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Students from the University of Cape Town (UCT), University of the Western Cape (UWC), Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) and Stellenbosch University (SU) marched to Parliament on Wednesday in protest against the shortfalls of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (Nsfas). The march comes after various attempts to get Nsfas to improve their payment system and respond to student appeals.

The new Nsfas system now makes students’ payments through four new service providers: Tenet Technology, eZaga, Norraco Corporation and Coinvest Africa. Students have complained that payments have been made late and the bank fees are not student-friendly. “Coinvest is the problem, it has too many charges. My allowance is supposed to be R1,650, but we get it as R1,637.85. Added to that if you want to transfer the amount to your original bank, you get charged R20 and per R100 you spend, you get charged,” said Okuhle Ntenteni, a final-year student from SU. She has decided to transfer her allowance to her personal account every month to pay less charges.

An investigation report, compiled by the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa), found that of the 20 mandatory requirements, the service providers only met five mandatory requirements. “The requirement to have a banking licence was changed to having a banking licence OR a sponsor bank OR an affiliation with a bank, opening the backdoor for bidders who are not registered as financial service providers (FSPs) to submit their bids. As such, the appointed service providers were awarded a tender without being FSPs,” states the findings by Outa.

Student leaders voiced the common concern that the issues at hand should have been promptly solved with the academic year coming to an end. “When we had our mass meeting, you could tell that students are depleted, they didn’t even want to talk about the problems they are facing. We have written directly to Nsfas officials and the engagement is very poor. We move around in circles in terms of responses and it has been pretty much a dead end,” said Masilo Silokazi, SU SRC chairperson.

The students have been relying on food donations and SU has assisted with accommodation at backpackers for students that have been kicked out of their private accommodation because of Nsfas’s R45,000 cap, according to Silokazi.

“Personally, I am not affected, but indirectly I am affected because the students affected turn to us as their student leaders for assistance,” said Ludwe Ndeleni, CPUT student and EFFSC provincial gender officer in the Western Cape. “Most of these students come from the most disadvantaged backgrounds and I have to share the little that I also get from home,” added Ndeleni.

In May earlier this year, CPUT students protested against the ongoing issues relating to Nsfas allowances and the lack of accommodation. As a result, academic activities moved online amid discussions to resolve the issues.

“We want a response as soon as yesterday,” said Ndeleni. “CPUT’s academic year has already been affected because of the protest earlier this year. We started the second semester this month and we are still writing last semester’s exams.”

The ten-point memorandum was handed over to member of parliament, Tebogo Letsie, and Deputy Director-General for Higher Education and Training Marcia Socikwa.

Included in the memorandum is the need for transparent consultations between the DHET and SRCs, a special investigative unit for Nsfas, the immediate review of defunded students, and dismantling of the R45,000 accommodation cap. Some non-negotiables consist of an acknowledgement of receipt from Blade Nzimande and Nompendulo Mkhatshwa’s offices, and response to the memorandum in the next seven days.

“We have listened to your memorandum, and we are going to accept it and sign that we have taken it […] As the portfolio committee we are also concerned about some of the issues that have been raised about Nsfas,” said Letsie. Letsie added that they are also aware of students that quote Nsfas extra for their accommodation and are in essence “stealing from the government”.

Yesterday morning, Nsfas CEO, Andile Nongogo was placed on special leave as the financial aid scheme investigates the new direct payment system.

“In the interest of the image of NSFAS, the Board has resolved to investigate the allegations with a particular focus on the Direct Payment project. During the course of this investigation, the Chief Executive Officer will be on leave of absence,” reads the Nsfas statement.