RUSSEL MOLEFE and PIET RAMPEDI
THE University of Limpopo is ripping off and cashing in on thousands of its poor students
who rely on the National Student Aid Financial Scheme (NSFAS) for survival, insiders said.
An investigation by African Times has revealed that the institution forces needy students to spend half their government sponsored meal allowances on food sold by itself or third parties on campus at exorbitant fees.
According to sources in and outside the campus – including current and former students, staff
and academics – the university sells students food at double the normal prices through a NSFAS meal card payment system known as Wizit. They are forced to buy a two litre of cold drink for R27, a loaf of bread for R16 and a plate of pap and chicken for R37, among others.
Students went on the rampage this week, disrupting lessons and threatening the staff over meal
Vice Chancellor Mahlo Mokgalong was forced to shut down the campus at Mankweng township, east of Polokwane, for two days.
They alleged that the university imposed the meal allowance rule to make profit or protect the interests of private traders because some were close to senior managers or paid them kickbacks. A student leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said the university agreed with students earlier this year to cancel its 50/50 meal allowance usage policy starting from last month.
However, they were surprised when the policy was unilaterally reinstated on August 1, 2017.
“We reached an agreement but now they say they have no knowledge of that. No money must
be divided. If you feel like you want to buy off campus, it must be your choice,” the student leader said.
“It [agreement] was implemented in July. Now in August they reversed it unilaterally.”
This comes less than a year after students countrywide went on the rampage, shutting down campuses and often clashing violently with the police over exorbitant fees and meal allowances.
The government was forced to provide R1.9 billion of the R2.3 billion shortfall in university
funding to defuse the tension and get the situation under control.
During his budget vote last year Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande said his department had “reprioritised over R5.7 billion over the 2016/17 to 2018/19 MTEF period to universities to ensure that the fee freeze in 2016 does not lead to unmanageable fee increases in the future.”
“Another R4.57-billion is allocated to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, NSFAS, in 2016/17 made up of R2.54-billion to ensure that 71 753 students who were not or insufficiently funded in 2013 to 2015 can pay their debts, and R2.03-billion to ensure that these students and
poor students entering universities for the first time can study,” he added.
African Times visited the university this week to test allegations of exorbitant prices levelled against it. Students spoke in hushed tones but confirmed that they were being ripped off by their own institution.
An honours student said she had R6000 allocated for meals per year after NSFAS paid her tuition fees. She was allocated R300 per month between February and November last year. However, the 50/50 policy forced her to spend R150 on food campus, which cost her double the prices she paid outside.
“If you go and buy at Pick n Pay, you can buy enough food for the month with that R300. But if
you spend half of it on campus, it’s finished within a week,” she said.
“It affects us because on campus you buy [a loaf of] bread for R16. 50 but you buy it off campus it is R9. 50. We buy a 2 Litre Coke for R27 but off campus it’s R12. So, it does not make economic sense.”
A former student said she was also a victim. “They problem with the university is they want to make profit from NSFAS. The question is: what are they doing to help their own poor students?”
A staff member shared the students’ sentiments. He blamed alleged kickbacks and senior
managers who have business interests on campus for the problem.
“The problem is you would have those situations where you have members of management
having business interests on campus. One way or the other, you know how we Africans are, those
guys who run those tuck shops are from outside, and they give a ‘thank you’ to some members of
management,” the staff member said.
“So, it becomes very difficult for our university management to make recommendations to bring stability or normalcy in terms of pricing on campus. It’s so bad.”
NSFAS spokesperson Mandy Abrahams could not say whether or not institutions were allowed to
dictate how and where students could spend their meal allowances.
She said they can’t intervene in the matter because universities were responsible for disbursing NSFAS fees.
“I can’t say yes or no because we don’t have a policy dictating to institutions how the money must be spent. So, I can’t say, ‘you can’t charge this fee and so forth because there is no instruction that universities must charge this or that,” she said.
University of Limpopo spokesperson Kgalema Mohuba confirmed that students were unhappy with the meal allowance arrangement but denied they were being ripped off.
“The prevailing situation is a product of negotiations with the previous SRC whereby an
agreement was reached. That process included owners of cafeterias. We are currently investigating an allegation that the cafeterias are charging double prices. The student leadership is yet to come with evidence to justify the claim,” Mohuba said.
“It is not true that students are forced to buy internally. They have a minimum amount of R335. 00 to spend outside the University at their preferred merchandise but at a regulated agreement with Eduloan/Fundi. The students have an option to purchase at retail shops to avoid “alleged exorbitant prices”.”
Mohuba denied that some senior managers accepted kickbacks from contractors to protect their business interests.
“The University senior managers are assigned the responsibility to manage the contract signed with
internal cafeterias. The allegation of closeness and kickbacks is therefore rejected with the contempt it deserves. You may require your sources to grant you evidence to justify their claims.”
He also denied that there was an agreement between the university and students to suspend the 50/50 policy, saying discussions with student leaders and cafeteria owners had just started.