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Friday, January 21, 2022

Hlengiwe Mkhize has her work cut out for her in the restless tertiary sector

Thabo Mohlala

Just when she was settling in at the department of home affairs, Hlengiwe Mkhize, was reshuffled to yet another challenging portfolio: higher education and training (DHET). She is taking over at a time when the higher education sector is anxiously waiting for the publication of the Fees Commission convened by advocate Jonathan Heher.

Although the report was finalised and submitted to President Zuma, he is yet to release its recommendations. The delay has put the entire tertiary sector on tender hooks as free education was the main factor behind student protests that have been ongoing for a number of years.

Stellenbosch University and Central University of Technology have already announced an 8% fee increase for the coming academic season. Other universities said they will only announce their fee increment once the report is public.

Various student leaders have already indicated that nothing less than the implementation of free tertiary education would appease them. These students said they would not hesitate to embark on protests similar to those seen since 2015 when a number of academic programmes were halted at various campuses around the country under the banner of the Fees Must Fall movement. Mkhize would have to be ready with an intervention strategy to stabilise the situation if the report falls short of the students’ demands.

According to the Citizen, the minister has hit the ground running as she is already tackling one of the matters her predecessor initiated. This relates to the appointment of an independent assessor to investigate the affairs of the University of Zululand. The report said she confirmed in a letter that she is in the “process of appointing an independent assessor” at the university.

Mkhize, at the time of Zuma’s reshuffle on Tuesday, was embroiled in an ugly spat with her Director-General Mkhuseli Apleni over several administrative and legal wrangles. Also on Tuesday, while Apleni was in the North Gauteng High Court challenging his suspension,  the Parliamentary Select Committee on Social Services weighed in and lashed at Mkhize for refusing to share with them the precise reasons behind the sacking of the director-general. According to the Mail and Guardian, Mkhize accused Apleni of insubordination when he failed to give her a status report on a legal matter involving Fireblade, an Oppenheimer family-owned company. She said he undermined her in his handling of the matter. Apleni, on the other hand, claimed in his court papers that Mkhize’s son stood to benefit from his absence as there was an unsettled R1million legal dispute between Atlantis Corporate Travel and Home Affairs. Even though papers seen by the Mail and Guardian stated otherwise, his lawyer maintained that Apleni was not given reasons for his suspension. 

Mkhize is an old hand in politics and a staunch member of the ANC, having served as a member of parliament since 2009. She was formerly Treasure General of the ANC Women’s League. Before taking over as the minister of Home Affairs, she was the Deputy Minister of the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services from 2014 till the end of March this year. Mkhize returns to DHET having served as deputy minister from 2010 to 2012.

She is also involved in a number of civil organisations and trusts. In 1995 she founded and became a trustee of the Children and Violence Trust and has also been a trustee of the Malibongwe Business Trust from 2005. She also chaired the Peace Commission of the South African Women Dialogue since 2004.


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