NSFAS appoints acting IT head amid tech chaos

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 10 Oct 2023
Thulani Melula is now acting CIO of NSFAS.
Thulani Melula is now acting CIO of NSFAS.

The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) has appointed an acting head to take care of its ICT needs.

This, as the NSFAS board undertook to strengthen management and leadership at the troubled financial aid scheme, according to board chairperson Ernest Khosa.

Khosa noted this last week during the scheme’s briefing to Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Higher Education, Science and Innovation.

The NSFAS leadership briefed MPs about the turnaround plan to resolve issues with the new direct-payment system, as well as improve the ICT systems.

The chairperson did not reveal the new IT head’s name, but NSFAS told ITWeb that Thulani Melula is acting CIO. Prior to his appointment, Melula served as senior manager of system support and digital development at NSFAS.

The troubled entity has been hit by a string of exits, including that of former CIO Modibedi Oliphant. CEO Andile Nongogo was placed on special leave, pending investigations into several allegations of wrongdoing against him.

Briefing the higher education portfolio committee, Khosa said creating leadership stability at NSFAS includes strengthening the CEO’s office, ICT department and HR department.

He said PR will be positioned as a “catalyst” for staff welfare, development and cohesion. “There are some developments related to human capital, which is in line with the concerns raised by the committee in terms of the need to stimulate capacity in the organisation.

“We will [soon] be in a position to make an announcement on the new CEO of the organisation. All other processes are done, so we should be able to do that. We’ll also be in a position to announce the new head of communication in the entity −a critical position given the need to communicate better with stakeholders.

“We are at an advanced stage to appoint the head of planning and strategy for the organisation. We hope to be in a position to take the committee, the shareholder and the public into our confidence about that.”

Khosa said there has also been some action in relation to consequence management. “Starting with the head of ICT, the reason we had to take action against the [former] head of ICT, it had to do with the inefficiencies of the system and matters related to implementing the ICT strategy. We now, however, have an acting head of ICT.”

An entity of the Department of Higher Education and Training, NSFAS runs a close to R50 billion annual budget, which services young people from poor and working-class backgrounds.

Over the years, it has been plagued by challenges, including IT system failures and mismanagement. More recently, it has been at odds with students on issues and allegations relating to its new direct-payment system, as well as defunding of students, non-responsive query system and accommodation accreditation backlogs.

In September, NSFAS indicated it is taking measures to fortify its IT systems, after cyber criminals tried to gain unauthorised access to its payment infrastructure and that of its fintech partners.

Commenting on improving its ICT systems, NSFAS acting CEO Masile Ramorwesi said they currently confirm applicants’ identities through a three-point verification process by checking the provided ID number, name and surname, as well as parental relationship, with data from the Department of Home Affairs.

However, such a process has limitations because it allows NSFAS only 2 500 real-time requests per hour, he noted. “Any confirmations beyond this have to be done manually. Given the number of applications that we receive and have to process, 2 500 per hour is a real limitation that results in late responses to the applicants.”

As a result, Ramorwesi revealed NSFAS has identified system enhancements that will enable biometric authentication, parental and spousal relationship confirmation and validation of income earned. “This process will allow NSFAS to process confirmations faster than before.

“We have also identified system enhancements…that will involve using third-party data such as the Department of Basic Education, to assess potential NSFAS beneficiaries before the application cycle opens.

“We will also enhance internal systems to ensure ‘a single truth’ that will enable the NSFAS contact centre to efficiently respond to student queries.”