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A politician pushed against the wall, an organisation with a track record of compromised leadership, and thousands of students uncertain about their future. That is one way to describe the current state of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), an entity entrusted with a significant budget out of the public purse. 

Amid the rebuttal of allegations against him of corruption relating to kickbacks from NSFAS’s procurement processes, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande has claimed a politically motivated campaign against him as the basis. He, along with the scheme’s board chairperson Ernest Khosa, was recently accused by civil society group OUTA of having received a kickback from a service provider.

Outa recently released voice recordings of two meetings between Khosa and a service provider representative, revealing how millions of rands were allegedly paid to Nzimande and Khosa in kickbacks for tenders. As much as almost R1-million of that money supposedly went to the South African Communist Party, which Nzimande chairs. In a press briefing held on Monday, however, he denied the allegations, claiming political motive as their source.

“I have never used any money from any of my department’s entities for the purpose of funding the SACP … nor have I received any personal kickbacks from any of the service providers or any of the other entities falling under my department. I therefore wish to dismiss this baseless insinuation by OUTA,” Nzimande said during the briefing.

Meanwhile, the DA has laid a criminal complaint against the minister: “Yesterday, Minister Nzimande squandered his opportunity to take the public into his confidence. He provided no evidence to contradict OUTA’s allegations and assure vulnerable students who depend on NSFAS or the public at large that he hasn’t wilfully risked their futures to enrich himself and his comrades.”

Both the SACP and the Department of Higher Education have come out in defence of Nzimande, denying that there was any impropriety on his part in terms of the department’s resources or the SACP’s fundraising efforts.

As for Khosa, his latest move was to request special leave from his duties on the NSFAS board, to give the scheme room to investigate. But the calls for both he and Nzimande to step down from their roles are growing daily. The latest of such public calls comes from the National Union of Public Service and Allied Workers, which has said there needs to be accountability from Nzimande.

Amid all these developments, the scheme’s former CEO Andile Nongogo has failed in his latest bid to get his job back, himself having been fired in 2023 for alleged tender corruption. The Labour Court dismissed Nongogo’s claim that his dismissal was unlawful and invalid.

At the time of the public uproar around Nongogo’s axing, NSFAS ensured the public that it was getting its affairs in order and would be able to meet the deadlines for its readiness to fund students seeking assistance in 2024. Spokesperson Ishmael Mnisi, however, could only commit to providing the public with a progress update on 15 January, in a recent Morning Live interview.