/ 8 June 2012

Student aid scheme clams up

As students such as these University of Johannesburg protesters demand free tuition
As students such as these University of Johannesburg protesters demand free tuition

The chairperson of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme of South Africa (Nsfas) this week demanded that the Mail & Guardian stop asking questions about the suspension of the public agency’s chief executive, Nkosinathi Khena.

Zamayedwa Sogayise sent the M&G an email asking it not to send the agency’s spokesperson, Xolani Gobelo, any questions about Khena’s suspension.

When asked over the telephone for information about the board’s decision to suspend Khena, Gobelo asked that the query be made by email.

But Sogayise responded instead, reiterating that he would only ­confirm the suspension. He said Khena had been suspended on charges of “serious misconduct” and a “disciplinary hearing will be held in due course”.

“Nsfas will not be commenting further on this matter until the ­disciplinary process has been finalised,” said Sogayise. “I therefore request you not to try to get further comment from Xolani Gobelo or any other Nsfas staff. All comments will be issued only by me as Nsfas board chairperson.”

FET protests
The agency has allocated R7.4‑billion in student loans and bursaries to distribute to universities and further education and training (FET) colleges during 2012. A number of students are currently protesting at certain FET campuses, citing problems related to the scheme’s funding as part of their grievances.

Khena was suspended from his job last week, barely five months after being appointed chief executive of the controversial agency. He assumed the position in December, almost a year after Ashley Seymour unceremoniously vacated it.

Before being axed in April last year, Seymour was also suspended without any announcement. News that he had been suspended for several weeks only emerged when the department of higher education and training was briefing Parliament in March last year on progress made in implementing recommendations of a ministerial review in the agency.

The then acting deputy director general responsible for universities in the department, Kirti Menon, told MPs that Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande had suspended Seymour after his orders to implement a recommendation of the ministerial review were allegedly ignored.

Seymour, who challenged his dismissal in the Labour Court, had not even been with the agency for a year. He alleged a “communist-inspired political agenda” for his sacking in court papers and identified Sogayise as “a prominent member” of the Nzimande-led South African Communist Party in Cape Town.

Sogayise was one of three people Nzimande co-opted on to the scheme’s board in December 2010, just a few days after six members resigned.
Seymour’s predecessors in the job had also not completed their five-year contracts. Khena was the agency’s sixth chief executive — two of whom had been acting — in 11 years.

Comment denied
Khena did not respond to several requests for comment. He is the former director of several companies, including Premier Soccer League team Lamontville Golden Arrows, of which he is a co-owner, and is understood to be a senior leader of the Pan Africanist Congress in KwaZulu-Natal.

But the M&G learnt from a board member that a golden handshake is already being considered for Khena. “There are some people on the board who want him out after he complained in a note that his efforts are being frustrated,” the source claimed.

Another board member said it was not clear to him why Khena had been suspended. “The suspension is dicey. We will seek clarity from the minister,” he said.

Lack of continuity in the office of the chief executive was identified in the ministerial review as something that hinders the agency’s ability to respond strategically to the challenges it is facing.

The report pointed out that this lack of continuity in executive leadership also hinders the board, as it draws it into “many responsibilities more typically associated with the role of senior management”.

Jeffrey Mabelebele, chief executive at Higher Education South Africa (Hesa), an association of the country’s 23 public universities, said it was difficult to give an informed opinion because the body was in the dark about the circumstances leading to Khena’s suspension.

However, “the importance of management stability and continuity for an organisation such as Nsfas cannot be overemphasised”.

He added: “Hesa is concerned about the stability of the Nsfas executive management team, given the huge public mandate that the organisation carries. We urge the Nsfas board to act swiftly on the issue with a view to restoring executive management stability, a key requirement for a well-performing Nsfas.”