/ 23 October 2023

The vicious cycle of NSFAS: A journey through corruption and hope

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The real tragedy lies in the suffering of the students

In the contemporary South African landscape, public malfeasance has reached a level where citizens, surprisingly, have adapted to its frequent occurrences. The imagery of the VBS bank debacle still lingers, yet it remains without tangible consequences after three years. Instances of state capture, revelations from the Zondo commission, the deterioration of our State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs), and the legal tactics previously adopted by our former president merely add layers to this intricate tapestry of misconduct.

Echoes from the past

Despite the desensitisation, it’s crucial to understand the monumental impact of these scenarios. The labyrinth of financial transgressions may take years to unravel, but the overarching narrative demands our attention. It’s not just about financial tracking but also recognising patterns of corruption. It’s about converting these heinous acts into cautionary tales, stories so outlandish they appear fictional yet remain anchored in reality. While institutions like the SIU and HAWKS exhibit commendable dedication, their effectiveness in preventing these rampant attacks on our democratic system often falls short.

Unearthing patterns with Booker’s lens

Christopher Booker’s book, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, offers an illuminating framework. Using his outlined meta-plots, let’s venture into the story of Andile Nongogo, CA(SA). From his esteemed tenure at the Services SETA (SSETA) to his pivotal role as CEO of NSFAS, Nongogo’s narrative intertwines with the fate of many, not to forget a commendable 15-year service as the Auditor General’s Deputy Director of External Audit South Africa.

The tumultuous SSETA saga

When viewed from Booker’s perspective, the tales emanating from SSETA and NSFAS oscillate between a quest, farcical comedy and tragedy. The tender intricacies of the SSETA, diligently examined by OUTA, unveil a startling corruption scale. To provide context, Tender PROC T434 — which had irregularities as stark as differing RFPs without feasibility studies, premature committee meetings, and questionable due diligence — brought to light the unscrupulous dealings surrounding Grayson Reed, Muroba Group Holdings, and the perplexing BEC meeting dates — all under Nongogo’s watch. This maladministration left an R162 million void, denying students invaluable services.

Repeating mistakes at NSFAS

NSFAS, an essential haven for underprivileged students, parallels SSETA’s mismanagement. With the haunting shadow of student debts in countries like the USA, NSFAS’s formation was a beacon of hope. Yet, the staggering irregular expenditure figures, constant leadership changes, and gaping holes in financial controls tell a different story. The introduction of the Student-Centred Model under Xolisa Mvinjelwa’s leadership seemed promising but led to the current financial mess.

Amid student protests and a series of controversies, Nongogo’s leadership faced scrutiny. The recent report by Werksmans Attorneys unveiled alarming overlaps between SSETA and NSFAS’s malpractices, further emphasising the cyclic nature of these financial misdemeanours.

The dire implications

The real tragedy lies in the suffering of the students. Inflated fees, delayed payments, and reduced support jeopardise their aspirations and dreams. Universities, pivotal contributors to South Africa’s economy, now grapple with spiralling debt and dwindling resources. All are threatened by a handful of individuals, repeating their malevolent acts with impunity.

The solution? It could be as simple as direct payments through reputable banks without the complexity of specialised NSFAS cards. It is a straightforward approach, possibly overlooked for intricate webs of corruption.

Reclaiming our narrative

By acknowledging these patterns and confronting the overwhelming “monster”, South Africa hopes to redefine its story, where ethics triumph over political influence.

Dr Linda Meyer is MD, IIE Rosebank College and Patrick Fish is an Educational Expert