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By Getrude Makhafola

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‘Overkill disguised as oversight’: Fort Hare VC slams state for ‘micromanaging’ universities

Buhlungu lambasted the Department of Higher Education and others for 'burdening' UFH with their oversight.

Vice-Chancellor of the University of Fort Hare (UFH) Professor Sakhela Buhlungu delivered a no-holds-barred memorial lecture, criticising the constant “burdening” of universities by government and its entities.

Buhlungu, who survived an assassination attempt ordered by UFH corrupt networks, delivered the 57th TB Dawie Memorial Lecture hosted by the University of Cape Town (UCT) on Thursday night.

Titled “Academic Freedom and Institutional Autonomy: A View from the Thyume Valley,” his lecture detailed the tumultuous history of UFH and the current state of academia once navigated by stalwarts such as Z.K Matthews.

Matthews was the first UFH graduate to deliver the third TB Dawie Memorial Lecture in 1961, titled “African Awakening and the Universities.”

‘Poisoned chalice’

Buhlungu was dean of humanities at UCT before joining UFH in February 2017.

The historical university was besieged by instability and looting by ruthless corrupt networks operating inside and outside the Eastern Cape institution.

ALSO READ: Fort Hare University killings: Court denies three of five suspects bail

Buhlungu said he arrived to find a university that had been captured by dangerous people.

The groups launched a “pushback” as he and his team tried to untangle UFH from the clutches of criminals.

“There were vested interests and the modus operandi was to manufacture chaos, because when there’s chaos you never know where the truth results or where solutions are.

“There were strikes by students that went on for weeks, costing teaching and learning time. After that, staffers embarked on a strike for two months.

“But I told my colleagues that one thing about strikes, they don’t last forever.”

Upon realising the immense chaos at UFH, the VC said he wondered if he was taking over a “poisoned chalice.”

“Did I accept a poisoned chalice? And that’s my story at UFH. Of course, I’ve enjoyed every minute, despite the turbulence, but I get asked this question all the time – Had I known what I know now, would I have signed on the dotted line?

“I ask myself that too, and I reserve the answer.”

Fighting corruption became deadly

The clamping down on corruption resulted in several violent attacks, including the killing of fleet and transport manager, Petrus Roets near the Gonubie off-ramp in 2022.

In January, Buhlungu’s bodyguard Mboneli Vesele was shot dead in a car outside the VC’s house. It was widely suspected that the hit was meant for him as he stood in the way of the plunderers.

A second bodyguard was killed in a hit-and-run car crash just three months after the murder of Vesele.

Buhlungu told the audience that police in the Eastern Cape did nothing following the killings, prompting him and his team to plead with President Cyril Ramaphosa.

“It took us taking a decision to phone the president of the republic. We came here at Tuynhuis (presidential residence in Cape Town).

“The minister (of Police Bheki Cele) was right there, but we spoke to the president. We told him Mr President, you have a choice − either we get killed or you are going to protect us.

READ MORE: A second body guard to Fort Hare vice-chancellor killed

“The president had to instruct the minister to set up a special task team from outside of the Eastern Cape because there’s a cloud of secrecy and avoidance of anything to do with Fort Hare in the province,” he said.

‘Burdened by oversight’

While UFH management dealt with daily challenges in a volatile environment, it became clear that there was no autonomy for UFH, said Buhlungu.

He said “all sorts of reports” are requested from UFH − such as reports on the number of students funded by the Nsfas.

“You are called back to Parliament too. We went twice in one month in 2019, and then we were saved by Covid.

“We are going back next week. Just when we took a rest from this avalanche of paperwork, we had the public protector summon us. The gender commission also called us in as well as the Human Rights Commission – these are real cases.

“We have this overkill that masquerades as an oversight. No one reads these reports, they serve no purpose because the following month you’re gonna be asked something that was in the annual report you submitted in June.”

These are a burden that encroaches on the university’s work, he added.

“This burden is one of those slow forms of encroachment. They encroach and pin us down with non-essential administration and paperwork.

“They put a burden on our scarce administration and personnel resources. It becomes a trojan horse for micromanaging of the universities.”

Referring to what he called “micromanaging” from Pretoria by the Department of Higher Education and Training, Buhlungu said crucial matters such as university fees took a backseat after former president Jacob Zuma’s sudden announcement on the eve of the ANC 2016 elective conference that higher education was free.

“Think about it in real terms – the fees setting that is in the Higher Education Act.

“Universities were supposed to set fees for tuition and residence but the previous president made an announcement, and fees setting was clawed back to Pretoria.

“One can’t even budget properly because we have to wait for the ministerial letter. Where is the autonomy in that? The loss of autonomy has multiple implications.”

‘Some universities are more equal than others’

Buhlungu said debating academic freedom will not help the country if universities look inward and in accordance with global standards.

One university having academic freedom is meaningless, he added.

“It is meaningless because that day will come for you as well. The armed thugs will come for you as well. They have depleted SOEs, depleted national, and provincial government, municipalities, water boards and so on.

“They’ve done everything, what’s left are universities, and they’re done with UFH. Just watch,” he said as referred to the aftermath of the state capture years.

The lecture on academic freedom was established by UCT students to commemorate the work of Thomas Benjamin Davie, VC of the university from 1948 to 1955 and a defender of the principles of academic freedom.

Buhlungu said he doubted Matthews would have returned to UFH if he was still alive.

“There is a deterioration in law and order, I do not think Matthews would have returned, he would have put his life in danger.

“These networks are so brazen that they kill, they no longer send an alert to protest, they kill. So seven people were arrested, and one of them was a police officer from Mthatha.

“A detective and he is the one who transported the killers to Allice and to Gonubie.

“So, that is where we are now, and what does all this mean for academic freedom? People ask if I feel safe.

“Of course I am safe, I am standing here. I told Minister Cele I was not going anywhere and that if I died, he would be one of those fetching my coffin from Alice,” said Buhlungu.

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

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