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Fort Hare University and the Corruption-Feeding Frenzy


Fort Hare University and the Corruption-Feeding Frenzy

Former President Nelson Mandela would be ashamed of 2024 South Africa.

The country that is just a few weeks away from national elections bears scant resemblance to the free and fair democracy he fought so long and hard to create, and which he led with such dignity, honesty and integrity for five inspiring years.

The most recent in a long list of corruption-centred events would be particularly heart-breaking for Madiba as it concerns Fort Hare University, from where he and many former compatriots, including Oliver Tambo, Govan Mbeki, Robert Sobukwe and Mangosuthu Buthelezi, graduated.

Fort Hare was once described as a beacon of hope for South Africa during the country’s darkest Apartheid days, having trained most of the leaders of our largest political party, and thousands of lawyers, doctors, and civil servants as well.

Given this illustrious history, you’d expect it to rank among the top 10 universities in South Africa. Sadly not. However, it doesn’t even make the top 50 in the whole of Africa.

Its once formidable reputation lies in tatters.

The latest nail in the coffin is the discovery of, and fallout from, a R171 million kickback scandal that has dominated headlines in recent weeks.

Newspaper reports are calling it the “Money for Pals” scheme, citing multiple examples of racketeering, fraud, and money laundering. It was allegedly orchestrated from within Vice-Chancellor Professor Sakhela Buhlungu’s inner circle and also involved members of the university’s management suite.

There is an undeniable irony about the entire unsavoury mess, as former University Director of Investigations and Vetting, Isaac Plaatjies, has been singled out as one of the alleged masterminds behind the entire scheme. He purportedly orchestrated the illicit contracts and kickbacks, splurging on luxury items with his ill-gotten gains.

In a timeline of events published by the Daily Maverick, we can see that between 2019 and 2023, Plaatjies allegedly received millions of Rands from Anwar Khan, owner of private security agency the Pentagon Group, in return for bodyguarding contracts for some of the University’s top management.

HR director, Paul Tladi and his wife Lucrecia Davids, along with other Fort Hare employees, were also allegedly paid hundreds of thousands of Rands as part of the same scheme.

Plaatjies is one of 15 people recently arrested in connection with these alleged wrongdoings. Naturally, he maintains he is being framed, but has so far been denied bail. Two others – Sarah Pearl Burger, an attorney from Cape Town and director of Horizon Forensics, and Wayne Gosain van der Haar from the University’s IT department – were each released on R50 000 bail.

Plaatjies bail refusal is not surprising. Over and above his alleged role in the orchestration of the entire scandal, he has a history of dishonest and fraudulent behaviour. He was, for example, fired from the University in January this year after it was discovered that he had lied about his academic qualifications. He arrived from Johannesburg with a fake Master’s degree (cum laude) and a laundry list of other supposed qualifications. It turns out he didn’t even have a Matric certificate.

Former HR director, Tladi, also lied about his qualifications, falsely claiming to have a PhD.

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.”

The events leading to the Easter weekend arrests read like the plot of a dime-store novel.

What initially started as an earnest appeal by Professor Buhlungu to President Ramaphosa to obtain justice for two murdered employees (the University’s fleet manager, Petrus Roets, and Buhlungu’s bodyguard, Mboneli Vesele) turned into an ever-more complex spider web of lies, corruption and deceit involving two of the most trusted members of his management team.

A Daily Maverick report says, “The State now alleges that what Buhlungu and his supporters first thought was violent retribution against the graft clean-up spearheaded by him and his leadership team was much more sinister.

“The indictment names Buhlungu as a victim of the ‘criminal enterprise’ set up at the University. It also alleges that these crimes were fuelled by kickbacks paid by the private sector for lucrative forensic investigations and bodyguards.”

Small wonder, then, that Buhlungu now says he feels deeply betrayed, believing that Plaatjies, and many of his co-accused who are also key members of the so-called “Fort Hare Mafia,” were connected long before they came to work at the University.

The more I read about this case, the more it seems that Buhlungu is something of a lone crusader in the fight against those who seek to bring Fort Hare University to its knees. His dogged investigations – which have resulted in an alleged R5m price on his head and at least one attempt on his life – have been instrumental in helping the State bring charges against those accused in the scandal.

“When I got to Fort Hare, I was a total stranger,” he said. “I came in cold. I had no friends, no faction that carried me in or who rooted for me. Only when I landed here did I realise we have factions, thieves and mafia leaders. Then they realised I was not quite the person they thought I was.”

He told the Daily Maverick that the accused’s plot to create “an atmosphere of terror” at the University was created to allow for a deviation from the usual stricter tender procedures. He believes it was likely hatched in Johannesburg, where many of the accused were based before coming to work at Fort Hare.

This then gave them free rein to approve inflated contracts for services such as personal protection, forensic investigations, cybersecurity, and human resources, as well as authorise the kickbacks I mentioned earlier.


Some of his other allegations include:


  • University funds indirectly paid for the hitmen who killed Petrus Roets and Mboneli Vesele.


  • Tladi hired an army of additional people in unfunded positions, yet they were getting paid. There is also evidence that he had been abusing flights and car hire.


  • [Former office manager] Nozuko Mabombo was initially given protection as she claimed shots had been fired at her house, but upon investigation the police became suspicious. There is footage showing a group of young men milling around her gate and firing shots into the air.


  • [Mabombo] abused vehicles and bodyguards provided to her. This included providing bodyguards and a vehicle for her husband’s golf tours and using bodyguards to unload building materials.


  • Plaatjies had a conduit account in his name, through which vast amounts of money were directed.

In addition, the State’s indictment mentions the involvement of former murder and robbery detective, Terrence Joubert. He was also a risk specialist for the National Prosecuting Authority, an investigator for the Asset Forfeiture Unit, and a witness at the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture.

Any credibility this may previously have given him is gone, as he now stands accused of having received kickbacks through the Pentagon while also paying kickbacks through his own company.

Even the University’s attorney, Bradley Conradie, allegedly received kickbacks, together with Horizon Forensics, where he just happened to be a director.

Others who were allegedly awarded contracts at vastly inflated prices and paid kickbacks include the presiding officer for the university’s disciplinary hearings and the managers of a cyber investigation company.

It’s a hot mess, to say the least.

And yet, despite everything – including the ever-present threat to his safety – Vice-Chancellor Buhlungu remains committed to rooting out the bad guys and addressing the rampant criminality within the institution.

“People think, shame, he is hiding under his bed, but I am not,” he said. “I am on campus every day, cheering our students on. Celebrating all the time.”

In an interview with the Daily Maverick, he said, “I will not allow Fort Hare to fall. There are many crucial reasons why this university must be saved. [It] remains the only historical black education institution [in the Eastern Cape].”

He also said he had received the full backing and support for his investigations from the University’s council and countless people in the international community.

He’s got mine too – and yours, as well, I hope. We need more people with the bravery, integrity and commitment to justice displayed by Professor Sakhela Buhlungu.

Respect to you, sir. May your quest to make the University of Fort Hare great once more be successful, and may you continue to serve as an inspirational example to us all.