University of Fort Hare. Photo: Supplied
The apparent assassination attempt on the University of Fort Hare’s vice-chancellor, in which his bodyguard was killed, has put the spotlight on corruption that appears to have firmed its grip on the country’s tertiary education sector.
Last year, Professor Sakhele Buhlungu, the vice-chancellor of Fort Hare, who is in the second term of office, asked President Cyril Ramaphosa to sign a proclamation authorising an investigation into corruption claims at Fort Hare.
The attack on him has been linked to his role in pushing for the investigation. Buhlungu was not in the car at the time of the attack on 6 January, but his protection officer, Mboneli Vesele, who has worked with him since 2018, was shot and killed.
Buhlungu has come under attack before. In March last year, shots were fired at his residence and at the homes of two other senior officials. Although no one was hurt in these attacks, it required the university to improve security at the staff village in Alice. But Petrus Roets, the university’s fleet and transport manager, was shot dead in May 2022 in a suspected hit.
A former academic, who did not wish to be named, said corruption had engulfed all 26 institutions in various ways because billions were being spent on infrastructure development, with individuals running it being party to malfeasance.
He pointed out multiple shenanigans at several institutions to corroborate the claims.
One of the country’s foremost academics and distinguished professor of education at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, Jonathan Jansen, has lifted the lid on the goings-on at universities in a book, Corrupted: A Study of Chronic Dysfunction in South African Universities, which takes a deeper look at dysfunctional institutions in an attempt to unravel the root causes in a sample of South African universities.
The book’s publisher, Wits University Press details these concerns in its synopsis on Amazon.com: “At the heart of the problem lies the vexed issue of resources or, more pertinently, the relationship between resources and power: who gets what, and why?
“Whatever else it aspires to be — commonly, a place of teaching, learning, research, and public duty — a university in an impoverished community is also a rich concentration of resources around which corrupt staff, students, and those outside of campus all vie for access.
“Taking a political-economic approach, Jansen describes the daily struggle for institutional resources and offers accessible, sensible insights. He argues that the problem won’t be solved through investments in ‘capacity building’ alone because the combination of institutional capacity and institutional integrity contributes to serial instability in universities.”
The events at the institution are probably linked to the work of the Special Investigating Unit (SIU), which has been underway since the presidential proclamation of 5 August 2022 (Government Gazette 47199) authorising the investigation of allegations of corruption at Fort Hare between 2012 and 2022, said Blade Nzimande, the minister of higher education, science and innovation, said on 11 January, during a visit to the university.
This was partly a response to forensic work that the university had undertaken, but where it had faced certain limitations as investigators needed to have the statutory powers necessary to undertake specific responsibilities.
The investigation relates to: procurement irregularities in cleaning and gardening services (between 2012 and 2019); the leasing of student accommodation since 2013; the appointment of a service provider for maintenance and repair of air conditioning systems (2018); and collusion of officials and suppliers, or service providers.
It also focuses on alleged maladministration in the affairs of the university’s department of public administration in awarding honours degrees, mismanagement of funds, and sourcing public servants to study in various programmes for individual financial gain.
These allegations are also linked to the university’s suspension of Professor Edwin Ijeoma, an employee, who resigned in February 2021. The disciplinary processes continued following his resignation, and he was found guilty of all charges.
Nzimande noted that there were reports of how deeply maladministration was entrenched in the institution, which Buhlungu had reportedly been actively rooting out since he assumed office. These endeavours saw several senior managers and staff members suspended, some resigning, and others dismissed.
The minister said that some of the issues investigated by the SIU were also briefly noted in an Independent Assessor Report (October 2019), an investigation authorised by the minister, in which one of the six key findings was that “there are disturbing signs of a widespread belief that the university is a kind of cash cow which everyone is entitled to milk for personal benefit”.
Which other institutions have been in the spotlight?
Kaizer Kganyago, the head of stakeholder relations and communications at the SIU, said the unit had received complaints about corruption claims at other tertiary institutions.
On 16 November last year, the parliamentary portfolio committee on higher education, science and education, which plays an oversight role and may request information from a ministry, received updates on problems at several institutions, including the Mangosuthu University of Technology (MUT), University of South Africa (Unisa), and Vaal University of Technology (VUT) — all related to governance issues.
Professor Themba Mosia, academic and former chairperson of the Council on Higher Education, was appointed by the minister as an independent assessor, or investigator, to probe problems at Unisa, a distance learning institution, in September 2022.
The minister had discussions with the Unisa council on the findings of the ministerial task team report of 2021. Mosia’s appointment came after a conflict between National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union and the university leadership over allegations of mismanagement.
The Mangosuthu University of Technology was placed under administration, and an administrator, who acts in a temporary capacity as manager of the university, Professor Lourens van Staden, was appointed on 28 September last year. This came after an investigation, authorised by the minister, by independent assessor Professor Anthony Staak was not implemented by the MUT Council.
Corruption claims have also been made at the University of Zululand and Mpumalanga University of Technology.
Committee members discussing events at tertiary institutions around the country in parliament at the end of last year said they were not pleased with poor governance at higher education institutions because essential matters such as the curriculum, the impact of qualifications offered by the sector, and its core business should have been discussed.
“Instead, the committee is always confronted with addressing corruption allegations, maladministration, poor financial management, governance, and stakeholder relations.”
Nzimande said: “Corruption is a betrayal of our democracy and an assault on public institutions that we established to advance the values of our Constitution and the interests of our people.”
Fort Hare is one of the country’s oldest universities. Its alumni include the likes of liberation heroes Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Robert Sobukwe, and Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi in South Africa, Zimbabwean leaders Robert Mugabe and Herbert Chitepo, and Kenya’s Elius Mathu and Charles Njonjo.
“Our post-school education and training institutions, and the University of Fort Hare is part of those institutions, must [be] protect[ed] against any form of corruption, maladministration, and capture by private interests,” said Nzimande.
He has committed to forming a national task force that will work with institutions of higher education to improve safety and security. The minister has also encouraged these institutions to have their own structures that deal with safety issues.
In a statement, Universities South Africa chairperson Professor Sibongile Muthwa said that the body was deeply saddened by the events at Fort Hare, which took place on the campus premises.
She said the reports, which indicate that this might have been an attempt on the life of Buhlungu, are hugely shocking.
Whitfield Green, the chief executive of the Council on Higher Education (CHE), called for decisive action from the highest levels of government and the safety and security structures that must act vigorously “to root out this growing threat to our universities”.
Nozipho January-Bardill, the chairperson of the council of Nelson Mandela University in the Eastern Cape, extended condolences to the Vesele family and the broader University of Fort Hare community.
“That murder and assassination are taking place in a higher education environment is a shocking reflection of the difficult times we live in as a nation,” she said.
January-Bardill called on authorities to support and protect whistleblowers and those trying to root out fraud and corruption in higher education and our society broadly.
This is an edited version of an article first published by the Africa edition of University World News.