Student leaders 'in Blade’s pocket'

Hear us: Some students say it is a conflict of interest for Sasco to serve on the NSFAS council while demanding free education. (Fredrik Lerneryd)

Hear us: Some students say it is a conflict of interest for Sasco to serve on the NSFAS council while demanding free education. (Fredrik Lerneryd)

The minister of higher education has bought off the leaders of the South African Students’ Congress (Sasco), detractors alleged this week.

At least two executives of the organisation, which some see as the ANC’s tertiary education wing, have been appointed to the boards of statutory bodies.

Mcebo Freedom Dlamini, president of the student representative council at the University of the Witwatersrand and a member of both Sasco and the ANC Youth League, said he believes Sasco leaders are “in the pocket of [Higher Education and Training Minister] Blade Nzimande”.

Dlamini was referring to Nzi­mande appointing Sasco leaders to the boards of state bodies that fall under his control. Board members get paid for attending meetings.

Sasco secretary general Luzuko Buku was appointed to the Council on Higher Education board in January and the organisation’s deputy president, Thabo Moloja, has been a member of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) council since 2013.

Dlamini said: “Tell me, following Luzuko’s appointment, how is he going to champion the struggle of students? Also, [Sasco president Ntuthuko] Makhombothi was in Brazil with Mduduzi [Manana, deputy minister of higher education and training] just recently. We have leaders who are silencing student voices.
They put you in their pocket.”

The view that Sasco is too close to the ANC and therefore compromised was a common one among the students who marched on Nzimande’s office in Pretoria over the past two weeks.

An independent group
Calling itself the “Occupy movement”, the group organised itself independently of Sasco.

One of its organisers, ANC Youth League member Raymond Hlungwani, also known as “MJ wa Azania”, told the Mail & Guardian this week he had spoken out for years against Sasco having its national office at Luthuli House.

“If I am feeding you, how am I going to take you seriously when you march against me?” asked Hlungwani, a student at the Tshwane University of Technology.

“Sasco has been marching to Nzimande for five years now [to demand free education], but he has never come out to accept a memorandum from them. It means he doesn’t even take Sasco seriously,” he said.

The Occupy movement students are now working towards forming a national body “that will be independent of Sasco and any other political organisation”, said Hlungwani.

Sasco aligned itself with the ANC when it was founded in 1991. It is now the dominant student organisation on South African campuses, with more than 67?000 members.

Lost power
It governs the student representative councils at 20 of South Africa’s 26 universities. Sasco has, however, lost power at the University of Limpopo to the Economic Freedom Fighters’ Student Command and to the Democratic Alliance Student Organisation (Daso) at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) in Port Elizabeth.

Makhombothi said this week that Sasco’s election loss to the EFF came as a wake-up call. “We may have so many institutions under our control, but we get concerned when we lose one. We’re worried, too, about losing NMMU and we’re putting in every effort to win it back.”

He denied that Sasco is compromised by having its office at the ANC’s headquarters. “This critique always comes to Sasco, yet Sasco is the only independent student organisation in the country: a student organisation not belonging to any political party.

“The DA has Daso. We’re not an ANC student organisation and the ANC knows that. We’re not like the [ANC Youth League], for instance.”

He said, although Sasco is independent of the ANC, it is in an alliance with the party. “Our location in the headquarters of the ANC really to us is no factor to the political life of Sasco.

“But what people want us to do – which we’re not prepared to do – is to go and say: ‘On the basis that [free education] has not been implemented, we’ll pack up our bags and leave Luthuli House’.”

Buku said Sasco has been deploying members to NSFAS and the higher education council for years, “way before Blade even came into office”.

Criticizing government
“[Moloja] has been serving on the NSFAS board for three years, but he’s been able to criticise NSFAS,” he said. “If you check our statements, we always criticise government. What is the buying [of Sasco members] achieving, if there is buying? Nothing. That is the reality. Now there is street talk by people who don’t know these things.”

Makhombothi said the department inviting him to Brazil could not have been a way of buying him because the trip was “not social. I don’t know how you buy a person by saying he must attend a meeting where there’s going to be intense discussions,” he said.

Nzimande’s office was not able to comment before the M&G went to print.“If I am feeding you, how am I going to take you seriously when you march against me?”

In a statement on Friday, Sasco said notes the story by the M&G as nothing but malicious and poorly researched and “relies on street gossip”. 

“It lacks verified facts and scientific evidence. It also shows the deteriorating level of journalism in South Africa,” the statement said.

Bongani Nkosi

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