The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) held a fruitful and progressive meeting with the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande and the senior staff of his department yesterday, 27 February 2024. 

The meeting was requested by the NTEU leadership to discuss the concerns raised by members and branches from numerous institutions including Fort Hare, DUT, CUT, CPUT, UNISA and WSU amongst others, which speaks to a broader failure of good governance at these and other institutions.

Additionally, the concerns around NSFAS, the Minister’s alleged involvement in purported corruption activities were also discussed.  Feedback from our members who hear the cries of students on a daily basis about the lack of funding support for basic needs like daily allowances and accommodation problems was tabled with the Minister.  In the main, our concern in this regard is whether NSFAS is fit for purpose. 

In the two-hour long meeting, NTEU, represented by the President, Xolani Tom and General Secretary, Grant Abbott, engaged robustly with the Minister and his team.  While it is impossible to disclose everything that transpired at the meeting, here below is a brief summary of some of the more salient points discussed:



The stance of the Union, wherever it organizes, and operates is to speak out on corruption and maladministration without fear or favour.  In this vein, the President asked the Minister quite candidly if there was any truth to the report produced by the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA) which alleges he received funds on behalf of himself and/or his party, the SACP. 

In his response, the Minister reiterated that no deal had been made with any of the service providers linked to NSFAS to make any contribution to the SACP and that the party had equally confirmed this. 

He further stated that he has voluntarily subjected himself to an inquiry by the ANC’s integrity commission and the SACP’s Central Ethics Committee.  If he is found to have done anything unethical, or illegal, he vowed to “fall on his sword”. 

As NTEU, we believe the necessary legal processes must take its course regardless of who it affected.  NSFAS is far too important an institution for the poorest of the poor who would be unable to even dream of attaining a university degree were it not for a funding system of this nature. 

In terms of NSFAS and whether it is fit for purpose, NTEU recognises the gains made and appreciate these.  By way of summary, over the past three years, R122bn has been disbursed to some 3 million students.  Thus far, in this academic year, 1.1 million students have received NSFAS grants. 

For context, the 2017 announcement by Former President Jacob Zuma that higher education would be free, immediately changed the scope of NSFAS from a student loan scheme to a grant beneficiary scheme with the concomitant effect being that the application rate sky-rocketed and NSFAS was plunged in to a space of having to deal with millions of applications overnight. 

Whether the announcement was a political knee-jerk incident, or a well thought through change in government policy is not important, we solutions to an ailing system need to be found.  In this regard, the DG confirmed that the NSFAS resource structures are being urgently redesigned including IT systems and human resources.



NTEU has long held that the 1997 White Paper on Transformation in Higher Education provides an excellent guideline for the trajectory that our university institutions in South Africa need to take.  The espoused values and principles of inclusive democracy and co-governance can only be realised when all stakeholders are constructively involved in decision-making processes.

However, an extremely worrying trend is developing; that being that critical stakeholders like unions and student formations are being kept at arms-length and away from the boardroom tables where important decisions about our livelihoods are made.  Worse than this, the threats and actions of some Vice-Chancellors in particular against union and student leadership is not just alarming, but in fact, criminal. 

When queries are raised by the Minister or Portfolio Committee, council chairs take their cue from VCs and hide behind institutional autonomy for why they should not be required to publicly account.  This tactic is all too well known at places like the University of Fort Hare, Durban University of Technology, UNISA and others. 

Sakhela Buhlungu, University of Fort Hare vice-chancellor, said “university autonomy has been eroded and that endless reporting to government, including addressing student complaints, is reminiscent of the old inspector system.” (Bedevilled by bureaucracy – Fort Hare VC decries erosion of university autonomy, academic freedom, Daily Maverick, 24 Aug 2023.)

Buhlungu said, “the increased reporting and accountability mechanisms, necessary as some of these are, have not helped the cause of academic freedom and university autonomy.”

Viewing the department’s efforts to root out corruption through oversight as overkill  Buhlungu referred to the demand for transparency as,  “micromanaging from Pretoria by the Department of Higher Education and Training,”(‘Overkill disguised as oversight’: Fort Hare VC slams state for ‘micromanaging’ universities, The Citizen, 25 Aug 2023)

NTEU finds these sorts of utterances extremely disturbing and unfortunate.  These concerns were shared by the Minister. 

The mechanisms to hold corrupt and incompetent management governance structures needs improvement and the Minister confirmed that a review of the Higher Education Act and policies was needed and in fact, were being considered by his department.  He reiterated that Institutional Autonomy is important, but it is not divorced from public accountability. 

Academic Freedom and Institutional Autonomy are not the same thing.  Public accountability and institutional autonomy go hand-in-hand and NTEU rejects any stance that tries to hide from public scrutiny. 



NTEU once again raised alarming developments at Fort Hare – the VC, positioning himself as a corruption buster, he has set up an internal “police state” which has squashed any voice that speaks out against corruption and maladministration in the institution.  Furthermore, spurious, trumped up charges are laid against any influential leader or official in the university who dares speak out against the VC, and these are used to “get rid” of these individuals.

Recently NTEU welcomed the arrest of Mr Isaac Plaatjies, but raised alarm when the announcement was made earlier this month that he was dismissed for allegedly falsifying his qualifications.  NTEU found this laughable, as we highlighted our concern about his appointment to the VC himself back in 2020 when Plaatjies was appointed and our concerns were dismissed as having “no basis in law” by the HR Director, Dr Paul Tladi.  This is the same HR Director who signed Mr Plaatjies dismissal letter.  We stand ready to provide evidence of his irregular appointment as we had indicated back then in 2020.

As NTEU we feel further vindicated as news has just come through that this award-winning HR Director has just been suspended (framed as “leave of absence”) pending misconduct charges against him. 

Two down.  One to Go.

It is simply impossible for any reasonable person to assume the VC has been blissfully unaware of the actions of Plaatjies and Tladi who operated as his henchmen.  NTEU’s had the distinctly unpleasant experience of having met all three of these gentlemen in one-on-one interactions and it is our considered view that this un-holy trinity is jointly liable for the mess that Fort Hare finds itself in today. 

NTEU implored the Minister to intervene, and our submission would be to investigate every suspension, dismissal or resignation that has taken place since the VC’s first term of office started in 2016.  Equally, investigations should be made into those who have been appointed during his tenure that are working close to him as a so-called “corruption busting” team.  A disturbing trend will no-doubt emerge. 



Further, the union’s concern over the “cost-cutting” culture at DUT remains - with FEDUSA petitioning the department for intervention since the first round of irregular retrenchments, starting in 2021. The federation believes that the high rate in suspensions of union leaders indicates a “clear approach to silence unions at the institution.”.

FEDUSA General Secretary, Riefdah Ajam  stated, “The era of popular dictatorships ended a long time ago, perhaps this Vice Chancellor needs to wake up and smell his own coffee because it has gone cold. His tendency to spend like there is no tomorrow and run DUT like it is his own company flies in the face of the social co-determination compacts being reached through NEDLAC and other sectors,”.

With DUT preparing for its third round of retrenchments in as many years the federation is now calling for the VC’s resignation.  The latest notice received from DUT management was that 112 staff members will possibly suffer the axe.

As NTEU we raised the concern that the management of this institution is equally showing tendencies of dictatorial management style in contrast to the principles and values of inclusive democracy.  The Minister has committed to raise questions with the Council for them to respond.



Back at the time when the Minister had placed UNISA under administration, NTEU welcomed this move as it signaled an intent to clean up the maladministration and corruption outlined in the gazetted assessor’s report.  Unfortunately, due to some technicalities in the legal process, UNISA was able to successfully interdict this process pending court proceedings to challenge the report. 

The above notwithstanding, NTEU stands by all measures and mechanisms to root out irregular activities that threaten the health of the PSET sector and look forward to seeing UNISA’s 150 year legacy restored to good corporate governance. 



The President thanked the Minister and his team for their time and reiterated the union’s stance to work with all role-players in the sector to root out corrupt elements.  As difficult as it may be, we simply cannot sit back while poor governance prevails in its various forms.  NTEU is equally excited about the prospects opening up in the TVET sector where members are joining the union in large numbers. 

NTEU believes that inclusivity of all stakeholders across the sector is not just important, but vital for a thriving and vibrant learning environment.  We will continue to push back against all elements threatening hard fought gains made for workers and students throughout the country.




Issued By:

Jako Nel

NTEU Brand & Communications Manager

For media queries: 041 001 2109

Email: jako@nteu.org.za


NTEU is a politically non-aligned trade union organizing exclusively in the Higher Education sector and is aligned to FEDUSA, the largest politically non-aligned trade union federation in South Africa. For more information on the National Tertiary Education Union, visit www.nteu.org.za or find us on social media.