The Portfolio Committee met virtually to be briefed by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) on its turnaround strategy to resolve issues arising from the new direct payment system, delays in resolving student appeals, the accreditation of student accommodation, and many other issues. However, the Members were told that at the last minute, NSFAS had pulled out of the meeting, and had requested an extension until mid-October.
The Committee expressed its extreme frustration at this development, as this was meant to be a follow-up to a meeting two weeks earlier, which had ended with NSFAS being given the fortnight to respond to critical unanswered questions involving challenges around funding and allowances, student appeals and query backlogs, and reasons for the leave of absence of the entity's chief executive officer.
The Members' annoyance was compounded by the continued absence of the Minister of Higher Education from the Committee's meetings. The Minister had submitted a letter requesting that the meeting be postponed to allow the Department to prepare a comprehensive response. It was felt that the non-attendance by NSFAS and the Minister undermined the Committee's mandate to conduct effective oversight.
The Committee was also not impressed by the Minister's assertion in a public press briefing the previous day, that there was "no crisis" at NSFAS. Members suggested that the reason for NSFAS avoiding the meeting was because they had yet to find acceptable answers to the questions posed two weeks ago.
Responding to suggestions that the Committee had been too soft in its dealings with the Department and its entities, the Chairperson said a hard line would be taken with NSFAS. If they did not attend the next meeting, the Committee would immediately issue a summons.
Chairperson's opening remarks
The Chairperson said the Committee had met with the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) two weeks ago to receive an update on a number of matters. These had included the new direct payment system, which had had many concerns; the many appeals and queries that had not been responded to; accommodation accreditation, and issues relating to accommodation. NSFAS had not been able to respond adequately to the Committee on that day. A lot was spoken about proper plans on how to work towards remedying these matters. NSFAS was given two weeks to come back to the Committee.
Since then, a number of letters have been received from both the Minister and NSFAS. According to the presentations that had been received, only one service provider, including NSFAS, did not submit any presentation. On Monday morning, a letter had been received from NSFAS, stating that they were unable to attend the Committee meeting. This letter had been sent to the Members. NSFAS had asked for a postponement until mid-October. However, that very same evening, another letter was received from the Minister, asking for a postponement of the meeting. The Committee had responded that this resolution was taken two weeks ago, and that the meeting should continue. NSFAS had indicated at some point that they would come to the meeting, and had withdrawn their previous letter that indicated their unavailability. However, later on Tuesday, they sent another letter indicating they were unavailable.
In essence, three forms of communication were received from NSFAS. They said they would come, then would not come, and then asked for the postponement. They also withdrew the postponement. One letter was also received from the Minister asking for a postponement so that they could come to the Committee with a comprehensive report in mid-October. This was the request that had come forward to the Committee. Three service providers were here, and one service provider had written to the Committee requesting an audience to clarify many of their concerns.
By the time this request was received, a decision had already been taken to call in all the service providers, along with NSFAS. This had been done to try and fix this "broken telephone" sort of reality faced with the new direct payment system. It was done to ensure that the Committee played its role more effectively in giving advice and closing or filling the gaps, so by the time the service provider requested an audience, the Committee had already resolved it.
She said this was the information being shared with the Committee. Members might be wondering why this information was not shared yesterday. She thought that it was important this matter was discussed before being postponed. It was important for transparency and that these matters be engaged in this Committee.
She opened the floor for Members to discuss what was happening with NSFAS. The Committee had been very considerate to NSFAS, giving them time to go and properly prepare to respond. Often, when NSFAS responded, they did not inspire confidence. There was a vicious cycle of continuously interacting. She asked the Members for their opinions.
Ms K Khakhau (DA) said that she always said that the Committee was not a spaza shop, and people always thought she was being dramatic or cracking a joke. It was important to understand that the Committee was not a happy-go-lucky station for people to come and go as they please without taking the work that the Committee did seriously -- not only the work that the Committee did, but for the people of South Africa and the millions of students that depend on NSFAS to get their education and further their dreams and life.
The Committee had been more than “cute” with NSFAS and the Department itself. The Minister himself had never rated this Committee. He was never here much, and only came and went as he pleased. He did not take the deliberations of this Committee seriously. This was why it was so easy for others to follow in his footsteps and not take the Committee seriously. It was also the reason it was so easy for people to say that they were not coming.
The letter clearly indicated that NSFAS was unable to come and report to the Committee because it did not know how to fix the mess that it was in. NSFAS was still using thumb-sucking ways to get out of the mess that it had created. Two weeks ago, the Committee was still trying to hold the hands of NSFAS and "baby" them in the right direction. It was now two weeks later, and NSFAS still did not know where that direction was leading to. What was further upsetting was the fact that NSFAS and the Minister were able to have public communication with everybody else in a grandstanding manner to make it seem as if everything was in order, but did not have the decency to come to the Committee that had been working hard to correct it.
It was really disheartening, two minutes into the meeting, to receive these emails. She would have appreciated it if the Committee had not taken into confidence on this. It was almost like NSFAS had realised on Monday night that there was a deadline on Wednesday, and still did not know what it was doing for the last two weeks. NSFAS and Minister Nzimande should not disrespect not only the Chairperson of this Committee, the Parliament of the Republic of South Africa, but the taxpayers who fund the entity itself and the Department. This could not be the end of the discussion. The Committee could not be upset and then move on like nothing had happened. Something more serious and tangible needed to come out of this today. The Committee needed to deal with the Minister’s disrespect and NSFAS's inability to function.
Ms C King (DA) said that the Committee had given NSFAS two weeks to deal with all the questions that were put forward before them. It was not asking NSFAS to create a magical silver bullet to fix all the problems overnight. The Committee wanted to find out what progress had been done. It was really disheartening that the Minister had felt fit yesterday to call a meeting with the press to brief them on issues that had already been discussed in this Committee, and pass it off as if it was something new and give wrong information on the figures. It just showed that the Minister was really out of touch with what was going on in his portfolio. It was high time that the Committee approached the Chair of the Chairs to note the distress and anger of the Committee. A letter should be written to the Speaker of the National Assembly to address the issue of the Minister’s non-availability, and the alarm bells ringing at NSFAS.
On numerous occasions, it had been proposed that there should be a proper discussion in Parliament on the NSFAS saga to see what was going on, and to craft a way forward. Yesterday, the Minister went in public, announcing the comprehensive funding model which was supposed to have been in front of Cabinet in June already. It was now going to be tabled only by the end of the year.
She said it seemed as if there were serious challenges with the way the accounting officer, the Minister himself, was handling his portfolio and the issues of NSFAS. If the Committee did not deal with this seriously, it needed to start improving the ability and capability of the NSFAS board to actually run the affairs of the entity. It had been three years, so there was only one year left for the NSFAS board. The Committee had to assess how well the NSFAS board was performing. NSFAS came to the Committee reporting on issues as if it had a new board trying to address the administrative challenges. There was a concern that they lacked vision and direction. They came to the Committee and undermined not only the Chairperson, but also the Committee.
She said she felt that the Chairperson had been running things collegially. The Committee had not been strict with NSFAS, but NSFAS had been pushing the Committee's buttons. NSFAS was derailing the Committee from doing what the taxpayers paid them to do -- to exercise proper oversight on entities and the Department itself. The Committee should write to the Speaker of the National Assembly to address this matter, because it was beyond the Committee. The Minister had been arrogant enough to undermine the Committee.
Ms D Sibiya (ANC) said there were serious problems within NSFAS. It was supposed to have informed the Committee last week that it would be impossible to meet this week. If NSFAS was not ready to come before the Committee, it meant their house was still dirty, and they had to clean it. The Committee was waiting for the turnaround strategy. The Committee would take it forward if things were not fixed. NSFAS should have informed the Committee on time, but the Committee would wait for the turnaround strategy.
Mr K Pillay (ANC) said he was disappointed to arrive at a meeting, only to not have a meeting. It was important to note that the Committee had raised its concerns about NSFAS and the concerns that the students and society had. It was not asking for anything new. It was asking NSFAS to come and present what was currently being done, or what would be done. Even if it was not ready to present, it should have been able to inform the Committee what they were doing, or what they would be doing. He had just gone over the letter closely, and said that the Minister had requested a postponement for next week and mentioned some correspondence regarding NSFAS strategic planning. He was not sure whether it was a workshop or a session, but NSFAS and the Department was aware of this session and should have informed the Committee that they already had something on that specific date, and suggested a new date. It would be premature for the Committee to receive anything before that happened. He suggested that the meeting be moved to next week to ensure that proper information was received from NSFAS. It would be proper to listen to the service providers in the presence of NSFAS, because these were service providers to the entity.
This was a serious issue facing society, and grandstanding was not going to solve the problem. The process had to unfold before any other steps could be taken. NSFAS should be given the opportunity to present to the Committee. If they did not, the Committee had the right to be able to bring it forward. It would be premature to discuss other things before NSFAS came and presented. It was a bitter pill to swallow, but the Committee had to accept that there would be a postponement.
Ms King indicated in the chat box that she disagreed that it would be premature. There was a meeting to address the issues of NSFAS. So, why could NSFAS and the Department not address the Committee. The Committee could not pussy-foot around them anymore.
Mr T Letsie (ANC) said that it had been indicated in the chat box that the Director-General of the Department was waiting in the Zoom lobby to be let into the meeting. It was important for people to be here in the meeting to see what was being raised by this Committee. He said that any day that passed without NSFAS resolving the issues that were affecting students was a day too long. In the event that students at universities and technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges' queries were not resolved -- if allowance were not paid and appeals were not resolved -- it was a day too long. This drove students towards mental collapse. All these students had applied for NSFAS assistance because they had no other means to get food, accommodation and transport. Even today, there were still appeals from February that had not yet been resolved. Two weeks ago, an issue had been raised regarding females going to the extent of getting 'sugar daddies,' just for them to have a meal. This could not be correct when this government had put aside R47 billion to support students.
He was disappointed that NSFAS was not here. There had been letters and then postponements and withdrawals. There was even the withdrawal of a withdrawal. After all of this, NSFAS and the Ministry were not here for the meeting. It was very concerning that when the Committee met with NSFAS two weeks ago and told them to come back and respond to all the questions asked, NSFAS had indicated that they would inform the Committee about a turnaround strategy. The reason that this had not been done was because NSFAS first wanted to brief the Minister on the strategy before it was presented to the Committee. This was the correct route to take, but NSFAS had two weeks to do so. NSFAS could have written to the Committee last week to say there were time constraints or calendar issues. NSFAS and the Department could have informed the Committee that they could not meet and asked for an extra week to prepare. It would have been understandable. However, the Committee was informed on Monday and Tuesday. It made it difficult for the Committee to even reschedule and make time for another entity to come and brief the Committee on issues of national importance.
NSFAS had not submitted its financials to the Auditor-General (AG) last year. This was very concerning and disturbing. This issue had been raised many times before, and must not happen again. It had received a disclaimer opinion the previous year. The issues of NSFAS were really concerning, as it was not delivering the services as it was supposed to. Many of the students were depressed and needed mental assistance. The Committee did not want things like this to happen.
He proposed that the Committee write to the Speaker of the National Assembly and ask for a special dispensation to hold this meeting next Tuesday or Wednesday, when Members were available. This would fall outside the Parliamentary programme. NSFAS and the Department must come and give an account of all of the issues that have been raised. Some of the service providers in the documents that had been provided had not indicated why something was wrong. They did not indicate why students had not been paid on time. The documents did not indicate what the real challenges were. The Committee did not want to hear about the company’s history or immaterial things. One of the presentations indicated that about 2% of students were not on-boarded. What was the problem? The presentations should not leave the Committee with more questions than answers. NSFAS's service providers must come up with all these answers. NSFAS must also brief the Committee on the turnaround strategy.
He agreed that the Committee should write to the Chair of Chairs and the Speaker of the National Assembly and ask for a special dispensation to hold this meeting. The Committee needed answers from NSFAS. NSFAS had promised that they would resolve, or attempt to resolve, all internal disputes, queries and appeals from students. It must respond to how far it has moved. If there were 15 000 internal queries, how far was NSFAS now? These updates were needed to see when "Day Zero" would be reached. A letter should also be written to the Minister indicating that his presence was needed in the meeting. Members had asserted that the Minister did not take this Committee seriously. The Committee needed to get to the bottom of that issue. He supported the proposal that there should be a meeting next week. The Committee should ask the Speaker of the National Assembly for a special dispensation to have this meeting.
Mr S Ngcobo (DA) said the conduct of NSFAS was unacceptable. It was just disrespecting the Committee and making it difficult for the Committee, as Members of Parliament, to do its job. The Committee should take actionable steps to send a clear message to NSFAS and the Minister that this Committee would not tolerate disrespect. He agreed that the Committee should write to the Chair of Chairs and the Speaker of the National Assembly regarding the conduct of both the Minister and NSFAS. It could not carry on like this. The Committee wanted to do its job properly and address the concerns that many students had across the country. A strong message must be sent to NSFAS that the Committee would not tolerate disrespect.
Ms J Mananiso (ANC) acknowledged the Chairperson’s approach in terms of bringing these issues to the Committee. It showed that the Chairperson was transparent. This was the right platform to actually bring those issues here so that anybody interested could join this particular meeting, and would see what the deliberations had been. It was fair enough for the Chairperson to bring this particular correspondence here.
She raised an issue regarding the timing of the letters. It would have been better if the correspondence had been received last week so that the Committee could have brought in other entities. This also affected the poor, and one day was just too many. There were too many issues that it was dealing with in this particular Department. She encouraged all entities that would come before the Committee, not to do what was happening in today's meeting. Indeed, some issues had not been taken seriously by those assigned to execute this particular mandate.
She agreed with Mr Pillay that the letters should be accepted, and NSFAS should come next week and account for the issues. October was just too late. She agreed that the Committee could not meet with the service providers without NSFAS. The reason for the meeting was to ensure that the issues within NSFAS were dealt with, and to close the chapter on the direct payment system. There had to be an updated version from NSFAS next week on the pending issues of appeals and payments. This would help ensure that service providers were doing their work. The Minister should be able to submit an apology to the Committee, stating that he would not be available. The Minister should improve in terms of attending this Committee’s meetings. She hoped that the Committee would be deliberating on the issues with NSFAS next week, and that the Minister would be present.
The Department should communicate with the Committee when there is a need to communicate on critical issues. It should also brief the Committee with whatever information there was, before it was given to the public. The Department should strengthen its communication.
Mr M Shikwambana (EFF) said that he wanted to greet the Members of the Committee as "honourable members," but could not do so because the Committee was not being honoured by the people who were supposed to be coming before them. The manner in which the Minister and NSFAS were addressing the issues raised a lot more questions. There were questions regarding what it knew and what it did not know. Two weeks ago, NSFAS presented to the Committee, trying to look all organised, but when questions were asked, they could not answer. The Committee gave them two weeks to come back and respond to the Committee. It was now two weeks, and NSFAS was not available.
It was not necessarily disrespecting the Committee, but disrespecting the public, because this was a matter of public interest. These issues affect students today because they do not have food, book allowances, accommodation and fees for the academic year. He did not know what NSFAS was doing. It was as if they were trying to cover something up themselves. The Committee would wait to be briefed on the turnaround strategy.
The behaviour of NSFAS was not foreign behaviour. NSFAS always did these things because they had support from the Minister. The Minister had briefed the public and said there was no crisis within NSFAS. This spoke volumes -- the Minister saying there was no crisis, when the Committee had met with NSFAS and identified issues. NSFAS had been given two weeks to respond to the questions of the Committee, and today, it was not available, along with the Minister himself. He was tired of the Minister not taking this Committee seriously. He thought the Minister was involved in these NSFAS matters and the direct payment system that was affecting the majority of the students. There were a lot of faults. There seemed to be corruption in this direct payment system. He was beginning to believe that the Minister might be directly involved in these things, because whenever there was an issue, the Minister would come out publicly and say that there was no problem.
He was aware that this Committee should force NSFAS to come to this Committee and account on these matters. However, how would the disrespect be dealt with? The Committee had been disrespected. He had gone to bed knowing there would be a meeting with NSFAS and the service providers today. There was now no meeting. He could have done some organisational work or something productive during this time. He had prioritised this meeting because it was an important one, dealing with issues that students had. The Committee was here for the students who could not present themselves. Now, the Committee had been informed that the Minister and NSFAS were not coming.
He said that it was not too late for the Minister to say that he did not want to be part of this Ministry anymore. There was this form of comradeship, of protecting one another. The Minister had gone public by saying there was no problem within NSFAS, when there was. The Minister and NSFAS must come to the meeting next week. What was going to happen about the fact that the Minister and NSFAS had disrespected the Committee, the nation and the public at large? There were students who wanted to know what was happening with the money that they had not received since February, which was very worrisome.
He knew that the Chairperson of this Committee would not like to be disrespected. The Committee did not want to be disrespected. If this continued to happen and the Committee allowed it to happen, people would just not come and leave the Committee with presentations that were sent by companies under the direct payment system. This was how good they were at telling stories. NSFAS should come to the Committee and explain how things were being done to address the issues that had been identified. He said that the direct payment system was just a money-making scheme. He was very disappointed, because he thought that the Committee would be meeting with the Department and the entities to resolve the issues of students who had not been paid, could not eat, and had unpaid academic and accommodation fees.
Ms N Chirwa (EFF) thanked the Chairperson for actually opening the start of this engagement. It would be a fruitless exercise to continue just going along with what the Minister was requesting, which was the meeting next week. It would be fruitless to go in the same direction to resolve the crises they were causing. This was not the first strike from the Minister and NSFAS. There was their consistent behaviour of undermining the Committee. A habitual growth occurred in this process of undermining the Committee. It first started with an individual, which was overlooked because of partisan lines and the colours worn. It had now extended its grasp to the entire Committee, which was what was officially happening right now. The repercussions were tangible on the ground, which was the sad part.
The Committee had to openly choose if it was on the side of the Minister or the students. If the Committee was on the side of the Minister and the rest did not agree, they would need to have an individual caucus to address this particular matter. Her preference was to be united as a Committee, and not run away. It remained part and parcel of the failure of the Department and its entities. The Committee was entrusted with holding the executive accountable. This was the reason the Members took an oath.
This was not just a simple meeting because of this consistent behaviour. This was something that was happening in this Committee. She did not see these issues in other committees. These things were not normal or common matters that should be exempted because of loyalties and allegiances. Steps must be taken against the Minister and NSFAS. They had had the audacity to call a press conference before engaging with this Committee. They had been well informed to do a public relations (PR) exercise and inform the nation that there was no crisis at NSFAS. From whom must NSFAS be protected?
There were only a few months left for the sixth administration of Parliament. It could not get things done just because of loyalty. She wished the Committee would also see this as its own personal failure. Other ministers were not able to do this in other committees, but the Minister was able to do this in this Committee. It spoke volumes about this Committee, rather than about the Minister and the entity, because they were able to protect one another. The Committee was not able to protect and maintain the integrity of this particular Committee because there could not be any political implications. The Committee could not lose its integrity because of the behaviour and the conduct of the Minister and NSFAS. It could not afford to have this Committee being toothless. It could not afford to have Members of this Committee being toothless individuals and failing to hold the executive, especially the Minister and NSFAS, accountable.
All the processes that had been proposed today could happen together. The Committee could still write to the Chair of the Chairs and complain about this matter. An individual contribution could also be made to the Chair of Chairs. This could not continue, because the Committee would have to maintain its integrity. It was not allegiance or loyalty. The allegiance was clearly not towards the Committee, yet it was expected that the Minister should receive allegiance and loyalty from the Committee. In the process, Members were losing their own personal integrity and contributions, while the Minister was not losing anything. He was protecting his people.
There was nothing wrong with postponing a meeting -- it was the manner in which it was being done. It was undermining the Committee. Members had availed themselves for this meeting. Most importantly, the people within NSFAS that were able to respond, were not here to resolve the issues. NSFAS was not answering the questions, and there were no implications and no consequences. There were no consequences because the Committee had become toothless. All the Committee had done was just ask questions that made NSFAS uncomfortable, and then NSFAS escaped the questions and postponed meetings. Was this how to run the Committee? She said the Committee must do introspection on how it allowed NSFAS to function in this way. The Committee could not say it was beyond its control -- it was not happening in other committees. It was happening in this particular Committee, which was one of the most important committees for the well-being of the young people in this country.
Dr W Boshoff (FF+) commended the Chairperson for how she was handling this matter. If the meeting had been cancelled, it would have been a non-event. The Chairperson had now created an opportunity for the Committee to ventilate some of the ideas and feelings that the Members had about the issues. It was important to deal with NSFAS. The way this Committee dealt with this matter since 2019 was like driving a car at night with the lights focusing only on a certain area. This was happening in this current crisis, since NSFAS had moved from a loan scheme to a full bursary scheme. This had been one long crisis. One could understand the difficulty when demands were made for money not being a loan, but a full bursary. There were also some difficulties with administration. There were issues when the new board was appointed. There were issues spanning several years.
However, a picture should not be painted as if everything was dysfunctional. Dr Boshoff suggested that everything the Members said here should be formulated in a letter. The Department should start employing people with the necessary skills and background to thoroughly investigate NSFAS since January 2017. It was logical, as there had been the same problems over and over again. There may be some patterns and underlying factors that the Committee was not aware of. At the moment, everything was being dealt with on an ad hoc basis.
The R60 billion involved was larger than most of the state departments in the civil service. It was a huge amount of money which was being spent every year. The number of people it reached was also important. This did not include only the students, but also their families. It was better not to promise something than to promise something and not deliver. How did one approach something of this magnitude with untested service providers? This should be investigated. He was not sure how the powers of the Committee worked. However, it should do an investigation similar to what had been done at the University of Venda (Univen), or maybe use some other mechanism. The Committee should not limit its investigation at the moment to the current crisis, but also to the long view about the existence of NSFAS since it had expanded.
Mr B Yabo (ANC) said that he had missed a significant part of the proceedings due to connectivity issues. He would submit his own submission on the matter at hand. He said that when Members spoke, out of common courtesy, they did not raise points of order against each other. He had not raised a point of order when Mr Shikwambana was speaking. There were rules governing the engagements in committees. Rule 85 of the joint rules of the House states that no Member may impute improper motives to any other Member, or cast personal reflections upon the Member’s integrity or dignity, or verbally abuse another Member in any other way. Furthermore, a Member who wishes to impute any improper or unethical conduct on the part of another Member, may bring this to the attention of the House only by way of a separate substantive motion comprising a clearly formulated and properly substantiated charge that, in the opinion of the Speaker, warrants consideration by the House.
He had raised this because he had consistently heard that the Minister had been impugned with allegations of having a hand in the NSFAS corruption saga. The Committee was still subject to the rules of the Parliament, and being part of the Committee did not exonerate Members from those rules. He suggested that if a Member spoke about another Member in this fashion again, the Chairperson should call a point of order until they brought a substantive motion to that effect. The platform of the Committee should not be abused.
There was a cordial arrangement of working with each other across party lines. Aspersions had been made on the loyalty of the Minister by some of the Members who belong to a certain party. It was uncalled for to proceed with meetings in this manner. If any matter needed to be discussed, it should be done so respectfully within the rules of Parliament, and without abusing the platform of the Committee. It was as if as soon as Members entered the meeting, they were exonerated from those rules.
The absence of NSFAS demonstrated a lack of respect for the Committee. NSFAS had been part of a series of meetings on this particular matter, which had been part of the Committee’s oversight. The Committee had seen the phases that NSFAS had been going through, such as administration, management and the new board. The Committee thought that things would have changed for the better. He agreed that a picture should not be painted that everything was dysfunctional and nothing was happening. There were students who were getting their allowances and disbursements. It used the principle of 'an injury to one, was an injury to all.' There were students who were indeed not receiving any money or disbursements. These students did suffer because, all of a sudden, they were no longer receiving money. This should be handled.
There were three arms of government and the doctrine of the separation of powers. The Committee wanted to see the executive playing its role in ensuring that its entities deliver on its mandate, deliver on time and deliver within their budgets. There was a responsibility to ensure that while the Committee did not encroach on the work of the executive, there were still updates on what was happening. This should be done so that Parliament could not be seen as inactive, similar to the findings of the Zondo Commission.
He was not personally happy with the way NSFAS had acted, especially concerning the meeting today, and would not condone such behaviour moving forward. NSFAS must ensure that they are here next week. It would not help the Committee to cry over spilt milk when there was going to be a meeting with no answers. He agreed that the meeting should be postponed to next week, but it should also be made clear that the Committee was not happy with NSFAS and how things were being done now. It must not become a habit, because it would not be taken kindly. The Committee would not be accepting any such behaviour moving forward.
The Chairperson asked which service providers were on the platform.
Mr Anele Kabingesi, Committee Secretary, said there were three service providers, besides Coinvest.
The Chairperson asked if Coinvest was on the platform or not.
Mr Kabingesi said that he did not see any representation of Coinvest on the platform. The other three were here.
The Chairperson asked if they were the service providers that had submitted presentations.
Mr Kabingesi said they were.
The Chairperson thanked Mr Yabo for the matter that he had raised around substantiating allegations that were being made. It would be very sad to see a day where this created a culture of mistrust within this Committee. This Committee did work really well together. If Members wanted to cast aspersions or allegations against the behaviour of Members, evidence should be provided and the proper channels of Parliament should be followed. She needed some time to explain how certain processes that chairpersons follow to ensure that committees, and the work that they, do are not impeded. The case now was the fact that a letter had been received only on Monday, and the Committee had responded that it did not accept this.
Ms Mananiso informed the Chairperson that Mr S Zondo (IFP) had his hand up.
Mr Zondo thanked Ms Mananiso for pointing out to the Chairperson that he had his hand up. He said that Members had already covered most of the issues. He also agreed about casting aspersions. He said there had been a meeting with NSFAS two weeks ago, and issues had been identified. The Minister had now said there was no crisis, but something different had transpired in the meeting two weeks ago. Right now, the Committee was sitting with this situation, and the Minister was not present. This could cause damage if matters were not dealt with as soon as possible. There were students who were now having to learn online because of infrastructure challenges. The Minister and NSFAS should know that the Committee was not happy with the way things were being handled. There was a crisis in NSFAS that needs urgent attention and urgent intervention so that students could finish this academic year and pass their modules.
One thing that had to be stressed was the fact that the Committee condemned this behaviour. Perhaps this would encourage NSFAS to attend the meeting next week. Members of the Committee had been in society and in Parliament, and had seen the things that were happening. Everyone should be strong and stand together. If something was wrong, this should be raised without raising one's voice. He supported the view that further steps should be taken. NSFAS was supposed to respond to the direct questions that had been asked. The Minister should be dealt with through the proper channels in terms of what was happening now, and how he was handling the situation. The shenanigans that were happening should be dealt with together.
Chairperson's closing remarks
The Chairperson said that when challenges were raised, Members should be careful with their language. Many comments reflected Members' frustrations collectively raised in the meeting. She said the back-and-forth letters of NSFAS, and the Minister coming and then not coming, was something the Committee did not accept. NSFAS should be informed that the Committee did not accept the apology, because there was a commitment to brief the Committee. If NSFAS failed to come to the next meeting, the Committee would issue a summons. This process would be followed diligently by the parliamentary legal unit. The process would be thorough so that Parliament did not find itself on the wrong side. She said one could not summon someone to appear tomorrow -- there were processes that had to be followed. The person or entity must be aware that if they failed to appear before the Committee, a summons would be issued, forcing them to come to Parliament. The Committee was going to indicate to NSFAS that it was not happy with the fact that they had not appeared before the Committee. If NSFAS did not appear next week, the Committee would immediately issue a summons.
There were particular guidelines that the Committee received from the parliamentary legal unit. There was a strong relationship with the colleagues to strengthen capacity to do oversight work as Chairperson, on behalf of the committees. Chairpersons did not sit in a corner somewhere and just think for themselves. There was a constant engagement with legal units and engaging with the Chair of the Chairs and the Speaker of the National Assembly, describing the challenges faced by the sector. Parliament must have its finger on the pulse without overreaching its mandate. Parliament needed to be able to account for the funds and resources of this nation.
There was continuous consultation with the office of the Chair of Chairs, and there was an awareness of the fact that there was a challenge of a breakdown, or a disconnect, in the accountability ecosystem within the higher education sector. She did not think that there was a great challenge in the science and innovation sector, but in the higher education and training sector, there was definitely a breakdown in the accountability ecosystem. This had been communicated to the Chair of Chairs. She did not want to create a picture that the Committee was operating in isolation from the train of accountability within Parliament. There would be engagement with the Chair of Chairs and the National Assembly on this current situation.
She did not want the Committee to create an impression that this would be a new intervention to engage those particular officers on the concerns around accountability, or the lack thereof, in this particular sector. No one was trying to treat these entities with kid gloves. There was no reason for the Committee not to be collegial or diplomatic in the way in which it did its work. Collegiality and diplomacy did not detract from being firm and assertive as a Committee.
There had been multiple conversations about why the Committee had not embarked on a commission of inquiry. The Committee did want to embark on a commission of inquiry at the end of 2019/20. Soon after the new board had been appointed, the Committee wanted to embark on a commission of inquiry into NSFAS. A decision had been taken to give the board space to do an internal investigation. Soon after, the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) had come in. The Committee now had to make a decision on whether it made sense for the entire accountability ecosystem to be focusing all its energies on one entity, with the SIU doing an investigation and the Committee conducting a commission of inquiry at the same time.
She knew Members were frustrated with the fact that the Committee had not been able to find the best way forward in relation to NSFAS, so when it makes a decision, it should consider the fact that NSFAS had just come out of administration and was being investigated by the SIU. Should the Committee continue with a commission of inquiry while the SIU was doing its work? It was not something the Committee could decide on right now. The Committee had not even engaged with the SIU on some of the work that it was doing. The Committee should be cognisant of all that before it makes a decision. Perhaps a further investigation must be done. Why could the SIU not investigate the concerns of the Committee, since it was already operating in that space? There were some of the issues that the SIU was dealing with that the Committee should reflect on.
The Chairperson said that Parliament was very clear in Chapter 4 that anyone using state resources within the mandate and scope of this Committee must account for what it was doing with those resources. The Committee had engaged with Parliament to vote for a budget for this Department, which included a budget that gave funds to NSFAS. NSFAS had been giving these funds to some entities to disperse allowances on behalf of the Department, Parliament and the people of this country. NSFAS must be held to account.
The Committee must find out why funds were not getting to students on time. NSFAS and its service providers had to prove that the students were wrong with their accusations of wrongful amounts. It would have been a futile exercise for these service providers to be here without NSFAS. NSFAS must be able to agree with its service providers, yet it did not. NSFAS must come in the presence of the Committee to fill the gaps in terms of the communication breakdown within this particular entity. She agreed that the service providers, the Department and NSFAS should all be in one meeting together.
She understood that Members were frustrated, and it had not been a secret that the accountability ecosystem of this sector was not where it ought to be. However, she cautioned Members to not accuse each other. If allegations were made, evidence should be provided to substantiate the claim. Parliament was an open institution and Members were allowed to express their concerns. She confirmed that there had been continuous engagement with all parties within Parliament to try and ensure that the oversight role and responsibilities of the function of this Committee were not hindered.
She asked Members to stop commenting on the chat line. This was not usually done if there were physical meetings. She asked Members to comment if there were issues that they wanted to have raised that had not been acknowledged.
She addressed the comment by Ms Khakhau about spaza shops. She said that spaza shops had enabled many children to go to school. These were children who had become leaders of industry. Spaza shops had made sure that many families never slept hungry. She did not think that the example of spaza shops to indicate the disrespect posed towards Members collectively had been the best example. People had seen the great work that small businesses had done, and the impact this had had on communities.
She said the Committee had been clear on who it wanted to serve, years ago. First and foremost, it was clear that it would serve the nation, and therefore, it rejected apologies. It was going to share its frustrations and the failure of NSFAS to appear before the Committee, despite receiving two weeks' grace to do so. This was how the Committee would move forward.
She apologised to the Members that they could not spend their morning constructively as they would have liked. This time could have been used to engage with another entity. It was really unfortunate that this was how the Committee had to spend its time. The two days given to the Committee to do its work were not sufficient. It was worse now that the Parliamentary programme had changed to not having Friday committee meetings due to plenaries. This made the work for the Committee very difficult.
The meeting was adjourned.
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