OUTA lays bare the rot in higher education – and hails the “brave souls” who blew the whistle…

The dreams of thousands of students have been shattered by corruption in the higher education sector. Much of that has been exposed by the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA). In this interview with BizNews, OUTA’s Investigations Manager, Rudie Heyneke speaks about the corruption reports it has issued since 2018; the “three brave souls” who triggered OUTA’s investigations; their sacrifices, victimisation, and persecution; the leaked voice recordings containing damning allegations about a patronage network implicating Minister Blade Nzimande, National Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) Board Chair Dr Ernest Khosa, and several others; their denials of wrongdoing – and the ultimatum from students to President Cyril Ramaphosa to fire the Minister or face “radical” protest. Heyneke also denies accusations that OUTA has become politicised, saying: “…there’s no way that OUTA will become involved in politics”. As for the ruling African National Congress (ANC) calling on members to pray for the party’s renewal, he says: “Nothing is getting better. The same promises were made last year on the 8th of January celebrations. So to pray for change and for service delivery and so on, I do support that. But we will see if that turns into positive action. And if it is prolonged positive action and not only just because there’s elections later this year.” – Chris Steyn

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Relevant timestamps from the interview

  • 00:00 – Introduction
  • 00:36 – Who sparked the investigation of corruption in this sector?
  • 04:03 – Recap of the latest report
  • 09:29 – Denial from the minister of higher education
  • 10:55 – How deeply does this implicate the minister?
  • 11:51 – How students ended the year as a result of corruption
  • 14:43 – Firing the minister of higher education
  •  16:12 – Threats of radical action from the South African Union of students
  • 17:03 – Has OUTA become politicised?
  • 17:45 – Are the ANC’s prayers enough
  • 18:44 – Conclusion 

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Highlights from the interview

___STEADY_PAYWALL___

The first investigation in 2018:

“We received whistleblower reports in 2018 on dubious contracts with service providers at Services SETA. We looked into what was given to us by the whistleblowers and we decided that we are going to ask Services SETA for the tender documents with a PAIA (Promotion of Access to Information Act) application.

“They refused us access. We had to go to court. After almost three years, we got a court order that ordered Services SETA to hand over all the information we were looking for. And only then we could start to really put all the puzzle pieces together.

“And then the first investigation report was on a similar tender that was advertised by Services SETA for the direct payment of stipends to students. And the people that we identified there in that investigation, we followed and we kept track of them. And it’s not surprising for us that some of the same names are appearing now at the Direct Payment of Allowances Scheme at NSFAS.”

The three “brave souls” who triggered OUTA’s higher education sector corruption investigations:

“…you interviewed a whistleblower some time ago with regards to corruption at Services SETA. And I want to say today, wasn’t it for those three brave souls, we would not have been speaking today because that sparked the whole investigation in the higher education sector for us.

“And I think the country owes them a huge thank you. Because of them, this corruption throughout the Services SETA, NSFAS and the higher education sector at large has opened up for us.”

The whistleblowers’ sacrifices, victimisation, and persecution:

“….I’ve still got contact with one of those whistleblowers, and you know it’s just, it was just hardship for her from the day that she got suspended and eventually fired up until today – and that’s the sorry and the bad part of how the country is treating whistleblowers. You know these people must be seen as heroes and this is what they are going through. So it is a very, very sad state of affairs.”

The leaked voice recordings containing damning allegations about a patronage network in the Department of Higher Education, implicating the Minister, the NSFAS chair and several others: 

“We received two recordings from a whistleblower late last year of two different meetings that were held with Mr. Ernest Khosa, the chairperson of NASFAS…just for a chairperson of an institution like this to meet with service providers is a ‘no-no’ on its own. You know, it’s highly irregular and unethical to discuss internal matters with a service provider and discussing the specific contract of that service provider.

“(In the second meeting) They’re also discussing, that’s where the first time when they said that they sponsored or they made a donation to the South African Communist Party (SACP); they discussed meetings that they had with the minister, discussed meetings where other board members were also in attendance.”

Denials of wrongdoing from the Minister and the Chairperson:

“I think it’s a natural action to deny and say we’ve got nothing to do with this because these are serious allegations. And it is not us who are making the allegations. It is people in discussions with Mr. Khosa making the allegations of money that changed hands, of the implementation of the contracts, etc. So we are just the messenger.”

The “last piece of straw” for desperate students: 

“I think over the weekend we have seen a lot of students, organisations coming forward and talking about this report, but all of them are saying this is just the last piece of straw that broke the camel’s back. The problems were there for years. It’s not a new thing. This is just another revelation of how things are managed and how the Ministry is managing the Department of Higher Education. So this is a collective call for change, not only from outside, but also from the students who are the most important people in this whole saga.

“We had calls from students over the Christmas period saying, listen we are still in our residencies, we don’t have money to go home for Christmas and that is the kind of impact that it’s got on the students.”

The calls on President Cyril Ramaphosa to fire the Minister:

“We hope and we trust that he will. I cannot decide what the president must do or must not do.

“We are in the election year. There’s going to be a change of administration or a regime change later this year. So I think it is quite simple for the President to appoint a caretaker minister for the remainder of this administration. There is a deputy minister that can take over and run the department up until the end of the administration. So I do not think that it’s unrealistic. 

“And I do believe that there will be a huge uproar from students, especially now when the academic year starts. We’ve seen that already. And that will put more pressure on the President to act because this is not a hollow call from the public, but these are real people, real students that are facing real issues.

“So yes, I hope, really hope that if the Minister does not resign, that I think he will not do, that the President will take up the act…” 

Threats of radical action from students unless the Presidents gets rid of Nzimande: 

“…our call to the students is that if you want to act, please do not damage your infrastructure. This thing will go in a direction between now and let’s say a month or two from now

“So if you protest, please, please do not damage the infrastructure. That’s the infrastructure, the classrooms, the libraries, the residencies where you must go and get educated for not only this year, but people coming after you as well.”

Accusations that OUTA  has entered the political arena: 

“We have been apolitical from day one. There’s a lot of people that make these remarks that we are entering the political space. That’s just absolute nonsense. We do what we do because we can only do that when we are apolitical. So no, there’s no way that OUTA will become involved in politics.”

The African National Congress (ANC) calling on members to pray for the party to renew itself: 

“…if we look at what happened in the past 30 years under ANC rule, I know that ANC people, members and officials will say otherwise, but we have seen a lot of services that just went down the drain. So I cannot see how it will get better. Nothing is getting better. The same promises were made last year on the 8th of January celebrations. So to pray for change and for service delivery and so on, I do support that. But we will see if that turns into positive action. And if it is prolonged, positive action and not only just because there’s elections later this year.”

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