boycotts against apartheid South Africa. Plaaitjes received political asylum from the US in 1988 and received his citizenship in 1993. In the same year he represented the US at the World Marathon Championships in Stuttgart, Germany and won with a time of 2:13:57. Plaaitjes co-founded and built-up the Wits athletics club, where he completed his BSc Pre-med (1984) and BSc Physical Therapy (1987) degrees.

13. Gavin Hood- Writer, director and producer

MkdLsoHood is the only South African film-maker with a Oscar and an Academy Award. Johannesburg born and raised hood made a consious decision to study law at Wits university in 1988. He dropped his studies at Wits when he got the opportunity to study film at the University of California in the US. Hood only made his name known in 2005 when he won the Academy Award for Best foreign Language Film with the South African story Tsotsi, which also won the Oscar. Hood went on to direct X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) starring Hugh Jackman and Eye in the Sky (2015) with Dame Helen Mirren.

14. Helen Zille- Journalist, politician & anti-apartheid activist

zille-outJohannesburg born Zille is the eldest of German parents with Jewish relatives who fled to South Africa in the 1930’s to avoid the Nazi onslaught. Before becoming the Western Cape Premier and ANC opposition party leader, Zille completed her BA degree at Wits University in 1969 then became a political correspondent for the famous Rand Daily Mail newspaper. Her most memorable achievement as a journalist was exposing the lies of the National Party regarding political leader, Steve Biko’s death. The 2008 World Mayor of the Year became heavily involved in the Black Sash movement and other anti-apartheid groups in the ’80’s. Zille gave up her home as a ‘safe house’ for political activists during the State of Emergency in 1986 and was arrested for being an in a ‘group area’ without a permit, while she had a 2-year old at home.

15. Mamphela Ramphele- Politician, doctor and businesswoman

not-for-presidentRamphele was the first black woman to become the Vice-Chancellor at a South African University (UCT). Whilst studying she co-founded the Black Consouisness Movement and met married Steve Biko, whom she had a heated affair and two children with. Ramphele’s political activity  had her banned to Tzaneen in 1977, where Helen Suzman paid regular visits and organised her passports when necessary. After completing degrees from the University of the North (Pre-med), Natal (Bachelor of Medicine & Surgery) and UNISA (Bcom Administration), she went to Wits to receive diplomas in Tropical Health and Public Health. With a fellowship at UCT she completed her Phd in Social Anthropology as staff of the university. All her studies gave her the opportunity to become one of four managing directors of the World Bank in 2000. Ramphele returned to politics in 2013 with a party she established (Agang), but it was short lived as she left the party in 2014 due to internal conflicts.


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