Parliament’s portfolio committee on higher education has expressed dismay at the ministry of higher education, after it had to postpone a meeting on university students’ funding challenges because the minister and his deputy had to leave.
The committee called an urgent meeting on Wednesday to discuss the student protests at higher education institutions and map a possible way forward. The meeting was attended by the South African Union of Students (SAUS) and Universities South Africa, as well as the vice-chancellor, student representative council and the chairperson of the council of the University of Witwatersrand.
Higher education minister Blade Nzimande, who was the first to make a presentation, asked to be excused straight afterwards, because he had another important meeting he needed to attend. Nzimande did, however, indicate that his deputy minister, Buti Manamela, would remain in the meeting.
But this was not the case.
Manamela also later indicated that he had to leave the meeting, because he was chairing another meeting at 1pm.
Committee chairperson Philemon Mapulane did not take kindly to Manamela’s exit, although he stopped short of saying that the ministry was undermining the committee.
“[The minister] said to us he is leaving us with the deputy minister. Now the deputy minister is also going to leave us in this discussion. I don’t know what that means. I don’t know what … message has been communicated to us,” Mapulane said.
“It is up to you, the deputy minister, if you want to leave the meeting. But I think it is going to be very, very inappropriate if that is done. I think in as much as we are asking for flexibility from institutions, that flexibility must also be exercised by the leadership of the department,” he continued.
“This is a very important discussion. This is a very important platform of oversight and accountability. I think it is going to be a very sad day that we will treat it in the manner that [it] is apparent that you are going to,” Mapulane added.
The meeting had been scheduled to run from 9am to 1pm. But Mapulane said, because of the nature of the stakeholders that had made the presentation, the committee could not rush through it. The committee members needed to engage with what had been presented and also provide possible solutions to the challenges. He had asked that it be extended by an hour.
Manamela said the department took the meeting of the portfolio committee seriously and, as a result, he had rescheduled the other meeting he was going to chair to give space to the portfolio committee’s meeting.
“We have several stakeholders and participants who are participating in the next meeting. We think it will actually be unfair for us, at such short notice, to tell them that we are postponing the meeting by an hour,” Manamela said.
“There are a series of meetings, even after the task team meeting, whose intention is to try and resolve the same issue,” said Manamela, adding that the portfolio committee meeting did not have to end because the acting deputy director general for universities, Thandi Lewin, would remain to represent the department.
But Mapulane said the discussions required the presence of the political leadership of the department and not an administrator. He said there was a limit to what Lewin could provide in terms of response.
“Some of the stakeholders here — the students — will make a valid point that they elect the political leadership, and it is the political leadership [who are] accountable to the nation, not administrators. Administrators implement policy,” said Mapulane.
In the end, the meeting was postponed until Tuesday but Mapulane said the committee was going to take up what had happened with the ministry because he was “disappointed” by the turn of events.
“I’m extremely disappointed by this thing because it communicates a message that we do not care about the issues facing the students,” he said.
“I had thought that the issues that we are dealing with at our level take precedent, but obviously some of us have been reading a very wrong understanding of the role of the legislature and parliament that we can be treated like this. But it is okay.”
Other committee members supported Mapulane in cancelling the meeting, adding that there was no point in continuing if there were no ministry representative present.
The ANC’s Nompendulo Mkhatshwa shared Mapulane’s frustrations, saying that the ministry’s attitude was similar to when it had been called on to provide an update about the state of readiness of the 2021 academic year.
“We had the meeting, finally, last Wednesday. It did not have the full attendance of the executive, and again this week the conversation has escalated because of what has happened on campuses; again we cannot have the full attendance and co-operation of the executive,” she said.
“That, for me, is highly problematic and it just communicates a level of not appreciating the importance and the role that we have to play as members of parliament.”
Mapulane added that he had hoped the meeting was going to provide “some kind of reassurance” to the protesting students that their issues are being attended to at the level of parliament.
“I think the diminishing stature and role of parliament is an issue that we really require a discussion around — our understanding of what this eminent institution represents and how we should conduct ourselves in relation to our responsibility, in accounting to this institution [and] in allowing this institution to hold us accountable,” he said.