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The country’s leaders need to set an example

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Picture: Picture: Oupa Mokoena / African News Agency (ANA) / Taken September 19, 2023 – Buti Manamela, the deputy minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation and Blade Nzimande, the minister of Higher Education Science and Innovation, brief members of the media on developments at the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) in September last year.

By Edwin Naidu

Honesty and ethical behaviour are the hallmarks of a good upbringing. In the 21st century, as many parents struggle to eke out a living, this duty has been abdicated in some instances to teachers.

Lessons on honesty and ethical conduct must start early so it is rooted in the minds and hearts of our children. The need for this becomes clear when one considers the matric quality assurance body Umalusi’s remarks when giving the release of the results for the Class of 2023 the green light.

Umalusi was perturbed, and rightly so, by incidents of copying by almost 1 000 pupils, the majority of them in KwaZulu-Natal. Is this South Africa’s most dishonest province?

“Life is the most difficult exam. Many people fail because they copy others. Not realising that everyone has a different question paper,” according to Benjamin Perumal, a humble pastor/brother from Phoenix.

The evidence of cheating is a positive indictment on society, considering that almost one million learners registered to write the final exams nationwide. A thousand bad apples, most in the province of my birth, should not take the gloss away from the majority who worked hard to achieve their dreams.

To his credit, Umalusi CEO Dr Mafu Rakometsi assured that there would be no tolerance for fraudsters. Similarly, the good doctor must explain what will happen to the matriculants who cheated. How does one send a strong message to stop cheating?

Of course, being dishonest is human nature, epitomised by South Africa’s morally bankrupt ANC leadership which once pledged “a Better Life for All”, while selling the Reconstruction and Development Plan more than 30 years ago. That phrase, meant to benefit the people of our country, has transitioned into “A Better Life for Us” if you’re part of the gravy train.

If President Cyril Ramaphosa can be found to have done no wrong when he kept foreign currency under his mattress, why should one expect the Minister of Higher Education, Science, and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande, to cut it as an honest broker in advocating for ethics to become cherished values of those under his watch, unless his friends or party benefits?

Can one trust a communist who demanded a R1.1 million BMW 750i as his ministerial car in 2009, when he was given the keys to choose via the government kitty? So much for pro-poor, when living large is his order of the day. Ours is a government that dishes out grants, a miserly R350 monthly payment to the poor, while 1.1 million students receive bursaries and a monthly R1,650 allowance from the state. What they don’t tell you is that billions are split among the service providers, who happen to be connected. This is the reason why this function was taken away from universities.

The same Nzimande once extolled the virtues of Nelson Mandela, saying that by emulating Madiba “one can roll back the greed, corruption and selfishness of capitalism”.

If the minister considered another career, he could have given Trevor Noah competition in the comedy stakes. But Nzimande would not have cut it as an Emmy winner unless someone decided to pardon the phrase “kiss his ass” with a meaningless award, like they do when they dish out worthless honorary doctorates.

The legacy of Nzimande will one day be honestly interrogated. Is he anything like Mandela? A lifestyle audit would provide answers. But Nzimande will be remembered for the politics of patronage and for allowing corruption to fester under his watch.

As minister, his choices of director-general have been friends with whom it seems he fell out.

Nzimande’s special adviser, Gwebinkundla Qonde, was named acting director-general for the department, after then-incumbent Mary Metcalfe went on leave in October 2010. The story goes that she allegedly did not toe the line.

But Metcalfe, a respected academic who did a great job, always maintained a diplomatic silence. However, the fallout with his former communist colleague was bitter. Once dispatched, Nzimande brought in another friend, Nkosinathi Sishi, as a replacement.

Jobs for pals is a pattern that follows Nzimande throughout, with appointments of SACP people at universities, colleges and Sector Education Training Authorities (Setas).

Corruption within the National Students Financial Aid Scheme at universities, detailed by leading academic Professor Jonathan Jansen in a book last year, and evidence of financial mismanagement at skills training institutions which fall under the 21 Setas, has been unrelenting.

If cheating was a past-time for a small number of matrics, that narrative is taken to another level by the government, elected by the sweat of by and large honest South Africans, believing in their broken promises from Mandela to Mbeki, and Zuma to Ramaphosa.

Civil society body the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa), which focuses on exposing government corruption and the abuse of taxes and public funds in South Africa, has published a damning exposé on the corruption at the national student funding body. The chairperson of NSFAS, Ernest Khosa, has taken leave of absence following allegations that he, and the minister, had allegedly defrauded the student funding body through kickbacks from service providers.

Following the release of the Outa report in December, which contained leaked recorded conversations as part of its evidence, the minister publicly denied the claims, saying Outa was trying to derail the start of the 2024 academic year, and accused them of looking after the interests of the elite.

Nzimande threatened legal action against them but did not dispute the most pressing claim in the report, that the SACP, which he leads, benefited from cash or services worth R1 million for its 2022 conference from the student funding body.

While he did not respond to the specific allegations in the report related to the SACP, he said he had never used money from any of his department’s entities for funding the party, dismissing the allegations as “malicious and false”.

So why not go to court and clear your name, dear Minister of Bluster and Threats?

In October last year, NSFAS chief executive Andile Nongogo was axed over “irregularities” related to four firms selected to pay around 1.1 million students their R1,650 monthly allowance directly and not through tertiary institutions, which had been the previous payment method.

Whenever there has been impropriety under Nzimande’s watch, he’s quick to deny and shoot the messenger – or the media. But Outa has him firmly in a corner. The minister must prove that the SACP did not benefit from taxpayers’ money – and fall on his sword.

Sadly, when you have a president who turns a blind eye to corruption, the chances are Nzimande could be given another term in the name of the poor. That would be disastrous. The retirement age in the corporate sector is 60, while in the public service, it’s 65. But government leaders go on forever. Instead of dishing out grants that fuel corruption, it’s time to give young people a chance to lead.

As Outa said, it’s time to cut the rot at the head. But what hope for our beloved South Africa when you have a president who is deaf to the people – and corruption in his ranks? Few would disagree, except his praise-singers, that it is time for Nzimande to go.

With honesty and ethics at the heart of his leadership, one would bet on Deputy Minister Buti Manamela doing a far more invigorating job than his boss.

Edwin Naidu is a communications professional and Editor of Inside Education