National protest looming over NSFAS non-payments, student leader warns

There is a "looming national protest" by students due to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme's (NSFAS) non-payment of allowances, says South African Unions of Students (SAUS) president Misheck Mugabe.

He was addressing the Portfolio Committee on Higher Education and Training in Parliament on Thursday. This meeting follows the committee's meeting on May 30, where several problems with NSFAS's payments - which have many students destitute - were discussed.

Read: Situation calm at UKZN's Westville campus following violent protests over WiFi and NSFAS administration

Mugabe said students at the universities of Venda, Limpopo and Mpumalanga were already on strike, while students at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth had also indicated that they were planning to join the protest.

"There is a looming national protest due to NSFAS allowances," he said.

He said some students had been evicted from private student housing due to the delay in payments.

Read more: Students left hungry, destitute due to non-payment of NSFAS allowances, MPs told

Mugabe and South African Further Education and Training Student Association (Safetsa) president Yonke Twani called for the decentralisation of NSFAS and better communication with students and institutions.

"Visibility of NSFAS in campuses is still a challenge, because NSFAS is more visible when colleges are burning," Twani said.  

Both Mugabe and Twani said students were unhappy with the customer service they receive from NSFAS.

Newly appointed NSFAS board chairperson Neil Garrod contradicted his predecessor Sizwe Nxasana, who said former president Jacob Zuma's surprise announcement in December last year that free higher education would be expanded to include students from poor and working class families had left the organisation with "literally a few weeks to put systems in place".

'We were not staffed to deal with 2018'

Garrod had to answer a question from the committee following the meeting in May on what progress the board has made in its oversight role with NSFAS. 

He said the board had formed a sub-committee to work with a support team from the Department of Higher Education and Training and NSFAS management.

He said "leadership gaps" meant that the board was drawn into operational issues, resulting in their call for an administrator. They had received letters from Higher Education and Training Minister Naledi Pandor, in which she expressed her concern. Before a meeting with the minister could take place, Nxasana resigned last week.

Also read: NSFAS chair Sizwe Nxasana resigns after ‘extreme strain’ on the payments system

"The board felt that its function as an oversight body has been compromised," Garrod said. 

The board requested the appointment of an administrator to resolve the payments to students and institutions.

NSFAS executive officer Steven Zwane said the management supported the appointment of an administrator, which would "assist [them] to get to the root causes of the problems".

He also welcomed the extra support by the department, as they were "chronically understaffed". 

"We were not staffed to deal with 2018," he said.

He outlined many procedural steps NSFAS was taking to address its inefficiencies. 

The meeting continues.