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By Getrude Makhafola

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Fort Hare: Litany of scandals preceded VC’s assassination attempt

The past week's death is not the first assassination at the university, where the politically connected have been running amok for years.


The appointment of Vice-Chancellor Sakhela Buhlungu at the University of Fort Hare (UFH) in 2016 didn't sit well with corrupt syndicates fleecing the institution of its resources for years, and bringing governance to near-collapse. The violence started creeping in as the fight to eradicate corruption was ramped up over the years, including the ongoing Special Investigative Unit (SIU) investigation, and it culminated in last week's assassination attempt on Buhlungu, which ultimately led to the death of his bodyguard Mboneli Vesele. Buhlungu was moved to a safe location after the incident outside his official Alice home on Friday night. Shockingly, this…

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The appointment of Vice-Chancellor Sakhela Buhlungu at the University of Fort Hare (UFH) in 2016 didn’t sit well with corrupt syndicates fleecing the institution of its resources for years, and bringing governance to near-collapse.

The violence started creeping in as the fight to eradicate corruption was ramped up over the years, including the ongoing Special Investigative Unit (SIU) investigation, and it culminated in last week’s assassination attempt on Buhlungu, which ultimately led to the death of his bodyguard Mboneli Vesele.

Buhlungu was moved to a safe location after the incident outside his official Alice home on Friday night.

Shockingly, this wasn’t the first assassination attempt at the university, as a previous one was successful in taking the life of a senior staff member.

Protests, corruption, mismanagement, and disregard for governance ruled UFH, finding fertile ground in the ANC-led Eastern Cape province, which is itself marred by looting and malfeasance.

Buhlungu arrived at UFH in February 2017 from the University of Cape Town, where he was dean of the Faculty of Humanities.

He made his intentions clear from the word go – vowing to break the back of criminal networks and restore governance and ultimately UFH’s prestige in the continent.

‘Fuse was lit’ in 2017

Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande dissolved the university’s council in April 2019 and appointed Professor Loyiso Nongxa as the administrator. Nongxa headed the UFC council, while Buhlungu remained the administrative head.

Subsequently, independent assessors were appointed by Nzimande to detail the problems facing UFH.

The assessor’s 2019 report described how the university had been used as a “cash cow”, as management lived it up, and how Buhlungu didn’t fit in with this culture.

ALSO READ: UFH vice-chancellor not meeting with Nzimande due to security risks

“The fuse was lit when a new Vice-Chancellor arrived in 2017. The university had celebrated its centenary in 2016 under the outgoing Vice-Chancellor. It had also experienced the stresses of the national #FeesMustFall campaign. The appointment of a new Vice-Chancellor from the beginning of 2017, as well as the new national dispensation of fee-free education below a certain income threshold, brought an opportunity to make a new start and address the long-standing problems of the University.

“This expectation was conveyed to the incoming VC at the time of his appointment. However, his efforts in this regard, and the manner of conducting these efforts, soon led to contestation with ‘stakeholder’ constituencies such as the student political organisations, organised labour and the Institutional Forum,” read the report.

READ MORE: Bodyguard of University of Fort Hare vice-chancellor shot dead in ‘assassination attempt’

The assessors noted that problems facing the institution went back a long way.

“They did not start with the appointment of the new Vice-Chancellor in 2017. For the past 10 years, a number of reports have indicated that the university is in serious difficulties. In particular, the financial state of the university has long been precarious.”

Many of the problems were identified in various reports, such as the first one by Professor Anthony Melck in 2009 and disclaimer outcomes by the Auditor-General.

Degrees for the politically connected

Apart from this past week’s murder of Buhlungu’s bodyguard Vesele, perhaps the most shocking scandal that shook the academic community was that of alleged bribery and the dishing out of degrees and diplomas to the politically connected at the institution.

This also involved the then-fugitive academic, controversial Nigerian bogus economics professor Edwin Ijeoma. He was suspected of using a fake master’s degree to be accepted for a PhD programme at the University of Pretoria.

Ijeoma went on the run, but was later arrested over the alleged irregular admission and registration of two students, including Eastern Cape Premier Oscar Mabuyane.

Mabuyane was excluded from UFH’s Master’s programme and deregistered as a student for not meeting the basic requirements. The premier had been supervised by Ijeoma.

Some top provincial officials were allegedly also registered for postgraduate studies without having obtained junior degrees first.

At least 15 government officials were subsequently deregistered for not meeting the minimum admission requirements for an Honours degree.

The bogus academic was later expelled from South Africa.

Other scandals included the following:

  •  Shooting and assassinations of UFH top managers. Fleet manager Peet Roets was assassinated last year on his way home from the Alice campus during peak hour traffic.
  • The qualification saga last year that detailed how UFH had been enrolling students in courses unaccredited by the South African Qualifications Authority for the past 10 years.
  • Allegations of fraud surfaced last year after signatures of 16 students were allegedly forged ahead of SRC elections.
  • Alleged fraudulent procurement and Nsfas-related fraud activities have also been under the spotlight at Fort Hare since 2021. The Hawks conducted search and seizure operations at Alice, Bisho and East London campuses as part of a nationwide NSFAS funding corruption probe.

Nzimande promises a task team to deal with violence

Government announced that a task team working with the security cluster will be formed to tackle safety and security issues on campuses across the country.

This was announced at a media briefing held on Wednesday at UFH by Nzimande and Minister in the Presidency Mondli Gungubele.

Nzimande said agreements were reached on several measures in a joint meeting with UFH council held earlier in the wake of Vesele’s killing.

“We are doing this knowing very well it’s not the task of universities to ensure safety, but we need all stakeholders on board. We also agreed to make sure that we attend to other threats that bring criminality – the so-called business forums demanding tenders. We agreed to work together and attend to that,” Nzimande said.

He said corruption has infiltrated institutions of higher learning.

“I remain outraged by this inhumane act and condemn it. I’ve been in contact with the police minister [Bheki Cele] almost daily until this morning. He is also around here today. The challenge of corruption has crept into our post-school institutions.”

The department’s director-general Nkosinathi Sishi has already spoken to the Hawks on the matter, he added.

According to the minister, UFH has received around R1 billion over the years in efforts to bring it back to recovery and ensure proper administration. He said at least 80% of the institution’s students relied on NSFAS for funding.

“We are going to leave no stone unturned to fight corruption in our institutions. We want to say to criminals who want to take over that they won’t win. These institutions belong to our children, not for thieves to do as they want. We call on all to work together with government.”

Fall of an illustrious institution

UFC, founded in 1916, is one of 26 public universities in the country.

It is recognised as historically disadvantaged along with other institutions such universities of Venda, Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University previously known as Medunsa, Walter Sisulu, Limpopo, Zululand, and Western Cape, as well as the Mafikeng head-quartered University of North West.

Back in 1839, Chief Tyali, the son of AmaXhosa King Ngqika, donated several acres of land to Lovedale College, which was run mainly by missionaries. Lovedale in turn donated some of the land for the establishment of the South African Native College, founded in 1916, which later became known as Fort Hare.

The rich historical heritage of the institution boasts many statesmen and freedom fighters among its former students.

Icons such as Oliver Tambo, Govan Mbeki, and even Bantustan leader Kaizer Matanzima, Pallo Jordan’s mother Phyllis Ntantala, celebrated writer and journalist Can Themba, the late Robert Sobukwe, Chris Hani and Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, among many others, once roamed the corridors of UFH.

NOW READ: UFH vice-chancellor calls on Ramaphosa for protection after ‘assassination attempt’

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