Run on numbers: Corruption at SA’s learning institutions is much worse than anyone anticipated

Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande. Picture: Oupa Mokoena, Independent Newspapers.

Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande. Picture: Oupa Mokoena, Independent Newspapers.

Published Apr 27, 2024


THE Special Investigating Unit (SIU) has found that more than R5 billion of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme’s (NSFAS’s) money was possibly allocated to students who did not qualify to be funded by the institution. Inefficiency and corruption do not get bigger than this. What a scandalous fact.

Following an statement by president Nelson Mandela, President Jacob Zuma took the unusual step of not taking advice from the Treasury regarding the affordability of free education for all tertiary students below a certain income bracket, which pertains to more than 90% of all students. What was initially estimated to cost R16bn has now become a more than R65bn headache.

In his book titled Corrupted by Jonathan D Jansen (Wits University Press, 2023), Jansen breaks down how universities have become so politicised that they are vulnerable to corruption.

In a study of chronic dysfunction at South African universities, the professor also raises concerns about how threats against university management have escalated into violence and more recently death for those who are seen to be rooting out corruption.

A well-publicised example of this is the violence meted out against the vice chancellor of the University of Fort Hare, Professor Sakhela Buhlungu. He has survived two attempts on his life in the past year, the first one happening in 2022 when several gunshots were fired at his home and the homes of other senior officials of the university.

Corruption regarding student funding is not only prevalent at the Universities. The Palm Ridge Magistrate’s Court has granted R50 000 bail to former KPMG bursary specialist Fidelis Moema and two co-accused. They allegedly defrauded the firm of R16.5 million which was meant for students. The magistrate, Sharon Soko, warned Moema, businessperson Trevor Machimana, and Tshwane metro police officer Lebogang Sigubudu not to apply for passports pending the finalisation of their case in which they face more than 400 charges of fraud and money laundering.

According to Corruption Watch, “Mangosuthu University of Technology was placed under administration by Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology Blade Nzimande in 2022 after allegations of governance irregularities and mismanagement of resources surfaced”. “The university’s council was also found to have failed to implement an investigation that he had authorised. There have also been allegations of corruption at the University of Zululand and the University of Mpumalanga.”

President Cyril Ramaphosa has authorised a probe into Fort Hare’s affairs. SIU spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago said the unit will investigate “allegations of corruption and maladministration in the affairs of the University of Fort Hare ... and recover any financial losses suffered by the state through corruption and negligence.” Kganyago said the SIU unit will investigate alleged unlawful and improper conduct that took place between November 1, 2012, and August 5, 2022.

In a post on social media platform, LinkedIn, Jacques van Wyk wrote, “Former president Nelson Mandela would be ashamed of 2024 South Africa. The most recent in a long list of corruption-centred events would be particularly heart-breaking for Madiba as it concerns Fort Hare University, from where he and many former compatriots, including Oliver Tambo, Govan Mbeki, Robert Sobukwe and Mangosuthu Buthelezi, graduated.

“Fort Hare was once described as a beacon of hope for South Africa during the country’s darkest apartheid days, having trained most of the leaders of our largest political party, and thousands of lawyers, doctors, and civil servants as well. Given this illustrious history, you would expect it to rank among the top 10 universities in South Africa. Sadly not. However, it does not even make the top 50 in Africa. Its once formidable reputation lies in tatters.”

The table below contains the index which determines the study required to attain a certain National Qualification Framework (NQF) level on a scale from one to 10. The highest level one can attain is level 10 being awarded a doctoral degree. One of the objectives of NQF is to enhance the quality of education and training. The state of our national schools and tertiary institutions is letting South Africa as a country and its people down.

The system is ruining lives and livelihoods and is an embarrassment for each proud South African. In Universities, one has a collective of highly educated personnel, yet the professors and senior lecturers have allowed their institutions are supposed to be beyond reproach to become a shame to the country. What is the purpose of education if the highest density of top-level educators cannot run a clean and efficient administration of their own?

Of South Africa’s 26 public universities and universities of technology, there are major concerns regarding the governance at nine of these institutions. The Central University of Technology (CUT) in Bloemfontein is currently under investigation. In October 2022, Professor Norman Duncan was appointed as an Independent Assessor to investigate the affairs of the institution. This came after the suspension of the vice-chancellor (VC) in 2020.

Mangosuthu University of Technology (MUT) has been placed under administration following the dissolution of the council. The minister has appointed Professor L van Staden as administrator to assume the powers and responsibilities of the council.

There are many concerns about the state of governance at the University of Cape Town (UCT). The University of Fort Hare is in a post-administrative state, and the department continues to monitor the situation.

Unisa has confirmed the disciplinary hearings of 1 456 students who were allegedly involved in plagiarism, started on March 25, 2024. In addition, certain departments have been instructed to investigate allegations of impropriety levelled against acting chief financial officer Reshma Mathura.

Milton Friedman authored an essay on the topic, there is such a thing as a free lunch. South African politicians are quick to express a wishful idea into a political promise without fully investigating the implications.cThe Sanral issue is one.

Free education has ballooned from R16bn to as much as R56bn in just seven years. Another major wishful dream is the National Health Insurance bill, which is not supported by a sustainable funding model apart from other issues. The funding of Zuma’s announcement on free education appears to have come against the advice of the Treasury and without consulting the ruling party’s National Executive Committee (NEC). The Treasury had warned against making an announcement and efforts by Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba to get the president to respect the budgetary process and examine sustainable funding options for higher education.

Just like former public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane, spending other people’s money is easy, at least for a while. It reminds me of the robber who held a person up with a gun and requested he hand him his money. The victim pleaded that he was a politician to which the robber replied, “Then give me my money”.

Ahmed Essop, a research associate at the Ali Mazrui Centre for Higher Education Studies at the University of Johannesburg, believes that the lack of accountability from both the board and the minister is at the centre of the crisis that has plagued NSFAS. Apart from tender irregularities, the inability of NSFAS to disperse student allowances timeously, submit annual reports and financial close-out plans, and inadequate operational processes and systems are the same issues that led to the appointment of an administrator by then-Higher Education and Training minister Naledi Pandor in 2018. The Special Investigating Unit (SIU) has been given the authorisation to investigate allegations of corruption and maladministration at NSFAS. NSFAS provides funding at 26 universities and 50 TVET colleges.

The Special Investigation Unit has produced a report on the issues at NSFAS. “SIU’s investigations have so far revealed that more than 40 000 students in 76 institutions of higher education have been possibly funded incorrectly. These are students whose household income is above R350 000 and therefore would not qualify for NSFAS funding based on the funding rules. These students did not submit their parents’ details upon application, and therefore the means test was not properly conducted. Furthermore, the SIU has facilitated a refund or managed to ring-fence approximately R38.3 million possibly due to NSFAS from three TVET colleges. Two of these colleges are in the Western Cape and one from Mpumalanga. The SIU is in the process of engaging other institutions to determine if they are holding any overpayments that need to be ring-fenced pending the finalisation of the investigation.”

In a statement 24 April 24, 2024, it was announced: “The Minister of Higher Education, Science, and Innovation, Professor Blade Nzimande, is aware of, and deeply disturbed by the recurring problem of non-payment of student allowances by the ... NSFAS.”

Nzimande was appointed as Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology on May 30, 2019. He is a general secretary of the South African Communist Party; chairperson of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Education; and deputy chair of the Central Committee of the South African Communist Party.

Other media outlets have also taken a strong position about the minister’s management of his portfolio.

According to a report by the Organisation Against Corruption and Tax Abuse (Outa), they have obtained a voice recording that implicates the minister. “The recordings contain allegations that service providers allegedly paid millions of rand in kickbacks to Nzimande and Khoza, as well as at least R1 million to the South African Communist Party (SACP) in return for tenders and protection for service providers, which does look suspicious as Nzimande is general secretary of the South African Communist Party.”

* Kruger is an independent analyst.

** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or Personal Finance