R866m college dream deferred

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Nzimande allegedly informed stakeholders that the project could not continue, ostensibly because government had to move funds around to deal with the pandemic. Photo: File
Nzimande allegedly informed stakeholders that the project could not continue, ostensibly because government had to move funds around to deal with the pandemic. Photo: File

NEWS


A project to use R866 million for skills and infrastructure development, including the construction of a state-of-the-art technical and vocational education and training (TVET) college in one of South Africa’s poorest townships, has been derailed by Covid-19 and subsequently canned by Higher Education, Science and Innovation Minister Blade Nzimande.

About R250 million of the money had been set aside for a college in impoverished Orange Farm, a township 45km outside Johannesburg. As the area’s first tertiary institution, it was supposed to create jobs there and address the poverty in that area.

Following the Covid-19 outbreak, Nzimande allegedly informed stakeholders that the project could not continue, ostensibly because government had to move funds around to deal with the pandemic. However, it is not clear what has become of the R866 million.

BACKGROUND

The failed project started when the Wholesale and Retail Sector Education and Training Authority (W&RSETA) received approval from Treasury to use surplus funds to support a department of higher education’s infrastructure development programme.

The sector education and training authorities (Setas) collect levies from specific industries and create funds to support education and skills development efforts in those sectors.

As part of the infrastructure development programme, the department of higher education was going to expand support to colleges and carry out upgrades at colleges and community education centres, as well as skills development for small business centres.

The W&RSETA subsequently budgeted R250 million for the construction of the Orange Farm TVET college, in partnership with the nearby Sedibeng TVET college.

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This was described in the department of higher education-W&RSETA infrastructure project memorandum of agreement as an initiative aimed at advancing the national objectives of enhancing post-school education and training, as set out in government’s national skills development plans.

The training authority entered into the agreement with the Sedibeng TVET college as its “project implementer”. On completion of the project, the college would have handed over the new learning facility to the department of higher education.

According to the infrastructure development budget, a further R250 million (of the R866 million), had been set aside for construction of the South Cape TVET College George campus. However, that project will also not be going ahead.

The remainder of the funds was to be used for several projects, including a community college in the Free State estimated at R60 million, R40 million for a skills centre in the Alfred Nzo District Municipality and R50 million for a pilot training programme run by the department of higher education.

Another R102 million was budgeted for several small business centres. The W&RSETA was allocated R60 million as part of a 7.5% project administration fee for project management of the entire R866 million surplus.

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Mampho Modise, deputy director-general of public finance in Treasury, approved the request for the programme on October 8 2019.

Plans for the college in Orange Farm began in November 2019, with meetings between the W&RSETA and department of higher education officials about the delivery model and contracting of providers to be involved in the initiative.

However, six months later, Nzimande instructed Tom Mkhwanazi, CEO of the W&RSETA, to can the TVET college project in Orange Farm.

In a letter to the W&RSETA on May 13 last year, Nzimande wrote that the decision had been made “to capacitate communities for sustainable livelihoods and respond to the socioeconomic challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic”.

University World News has confirmed that at the time of publication, the money had not been returned to Treasury. Nor had it been accounted for in accordance with Public Finance Management Act regulations, which require stringent accounting when funds are allocated for a specific project.

FOLLOWING THE MONEY

Mkhwanazi wrote in a letter to George Mothapo, the principal of Sedibeng College (which would have implemented the project), that the Seta was responding to a directive from the minister to rescind the project, as the discretionary funding had been reassigned to new priorities directed by him (Nzimande).

Furthermore, wrote Mkhwanazi, the training authority would have lost R655 million – about 40% in income – because of a four-month skills development levy holiday as a result of the pandemic.

Consequently, all Setas were requested by the department of higher education to review their annual performance plans and prioritise programmes that would assist companies and students to address the impact of Covid-19.

Mkhwanazi added that the training authority had asked Nzimande for permission to rescind its infrastructure projects, amounting to R602 million for the projects listed.

However, according to the W&RSETA, on February 26 last year, the director-general of the department of higher education, Gwebinkundla Qonde, asked the Seta to make at least R100 million available for the two community colleges, as was initially planned. The request was declined by the W&RSETA board.

In a letter to Mabuza Ngubane, the director of Seta performance in the department of higher education, Mkhwanazi wrote that the Free State community training facility had asked that the decision not to continue with its R60 million infrastructure funding project be reconsidered. The W&RSETA wanted Nzimande to assist with a joint response to the Free State college.

Despite several enquiries from University World News, Mkhwanazi could not explain what had became of the R866 million set aside for the canned projects. He did not say whether the surplus funds had been returned to Treasury, not could he provide details about how it was used, stating only that the department should be contacted for information.

THE MINISTER’S RESPONSE

Department of higher education spokesperson Ishmael Mnisi said the allegations were intended to detract from the minister’s good work in transforming the post-school education and training sector, in line with government policy and the strategic direction of the department.

However, Mnisi did not respond to specific questions about the accountability of public funds or whether an explanation had been given to the people of Orange Farm for discontinuing the building of a college.

Mnisi said Setas ran their own programmes and made their own decisions through their own governance structures, in line with the national skills development programme and other priorities that might be legally set by the minister from time to time.

Politicians only come here when they want votes, but, by denying us a college, they’re denying us the better life they falsely promised
Moeketsi Mabuye

However, according to several officials in the department of higher education, the minister constantly bypassed officials in it, including the outgoing Qonde, preferring to deal directly with the Setas.

Mnisi did not say whether the surplus had been returned to the fiscus or how it had been used on Covid-19 initiatives.

Africa Boso, a spokesperson for the Auditor-General, confirmed that the W&RSETA had been audited and a report had been tabled in Parliament for the 2018/19 financial year.

Although the W&RSETA had received a qualified audit for shortcomings in accounting procedures for the 2018/19 financial year, its 2019/20 report was unqualified and in line with accounting principles.

Treasury’s media office told University World News that public entities could, through state departments under government ministers, apply to it to retain surpluses.

FOLLOWING THE MONEY

Sedibeng College head George Mothapo confirmed that the land had been standing vacant in Orange Farm after the W&RSETA pulled out of the agreement.

Prominent civic leader Bricks Mokolo said Orange Farm had more than 50 schools, but no tertiary education opportunities for residents. These, he said, were forgotten people, remembered by politicians only during elections.

“When it comes to after-school opportunities, people who’ve passed matric have no future,” said Mokolo, who leads the Orange Farm Human Rights Advice Centre.

He said Covid-19 should not be used as an excuse to stymie people’s constitutional right to education.

Moeketsi Mabuye, a volunteer in Orange Farm, said many children were roaming the streets because of the lack of educational opportunities after school.

“Politicians only come here when they want votes, but, by denying us a college, they’re denying us the better life they falsely promised,” he said.

  • This article was published on the University World News Africa website


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