Maverick Citizen


Bleak Christmas for 218 medical students in Russia as Mpumalanga & SA authorities fail to pay their bills

Bleak Christmas for 218 medical students in Russia as Mpumalanga & SA authorities fail to pay their bills
Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande has failed to intervene and rectify the matter regarding payment of tuition, accommodation, visa extensions and stipends for Mpumalanga students in Russia. As a result, they face a bleak future and the end of their dreams of acquiring medical degrees.

For 218 Mpumalanga students who are studying in Russia, it will be an anxious Christmas because the Mpumalanga department of higher education has failed to pay their tuition, accommodation and visa extension fees. 

Unless they can raise the money themselves they will be forced to return home without completing their degrees.

Managing these payments was previously the job of RACUS-SA, an Mpumalanga-based company which recruits students for study in Russia, but its contract ended in March 2022. 

The department claims it advertised for a new tender in the last quarter of 2021 but received zero applications. The problem was left unresolved for months after the RACUS contract ended, before the students turned to the media to create awareness and drive pressure to resolve the matter. 

According to a letter from department head LH Moyane, this resulted in the department sending two officials to Russia in November “to source invoices, academic results and to further monitor and pay homage to our bursary holders in Russia”, and to arrange payment in local currency through the South African Embassy due to forex issues, given the Russian invasion of Ukraine”.

This delegation failed to get academic results but was so concerned by living conditions that the department felt “compelled to relocate them to private accommodation… on a sharing bases (sic)”.

With only 47 students’ tuition paid, most of them still have not had their tuition, accommodation or monthly stipends for basic food and transport paid, with many stipend payments backlogged to October. These students, from underprivileged backgrounds, have to share food where possible, often surviving on instant noodles, while some parents have had to take out loans to help. 

They are now being forced to return home empty-handed after years of studying. Some are just months away from graduating. 

Since RACUS no longer has a valid contract, the department asked the various Russian universities to submit new invoices to it directly, as part of due procedures and protocols, before payment can be made. All but three are unwilling to do so because they originally agreed to work with RACUS as the agent. 

The result is a stalemate. 

Instead of awarding an emergency, short-term contract to RACUS, the department has not rectified the situation – allegedly owing to concerns around irregular payments in the past by the company Green Tutu (trading as RACUS) – and has decided to force the students to return home without their degrees.

This amounts to taxpayer money down the drain since their education and associated costs are funded by the Mpumalanga government. 

The response

In response to questions sent to Education Minister Blade Nzimande’s office this week, a WhatsApp from Babulela Binga, one of his personal assistants, on Wednesday said:

“So as it stands HOD Mpumalanga indicated that all the students whose universities refused to issue invoices for payment will have to return back home. 

“We have initiated a process with DDG Socikwa to engage with our local medical schools to consider the absorption of the students.

“We have so far engaged with SMU and UKZN. We intend to engage the rest early next year as they were not available before closure.

“So far the universities we engaged with have asked for the curriculums of the students which I asked HOD: Education/Mpumalanga to assist with, which she said she will.

“I must say that the local universities were very hostile and not receptive but they will consider the students once their curriculums are assessed to determine which level they can be absorbed. 

“I suspect that all students will not be absorbed locally as some of the Russian universities are not acknowledged or have not been reviewed by the Health Sciences council of SA (HPCSA).

“We also decided to engage with the Serbian ambassador who was receptive to allow the students to apply at Serbian universities for absorption. However, they can only be absorbed in 2024 as uptake for 2023 has already been closed.

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“Another solution we may need to explore is Mozambique and Namibia as those universities are on the HPCSA list. 

“I am exploring these other ‘foreign’ options because I am worried that SA medical schools will not be able to assist all 218 students that require assistance. 

“For the past 4 months we have been engaging with the Medical Deans (through a task team) to assist the 54 displaced Ukrainian students and they were not really helpful. I am not aware of one displaced student who has been absorbed locally. 

“We then explored Hungarian universities who only agreed to consider them from 1st year ( meaning they have to start afresh if they are accepted).

“In conclusion we will have a clear idea of how many students can be accepted locally at SA universities. We plan to engage the remaining 8 medical schools. Two of the 8 have already responded with an outright NO. But we will still engage them.”

Binga’s statement is revealing, not only for what it says about the students’ fate, but also about the more than 50 South African medical students who were forced to evacuate Ukraine after it was invaded by Russia early in 2022. This was reported on extensively by Maverick Citizen at the time. But now, as was feared, a lack of political will and failures by the HPCSA have culminated in Binga reporting that “I am not aware of one displaced student who has been absorbed locally”.

Read in Daily Maverick: “SA students desperate to complete their studies after harrowing escape from Ukraine

The students have tried in vain for five months to work with Mpumalanga higher education department and have also sent pleas for help to Nzimande, which have proven fruitless. Now they are desperate. 

Maverick Citizen contacted a student leader in Russia, who said: “The last time we received our stipends was early October. The little stipend that we can’t even save on. Most of us are from unprivileged backgrounds and can’t even call home for financial assistance.

“We literally left to fend for ourselves or we drop everything we’ve worked for all these years over invoices. 😭😭😭

“It’s a painful and difficult time for us now. 

“The premier came to the country and that only left us with more problems”. 

The student leader said that students in cities outside Moscow “are forced to leave or pay for themselves through the agency that the department claims they don’t want to work with anymore. I get calls from students literally every day concerned about their lives and survival. 

“We are literally starving and we fear that going back home without having graduated will mean all this time we were here would’ve been a waste of time.”

Things are so bad that they asked whether we know “anyone who might be able to maybe assist us in donations for basics like food and water?” 

With many students facing possible deportation as early as 30 December 2022, supporters of the students in South Africa and internationally are calling on Nzimande to step up urgently, reinstate RACUS and prevent the students’ education from being thrown out with the festive wrapping paper. DM/MC

Hayley Reichert is a South African activist in London. She can be contacted on WhatsApp +447402929754.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    Well done ANC! You and your Russian friends make a great team!

  • Richard Baker says:

    According to the radio reports these qualifications would not have been recognised or accepted in SA( and/or seemingly anywhere else).
    Why were these students there in the first place and what obligations do any SA authorities or bodies have to them?

    • William Stucke says:

      Indeed. And why does the Dept insist on educating them abroad?

      I get the impression that the reason that SA Medical Schools are “unfriendly” is that the students themselves are not only attending places that are not recognised as competent, but are themselves of too low a standard to qualify for entrance to a SA Medical School.

  • Patterson Alan John says:

    Another National Catastrophe.
    Well, look at that – I can see ANC.

  • virginia crawford says:

    Is Blade ill? Is his incompetence and mental decline due to medical or lifestyle factor?

  • Bee Man says:

    I’ll wager that the majority of the funds raised for this misplaced program ended up in local guys back pockets. Thus not enough to pay the service providers and students. So typical of tge general situation in SA. Sad indeed.

  • Hermann Funk says:

    Looking at all the things that are broken in this country creates the impression that the more stupid a person is, the easier it is to occupy leading positions in government.

  • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

    The tragedy are children of poor families and possibly some bright young minds that are in this situation not of their own making. For them it was an opportunity to be medical doctors and be able to look at Russian medical technology. One has been following this sad story accompanied gross negligence and incompetence by the Mpumalanga Provincial government that has a tender laced with corruption involved. The failure by DIRCO and the embassy in Moscow to intervene and assist is very criminal similar to the situation of South Africans who were in China at the beginning of the pandemic. Those students were helped by a fighting and campaigning parent who embarrassed the Ramaphosa regime into action. They even claimed good publicity for their incompetence which was a real joke to me. A similar situation of poor children in Turkey just to spite Magashule was allowed by the callous Ramaphosa regime to spiral out of control with DIRCO and its incompetent Minister punishing the children of the poor. This will not be forgotten in 2024. The responsibility and duty to these children by the national government remains and Ramaphosa will act if one or some of the parents do what they did when he was ignoring them on China. It might be a question of poor children caught in the ANC factions and emblematic kleptocracy. The need for a tender boggles the mind.

  • Kevin Jacobs says:

    Uselessness and incompetence = anything remotely linked to the ANC.

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