‘Accidental administrator’ wants action to halt corruption

Professor Sakhela Buhlungu, the vice-chancellor of South Africa’s University of Fort Hare, survived an apparent assassination attempt earlier in January. He remains determined to stay at the institution, but is deeply frustrated about the lack of action from various authorities, despite evidence relating to alleged corrupt activities.

Buhlungu was not in the car at the time of the attack on 6 January when his protection officer, Mboneli Vesele, who had worked with him since 2018, was shot and killed. In May 2022, Petrus Roets, the university’s fleet and transport manager, was also shot dead in a suspected hit related to an investigation into corruption.

Speaking to University World News, Buhlungu, formerly the dean of humanities at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and the deputy dean of humanities and social sciences at the University of Pretoria (UP), wants action.

He has been subject to threats after leading the university’s charge against corruption through formal complaints to the country’s Special Investigation Unit (SIU). Buhlungu first reported an instance of possible corruption in 2018 – nothing has happened since.

He said detractors on campus have used bullets – and slander via the media – to wage a campaign against him.

“One can expect more violence and bullets pointed at me and those around me, but also, you can expect more smears.

“Fortunately, none of this will stick, because I’m not here for material gain. I’m an accidental academic administrator. My job as an academic, though, is about being a researcher. That’s all I’m interested in. I don’t want businesses. I don’t want tenders. I don’t want any of that stuff,” he says.

The corruption, however, according to Buhlungu, has spread across the tertiary sector, like cancer, targeting, in particular, the former black universities; therefore, he believes, urgent action is vital to end this practice.

Buhlungu spoke to University World News before the start of Vesele’s funeral on 14 January.

UWN: You had a promising career as an academic before at UCT and UP, among other universities, and you certainly did not expect the current drama. But have you been feeling like throwing in the towel?

SB: “No, no, no. I’m not a quitter, especially when it’s a good cause; this is a fight worth fighting. I’m doing it not for myself. I owe it to my staff. I owe it to my students. I owe it to the community I work with. And that’s what this is about. What is the point of quitting?

UWN: What is the remedy to overcoming procurement issues about infrastructure maintenance for residences, buildings, grounds, and so on [where maladministration may take place]? It’s a big task. What must be done?

SB: People find their way around some of the safeguards [against corruption]. I need to think more about it. But, frankly, those who want to will aid and abet corruption – some inside the system, some outside. Some of them, as I said, are in politics, and some in business, aiding and abetting corruption.

The primary medicine for this is for the system to empty. I’m talking about the police arresting people who are responsible for crime so the law can take its course, and they can go to jail.

And, for this, politicians must have a backbone; only then will it help those at the level where I operate. It will give us courage. It will provide us with hope. It will make a big difference in the fight against corruption.

UWN: You’ve been trying to sort out the challenges at Fort Hare for a while. Are you disappointed that it’s taken a tragedy before we see some action? Have you felt let down?

SB: Of course, I am! And that’s why I’ve decided to pitch my call and appeal to President Cyril Ramaphosa. The ministers, I know, can sympathise, they can send condolences and stuff. But, at the end of the day, the person who can then get things done is the president.

It is the president who instructed the ministers to come: the Minister of Higher Education, Dr Blade Nzimande; the Minister in the Presidency, Mondli Gungubele; the Minister of Police, Bheki Cele, and Deputy Minister of State Security, Zizi Kodwa, were sent by the president. So I’m grateful to the ministers and the president.

But, frankly, it terrifies people when you have these convoys of cars coming through, and all people want are the answers – whether people have been arrested, and so on. Now, it’s speeches and speeches and speeches. A situation reaches saturation with speeches and things like that, and I’m right there now.

UWN: Have you been surprised by the level of support received?

SB: We have been getting an avalanche of messages of support through all platforms and through all avenues. Still, I have to lead the university and give direction. Interestingly, this is, for me, an experience. When something like this happens, you think you may take a break, and the university continues, but you still have to run the university. People want you to lead. People expect you to make decisions, and so on. So it’s that kind of situation. It’s an extremely difficult one. I think things will settle once we’ve had the funeral. And then it will hit home hard.

For now, there’s a sense that I have not come to terms with what has happened. I’m still in denial, but processing it would be much easier after the funeral.

UWN: Have you received any word directly from the presidency regarding safety?

SB: I spoke to the president. He has been supportive. I’ve talked to Ministers Nzimande, Cele, Gungubele, and Deputy Minister Kodwa. Minister Cele, in particular, was genuinely shocked by the shoddy treatment we have received from the local and provincial police forces.

Some things are beginning to move, but very slowly. They can say all sorts of things about trying [to enhance safety through a] task force. I’ve read those promises before.

I want them to tell us how many people have been arrested and how many will be charged. That’s all. All. I told them I needed a message of hope for the staff, the students, the community of [the town of] Alice, and the larger higher education community. That’s what we need now. Not platitudes.

UWN: So what do you hope for?

SB: I’ve been watching the media, and I don’t know who’s responsible for these things, but there’s some confusion.

The SIU was not brought in by anybody. It was at our invitation. We signed a memorandum of understanding, and they did a dipstick investigation. Then they applied to the president for a proclamation. So that proclamation we own just as much as the SIU. We have ownership because it was at our core. It was a cry for help. Anyone who wants a report about anything must go to the president.

I reported my first case in February 2018 already. In that case, it has been almost dead, I suspect, and since I’ve reported countless other cases ... nothing. That’s why the only way to magnify our voice is to cry to the president, not because I want to undermine or bypass anybody.

It’s because we’re stuck. We’re stuck in a small town in a very corrupt province, where there’s collusion by many people, some of them in high places. And, so, what do we do? What do we do? That’s the logic we applied.

UWN: Explain the changing role of a vice-chancellor … how much more difficult is it today?

SB: A vice-chancellor 20 years ago, didn’t have to deal with this nonsense. So the role of the vice-chancellor has changed.

And it has been said that the vice-chancellor’s job at Fort Hare is four times as demanding as that of other South African universities, given that you work with less infrastructure and finances. But corruption is widespread, and this is not good for higher education institutions.

It’s an indictment on the system. But also, as I said, the slippery slope of lawlessness, greed, of lack of care is across the board – that is how we run society. That’s what we are. But the fact that I speak my mind … nobody is going to change me. I talk freely and I speak the truth.