THE suspended Director-General of the Higher Education Department, Gwebinkundla Qonde, has accused Minister Dr Blade Nzimande of abusing his ministerial powers, including giving him the go-ahead to flout procurement processes in favour of certain beneficiaries.
These shocking claims were revealed by City Press on Sunday in which Qonde details how Nzimande allegedly set up a ministerial task team specifically for the procurement of laptops for National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) beneficiaries.
The DG also said he tried to alert President Cyril Ramaphosa about Nzimande’s conduct, but the president paid no attention.
Qonde was suspended with full pay and benefits after a disclaimer audit opinion by the Auditor-General of South Africa in July.
This comes amidst a pending forensic investigation into the National Skills Fund (NSF), which found the budget to have been underspent by R1.8 billion.
The entity also did not have adequate records of commitments of earmarked funds, and found that adjustments in the financial statement could not determine whether it was necessary to spend R2.5 billion on skills development funding.
The Department of Science and Innovation director-general Dr Phil Mjwara is currently the acting Director-General for the Higher Education Department until the conclusion of the investigations and any process that may ensue thereafter.
In a letter to Parliament’s higher education Portfolio Committee, Qonde said Nzimande encouraged him to violate procurement processes when 500,000 laptops for NSFAS students was meant to take place.
He said that Nzimande’s task team was instructed with continuing with an existing contract, instead of advertising the laptops on a tender basis, he said in a report in possession of committee chairperson Philemon Mapulane.
The existing contract would have continued an agreement between Bongani Rainmaker Logistics and the Gauteng Department of Education.
On Friday, Nzimande dismissed Qonde’s claims.
“The decision to place DG Qonde under precautionary suspension emanates from an adverse audit report by the Auditor-General of South Africa (AGSA). The AGSA found that much of a total amount of just under R5 billion could not be properly accounted for over two financial years by the National Skills Fund,” Nzimande said in a statement.
“These are indeed huge sums of money that the AGSA found they could not have been properly accounted for. The DG of the DHET, by virtue of this position, is also the accounting authority of the NSF. He therefore has the responsibility for all the funds and their expenditure.”
While Qonde has not as yet been found guilty, Nzimande said that a precautionary suspension is necessary so that a comprehensive forensic investigation into the NSF can be done.
He added that the need for such an investigation has also been called for by the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (SCOPA).
“It is therefore a smokescreen that the suspension of DG Qonde is for any other reason than for conducting an investigation into this serious matter.”
Nzimande also noted with concern the continued reporting by some sections of the media on the matter in a manner that “completely ignores these very serious audit findings”.
“It seems the media thus far has been reporting without even bothering to engage with the AG findings and their implications. Media reportage thus far has also not even bothered to study the SCOPA hearings, findings and recommendations on the same matter,” Nzimande said.
The Auditor-General said: “I do not express an opinion on the financial statements of the public entity because of the significance of the matters described in the basis for disclaimer of opinion section of this auditor’s report. I was unable to obtain sufficient appropriate audit evidence to provide a basis for an audit opinion on these financial statements”.
During the National Skills Fund 2019/20 audit disclaimer hearing, held on the 18 May 2021, SCOPA chairperson Mkhuleko Hlengwa also said that the committee was wholly unsatisfied with the responses provided.
“The committee proposes a full-scale forensic investigation into NSF for the past three years. Further the Minister must provide a roadmap within 30 days on the process and structure of a forensic investigation, including its potential collaboration with the Special Investigating Unit (SIU),” Hlengwa said at the time.