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MPs furious as union backs out of NSFAS corruption hearing

Image: Dolores Coullie [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Circumstances around cancellation called ‘string of horror’ as questions surround South African student funding body

The drama surrounding allegations of corruption at the National Student Financial Aid Scheme has taken yet another turn, with the union that made the initial allegations pulling out of a parliamentary appearance at the last minute.

The National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union levelled a host of allegations of maladministration and corruption against NSFAS and its administrator, Randall Carolissen, on 6 October at a meeting of Parliament’s portfolio committee on higher education, science and technology. At that meeting, Carolissen countered each allegation, dismissing personal allegations against him of corruption as “offensive, insulting, and baseless”.

But on 30 October the union cancelled its appearance at a follow-up meeting with the committee just hours before its scheduled start. In a letter from its provincial secretary in the Western Cape, Eric Kwelata, the union gave three reasons for the cancellation: that it had a national meeting the following day, that suspended NSFAS employees had been reinstated (one of the union’s previous complaints), and that the union’s senior leadership was engaging with Blade Nzimande, the minister of higher education, science, and technology, to discuss its remaining concerns. 

“We will [after these discussions] determine when we revert back to the portfolio committee,” the letter said. Last week, Nzimande came out strongly in support of Carolissen, after Nehawu said it wanted him removed.

The report that the union was dealing directly with the minister got hackles up among MPs on the committee, whose 30 October meeting went ahead without the union’s presence. Some felt that the union was going behind the committee’s back. Others said that the move could undermine parliament’s authority.

Several called for the committee to subpoena Nehawu to appear. One, Susan Thembekwayo, from the Economic Freedom Fighters, described the circumstances around the cancellation as “a string of horror and terror”.

Philly Mapulane, the committee’s chairman, accused the union of using the committee as a “bargaining chip”. He said: “For [Nehawu] to make an about-turn and send us a last-minute apology is quite fishy and extremely regrettable.”

Fears of being sidelined

MPs on the committee expressed frustration and warned of the dangers of a potential cover-up. Baxolile Nodada, of the Democratic Alliance, one of the MPs who have called for an inquiry into the NSFAS matter, said, “We won’t leave this hanging because they say they have resolved it with the minister.” 

Tebogo Letsie, from the African National Congress, said the withdrawal is a result of “some people” trying to undermine parliament. “It is extremely unacceptable and very problematic that there is a continued effort to undermine the work of the committee,” he said.

Letsie, Nodada and other MPs called for the committee to subpoena Nehawu to appear. Wynand Boshoff, from the right-wing Freedom Front Plus party, also alleged that “somebody is trying to sabotage” the work of the committee.

Siphosethu Ngcobo, from the Inkatha Freedom Party, warned that “something very big is happening underground”, and also claimed that there is an effort to sabotage the committee’s work.

Mapulane said that Nehawu will be invited to the committee again, to back up its allegations, failing which it will be subpoenaed. 

Research Professional News approached Nehawu to comment on the MPs’ complaints, but did not receive a response in time for the publication of this article.