SASCO denounces corruption amidst NSFAS woes 

SASCO president Vezinhlanhla Simelane passionately declared that “SASCO does not endorse, support nor facilitate any form of corruption or misappropriation of public funds.” 

The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) failed to pay 20 000 allowances in 2023, leaving students hungry and unable to focus on their studies, which saw and some dropping out of university. 

The student bursary scheme said all outstanding payments would be made by January 15, 2024. But so far, only 9 128 issues have been resolved, leaving 10 872 students in limbo. An issue that the South African Students Congress (SASCO) said needs to be dealt with urgently in a press briefing held on Friday, January 19. 

Simelane said all payment balances must be made before the closure of the registration period in February 2024, and failure to do so will result in the implementation of mass action or mobilizing students for a protest. 

Simelane also spoke to recent corruption allegations against the minister of Higher Education, Blade Nzimande. NSFAS board chairperson, Ernest Khoza and Nzimande were accused of defrauding the student bursary scheme according to a leaked audio recording and an investigation report by Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA). 

He said if true, this kind of self-enrichment by politicians is ‘disgusting’. “We call for the harshest form of consequence management to be meted against any NSFAS or Department of Higher Education representative found embezzling funds destined for destitute and poor students,” said Simelane. 

Second-year Bachelor of Arts student, Lindelwa Khanyile is a NSFAS recipient who went over the R45 000 accommodation cap imposed by NSFAS in 2023. This led to historical debt of R101 00, owed to Wits University. The institution has since demanded that she pay a minimum of R30 000 to register for her third year. “My question is, where will I get R30 000 as a NSFAS recipient – it doesn’t make sense,” she said.  

“This is such a depressing experience for me, student organisations such as EFF and SASCO need to meet with Wits management and plead with them to allow students to complete their studies,” said Khanyile, whose hopes of graduating and pursuing a postgraduate degree in journalism remain suspended.  

Similarly, postgraduate student Lesego Makinita owes Wits R50 000. Not being able to raise funds forced Makinita to return to their hometown, Rustenburg in the North West province. “I have made peace with the fact that I can’t go to school even if I want to. I’ve always wanted to go to Business School to study business administration, I’m very good at marketing and I know I would do a great job,” they said.  

On the question of free education in South Africa’s current landscape, Kamtshe told Wits Vuvuzela that it is indeed attainable, but there is a lack of political will to implement it. He criticized the current system which is a mix of bursaries, scholarships, and student loans, “that is not free education, free education must be entirely free,” he said.  

In closing, Simelane urged activists to take decisive action to ensure that “the doors of learning are forcefully opened in 2024.”  

450 Witsies in limbo about NSFAS funding appeals 

The financial aid scheme missed its own deadline, March 31, to resolve all appeals.

As many as 450 Wits students remain unclear about the status of their NSfas funding appeals.

This was revealed after an April 17 meeting that the SRC had called to deal with an increasing number of students who are being evicted by private residences because it is not clear if they will be funded, according to treasurer general, Kabelo Phungwayo.

The meeting, which took place in the SRC boardroom at the Wits Matrix, was attended by more than 80 students who spilled into the hallway for lack of space. 

A second-year bachelor of health sciences student, Isikelele Mpoto, told Wits Vuvuzela that she was facing eviction from her accommodation. She said she was funded by NSfas for a year-and-a-half, until she was academically excluded.

This year she had travelled from the Eastern Cape to attend a Wits Readmission Committee hearing on January 17, and could not afford to go back home. Her mother, who is the sole wage earner in the family, and is supporting five children, then took on the burden of paying for her accommodation, hoping that NSfas would take over.

“My mother had to take out loans [for my accommodation]. She cannot always send money, so sometimes I eat once a day, and I still have to cross-night and study,” said Mpoto, who, like many students, does not have a book allowance or stipend to get essentials.  

Phungwayo said that during the fee protests in February, the SRC had met with NSfas and brought up the issue of students who were sleeping in libraries and toilets, because of the financial uncertainty created by the slow pace with which NSFAS was communicating the statuses of their appeals. NSfas had then promised to resolve all appeals by the end of March and established an appeals tribunal to fast-track the processing of the 70 000 appeals they had received nationally, for 2023. This did not happen, according to Phungwayo.  

He added that since 2020, students have had to use a centralised portal to lodge appeals, and the SRC recommends that appeals be relocated to individual universities, to avoid this kind of breakdown in progress.  

Samora Mbomba, the regional coordinator of the South African Students Congress who has been working with the SRC on the matter, says that the problem is that once on the NSfas portal, “students were asked to upload certain documents, but when they go to upload those documents, the portal says no documents required.”

She says she has recently been in contact with the National Assembly chairperson of the portfolio committee on higher education, science and innovation, Nompendulo Mkhatshwa, a former SRC president, who had requested the names and identity numbers of the affected students. Mbomba says she believes that things will move a bit quicker now. 

The SRC announced on its Twitter page that any students who had missed the April 17 meeting were welcome to come to the office every day between 3pm and 7pm, so they could be added to the list.

Wits Vuvuzela contacted the Wits NSfas office on April 18, and was told to write an email to the office of the Wits CFO. Executive secretary to the CFO, Marelize van Niekerk then forwarded the email to the financial aid and scholarships office manager, Charlene Timmerman, who did not respond. Wits Vuvuzela followed up with further emails to Timmerman on April 20 and 24 but has yet to receive a response.

FEATURED IMAGE: Wits students who have yet to receive outcomes of NSfas their funding appeals, met in the SRC boardroom on April 17. Photo: Morongoa Masebe

FEATURED ARTICLES:

#WitsShutdown: Suspensions must stop or ceasefire will flop

A brief reprieve at Wits University, as protesting students momentarily call off protest action.  

The deputy president of the Wits student representative council (SRC), Kamogelo Mabe declared a 24-hour ceasefire on March 8, as the group prepares to finally meet with Vice Chancellor, Zeblon Vilakazi.

The ceasefire is conditional, Mabe called for all ‘bouncers’ (security officers) to be removed from campuses and for no further suspensions to be enacted by the university.   

“This is a stance that we are taking as student leaders. We are not intimidated, we are not pressured into any position, but we are simply saying that we are, for the last time, revisiting this conversation,” said Mabe at a press briefing. 

Several student protesters including the Wits SRC president, Aphiwe Mnyamana remain suspended from the university. The suspensions bar the students from entering the university premises including residences, making them effectively homeless and unable to continue with their studies. 

Speaking to eNCA, the university’s spokesperson Shirona Patel welcomed the ceasefire and said that they were willing to meet the SRC’s demands to facilitate dialogue. Patel added that the university has already acceded to the SRC’s demand to remove the police presence in and around the university and will reduce the number of private security guards as the situation deescalates. 

“I’ve been here before the pandemic, and I’ve seen like protests like in 2019 and I’m a bit unfazed by it because it’s something that like we almost expect now so it’s a bit disheartening to me that like we’re still having these conversations even though I’ve been here since 2019 this is 2023 and it’s still the same conversation,” said Owethu Tema, a third-year architecture student 

Similar protests are taking place at the Tshwane University of Technology, the University of Pretoria, and the University of Cape Town, among others. The same issues persist at these institutions, students simply cannot afford both the high cost of education and the living expenses that come with being a student.  

FEATURED IMAGE: Left to right: Wits SRC members Karabo Matloga, deputy president Kamogelo Mabe and secretary general Tshiamo Chuma at the press briefing on March 8, 2023. Photo: Mpho Hlakudi

RELATED ARTICLES:

#WitsShutdown nears second week

While some are attending online classes, protesting students still have their proverbial boots on the ground as the #WitsShutdown drags on.  

Protesting students were joined by the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union affiliated workers picketing in front of the heavily guarded Wits Great Hall on Monday, March 6.  

The Great Hall piazza has been stage to increased tensions over the last few days, which saw projectiles including bricks and stones, flung from either side of the picket line. Most recently students trying to gain entry to the admin block were shoved and pepper sprayed by security officers.

Increased security in recent days, has seen the police called in to quell tensions. Photo: Mpho Hlakudi

SRC’s attempt to ‘fetch’ VC 

A group of students protested outside the Wits VC, Zeblon Vilakazi’s house in Parktown at around 22:00 on March 6, 2023, to pressure the university to meet outstanding demands. The protesters accused the vice chancellor of being “arrogant” and not taking their plight seriously after he refused to meet them, he was on campus at the time and agreed to meet with the SRC at a time yet to be confirmed. 

In a statement, the university said: “Following our engagement with the SRC, and further correspondence, the SRC has rejected the concessions presented today. Instead… about 200 students, led by the SRC, chose to march to the Vice-Chancellor’s home, and some threatened to burn it down.” The SRC denied the threat.  

“We will not put our arms down until our students are registered,” said Kabelo Phungwayo, the Wits SRC Treasurer General who said that he was left bruised after security guards assaulted him while protesting on Monday morning.  

Students kneel on the Great Hall piazza on March 6, 2023. Photo: Mpho Hlakudi

Deadlock after concessions 

Wits has made some concessions including the waiving the R10 000 first fee payment for students applying for accommodation, and the provision of free data for all students from April 1, 2023. Speaking at a mass meeting on Sunday evening SRC president, Aphiwe Mnyamana said that they “will remain resolute” until all their demands are met.  

Remaining demands include the allocation of additional beds for homeless students, scrapping of the R45 000 National Student Financial Aid Scheme accommodation cap, allowing indebted students to graduate and the lifting of suspensions.  

The university says many of these demands are simply unaffordable, the NSFAS shortfall for instance requires some R86 million.  

In a statement issued over the weekend, the minister of higher education, science and technology, Blade Nzimande said urgent meetings over the cap would take place in the coming days. Along with this, “price collusion by landlords”, would be investigated.  

Karabo Matloga, the Wits SRC compliance officer, told Wits Vuvuzela that, “We had a meeting on Saturday looked promising however, the letter that we received was simply a spit in our faces because it was not addressing the core issues we have.”  

The university said it is committed to working with the SRC subject to availability of resources and the university’s long-term sustainability.

FEATURED IMAGE: Student holding up a placard which reads, “Wits is not for good…”. Photo: Mpho Hlakudi

RELATED STORIES:

INFOGRAPHIC: Wits SRC vs Wits SET

The #WitsShutdown protests are ongoing as key demands remain unmet.

There has been much back and forth between the Wits SRC and the university’s Senior Management Team during the #WitsShutdown protests. We put some of the key issues side by side.

FEATURED IMAGE: A protesting student form the Wits EFF Student Command sings into a loudhailer. Photo: Mpho Hlakudi

RELATED STORIES:

GALLERY: Tensions rise on third day of protests

From the early hours of Friday morning, the ongoing #WitsShutdown protests became physical.

Things came to a head between protesting students and private security officers and Campus Protection Services (CPS) on March 3, 2023. What started out as security using their shields to bar students from entering buildings or using certain entrances, quickly escalated into water, bricks and other projectiles being hurled by some protestors.

Members of the South African Police Service (SAPS) have now entered the fray, with multiple nyala’s standing at the ready in front of the Great Hall steps to provide reinforcements.

FEATURED IMAGE: A traffic cone about to be flung at security officers. Photo: Mpho Hlakudi

RELATED STORIES:

Suspensions loom as #WitsShutdown continues

Protests on campus spilled out onto the streets of Braamfontein as students continued with their call to “leave no student behind”.

Campus Protection Services (CPS) beefed up their presence to include private security on Wits University’s main campus, which saw men and women dressed in orange and black act as the only barrier between protesting students and those continuing with the academic programme on March 2, 2023. Police officers were also stationed at some university entrances at various points in the day.

Following a mass meeting on the evening of March 1, 2023, protesting students ramped up efforts to have activities on campus grind to a halt. At different points in the day groups of students took the protest off campus and onto Empire Road, Smit Street and Jorissen Streets, blocking traffic with their bodies and burning tyres.

In video footage taken by TimesLive journalist, Thabo Tshabalala, some protestors could be seen vandalising property and threatening shop-owners to close up shop.

Along with this, classes taking place in various venues were disrupted. The university has condemned these acts and said this is no longer a peaceful protest. In a statement, Wits head of communications, Shirona Patel said: “We cannot be held to ransom by a small group of disruptors, and we now have no choice but to act firmly against those who contravene the University’s rules.”

The university’s Legal Office is now studying video footage, photographs and statements given to CPS, “with a view to suspending the disruptors in line with the University’s policies and procedures and taking appropriate legal action to ensure that the rights of others are not infringed,” Patel added.

Protesting students took their fight to the streets of Braamfontein on March 2, 2023. Photo: Mpho Hlakudi

Members of the Wits SRC told Wits Vuvuzela that they will not stop protesting until all their demands are met and students are able to register, as such their demands now include an extension of the first block by one week.

In a statement, the Wits SRC said that talks with the National Student Financial Aid Scheme and the department of higher education failed. Now, the SRC has called for the immediate removal of Blade Nzimande and his deputy Buti Manamela for poor performance. Along with this demand they are calling for the withdrawal of the R45 000 NSFAS accommodation cap, and the increase of the NSFAS allowance to R2000 to address the high cost of living.

FEATURED IMAGE: A burning tyre pictured on the middle of Empire Road in Braamfontein on March 2, 2023. Photo: Mpho Hlakudi

RELATED STORIES:

Wits SRC: Students cannot be displaced on our watch

Some Wits University students have joined the countrywide protests over historical debt and unaffordable student accommodation.

Scores of students, staff and visitors were turned away at the Yale Road North and Empire Road entrances of Wits University on the morning of March 1, 2023, as a group of students led by the student representative council (SRC) used their bodies, plastic road barriers and rubbish to block entry.

Students blocking the Empire Road entrance to main campus, as protests over historic debt and accommodation reach Wits University after weeks of similar protest action across the country. Photo: Seth Thorne

The attempted shutdown is aimed at addressing a number of students who have been unable to register due to existing debt and those without accommodation. Many can not afford the rentals charged at some university residences and private off-campus residences alike, forcing them to take shelter in libraries, toilet stalls and other unsuitable spaces.

When approached by Wits Vuvuzela, some members of the SRC were reluctant to speak on the record but said their demands to management had not been met and the shutdown would be in place until they were. In an interview with eNCA, deputy secretary of the SRC, Vuyiswa Mochochoko said, “over 10 000 students” have been financially excluded and are in need of assistance to continue with their studies.

In a statement, the university said the protest came as a “surprise” as they had been working with the SRC up to a few hours before the protest to assist qualifying students with their registration. “Wits has matched the R6,2 million brought in by the SRC rand for rand. In effect, there is a pot of R12,4 million available in the SRC Fund for qualifying students,” the statement says.

The university added that 36 200 students (96% of the student population) have successfully registered for the academic year and R28 million raised through the Wits Hardship Fund has been used to assist with some of these registrations and to provide emergency accommodation.

While the SRC is demanding that all students with debt below R150 000 be allowed to register, these are the concessions the university has made so far:

  • allowing students who owe R10 000 or less to register, 
  • allowing students whose total household income is below R600 000 to apply for registration assistance by paying 50% of the outstanding debt due and by making an arrangement to pay the balance of the debt during the course of the academic year, and 
  • allowing students who owe R15 000 or less to graduate.
A group of protesting students block the Yale Road entrance onto main campus near the Origins Centre. The protest on March 1, 2023 saw some students being pulled out of lecture halls in an attempt to shut down all activities on campus. Photo: Mpho Hlakudi

The protesters disrupted lectures and assessments, which may prompt the need to move online if the situation on the ground continues.

“We were supposed to write a test today and we couldn’t write it and I studied for it and I planned and now like the whole week is like, was a waste, all my studying. I’m really mad that we didn’t get to write that test and now we have to do it next week but we have another test next week so you know, I was very upset about that. Yeah, no, its going to be so stressful,” said Isabella Pedra, a second-year Bsc occupational therapy student.

Shannon Henning, a second-year BSc student told Wits Vuvuzela that, “I feel like if it was more peaceful more people would join them but I feel like when there’s vandalism, like the whole Yale Road is covered in litter now and I’m like, if I was a student I don’t wanna be represented by that. I would rather join something that’s peaceful than something where you’re breaking things and you’re littering everywhere, I don’t wanna be associated with that type of protest action.”

As reported by Wits Vuvuzela earlier this year, several universities and technical vocational education and training colleges have seen protests over the same issues being raised by the Wits SRC.

FEATURED IMAGE: A protesting student holds up a placard which reads, “We must register” on March 1, 2023. Photo: Mpho Hlakudi

RELATED ARTICLES: