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Photo: Jaco Marais

By Moepeng Talane
First published on News24

When the sixth Parliament wraps up its term ahead of next year’s general elections, it will no doubt have an array of unresolved institutional governance matters relating to state organs hanging over it. The legacy reports of the different portfolio committees will contain concerns of corruption, malfeasance and other transgressions that have come to characterise the state of affairs in the public sector.

One such report of interest will account for the endless challenges engulfing the higher education sector, in particular the embattled National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NFSAS) that, to date, has failed to break free of its governance snags of many years.

The NSFAS board, along with Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande, appeared before the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) recently to account for the progress of investigations into corruption and maladministration within the scheme, but left MPs with more questions than answers on its abilities to turn itself around.

It is important to distinguish between NSFAS’ various issues by separating them along the lines of alleged poor governance and abuse of power at the top, linked to corruption and maladministration, and the bare-bones issues of poor control and monitoring of systems that enable the scheme to carry out its fundamental mandate.

Between system failures experienced by thousands of stranded students, some recently defunded, and many others who have been inconvenienced by changes in the funding model earlier this year, the instability caused by the scheme’s leadership crisis and the political blame game that Nzimande chooses to preoccupy himself with, despite all of the above, it may be that even the next Scopa may well conclude its own term before we see resolution of the scheme’s problems.

Nzimande has referred, on several public platforms, to political detractors of the ANC orchestrating a misinformation campaign about the state of governance at NSFAS. While there may indeed be a politically motivated game at play to discredit the scheme, the minister’s utterances do not address the immediate challenges faced daily by those who have entrusted their confidence in its services. Also on these platforms, students and student leaders have testified to the lived reality of those who are uncertain about their future due to the ongoing issues.  

Many scandals

NSFAS was originally positioned as a strategic instrument of the developmental state, geared for the emancipation of the previously disadvantaged black majority by bettering the prospects of its youth to access tertiary education. Many black professionals who are previous beneficiaries can attest to the value of its role in the socio-economic dynamic of South Africa as a developing country in the 1990s, when it was known as the Tertiary Education Fund of South Africa and only later as NSFAS.

It has eased the collective pressure on parents and guardians, who would not otherwise have been able to afford tertiary education fees for their children over the course of the last three decades or so.

In fact, part of the inadvertent burden brought on by its success in this regard is that it has enabled the progression of so many from poor communities through the tertiary education phase that the country sits with an abundance of qualified graduates who are unable to enter the professional labour market because there are not enough opportunities to meet the demand.

But despite all the grandeur of its developmental objectives, NSFAS has had to navigate several trials, including corruption, poor governance and leadership, and being placed under administration, leading to poor perceptions of its performance. Most recently, and in the space of a week or so, it has had to field questions surrounding its most recent leadership change in the dismissal of CEO Andile Nongogo over allegations of corruption, while there have also been reports of payments to over 150 000 ghost students.

Other past controversies include the fraud case of Walter Sisulu University student Sibongile Mani, who spent over R800 000 of R14 million erroneously allocated to her by a NSFAS service provider in 2017. The scheme controversially absolved itself of any responsibility in the mismanagement of the allocations, revealing that the payment was made by a dispersing agent, Intellimali.

It’s in the context of these scandals and others that the words of Scopa chairperson Mkhuleko Hlengwa during the recent meeting, “oversight thrives on perception”, find profoundness. When the public hears of such cases associated with a public funder in charge of a R50-billion budget, yet which fails to meet its fiduciary duties in timeously compiling its financial statements as admitted before Scopa, then those charged with its oversight need to urgently place public confidence on their agenda.

Build credibility and trust

In the ensuing media storm that has emerged since the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) began investigating the scheme’s affairs in 2022, and the more recent funding model changes, there has been vociferous demand for accountability from not only NSFAS, but also its oversight authority, the Department of Higher Education and Training under Nzimande’s stewardship. Judging by the way the scheme, its board, and the minister’s office have handled the crises, however, the left hand appears to have very little idea what the right hand is doing.

From the Scopa appearance alone, the only positive takeaway worthy of attention for the committee was the announcement of the board’s decision to relieve Nongogo of his duties. Apologies characterised the rest of the meeting for failing to submit financial statements on time to be properly audited, and thus meeting the standard requirement of reporting to the oversight body on performance on the one hand and a veneer of victimhood on the part of the minister, who implicated the SIU in underhandedness for reporting first to Scopa on the progress of investigations and to him second, on the other.

For Nzimande, the priority appears to be the optics from a political perspective, ahead of a national election that opposition parties are contesting with a vested interest in the dynamic higher education environment and perceptions of students serviced by NSFAS.

The minister has unfortunately overlooked the significance of building a positive relationship with regulatory institutions such as the SIU and the Auditor-General in the interest of repositioning the NSFAS as a stable entity that is sufficiently capacitated to carry out its fundamental mandate.

Should he choose to forge those relationships, he will disempower his so-called detractors and empower the honest among NSFAS’ different stakeholders, whose job it is to meet the demands of the one-million-plus eager young people seeking a fighting chance of a better life through education.