What can the minister and the department do about corruption?

The murder of Mboneli Vesele, the bodyguard of Professor Sakhela Buhlungu, the vice-chancellor of the University of Fort Hare, earlier in January, including the threat to the life of Buhlungu, has put the deadly nature of corruption in ‘historically black’ universities in South Africa in the spotlight.

This violence is not new. This time, however, the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology, Dr Blade Nzimande, has shown his outrage publicly but offered no immediate solution to the problem.

In this article, I want to challenge the role of the ministry in addressing the problems of corruption that confront so-called ‘black’ universities. To address this concern, I will engage briefly with the nature and dynamics of corruption in ‘black’ universities – in particular, the University of Fort Hare (UFH) and the University of Zululand (UniZulu). Both universities have been in the spotlight in recent years.

Lastly, I will address the role that the South African Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) could play to address these problems.

Minister accused of ‘doing nothing’

On 9 January, following the death of Buhlungu’s bodyguard, SAfm, a national radio station in South Africa, broadcast an interview with the vice-chancellor.

Following the interview, which, among other things, was also scathing about the role of the higher education ministry, the minister, himself, phoned in to the current affairs show, which allows listeners to contribute.

Nzimande called in to ‘dismiss’ the comment made by Buhlungu that he has not seen the department move with speed to provide the necessary support and protection to the vice-chancellor.

Nzimande’s call appeared to have nothing to do with the issue at hand – the minister simply wanted to present himself as someone who was actively engaged in the problems that affect many ‘black’ universities and Technical and Vocational Education and Training, or TVET, colleges.

During the call, Nzimande mentioned a few other fatalities targeting whistle-blowers in South African universities.

For instance, he mentioned the University of Zululand’s former dean, Professor Gregory Kamwendo, who was believed to have been killed for exposing a fraudulent PhD scheme at the university. But the minister did not tell us what his department had done to address the situation.

He did not explain what his department has done to stop the killings. Those of us who are following these events would assume, on face value, that the minister has, in fact, done very little to ensure that these killings receive the necessary attention. Instead, what we see is that the minister has, according to recent budget speeches, continued to pump millions of rands into ‘black’ universities.

Lack of accountability?

For instance, at the beginning of 2012, the minister’s budget targeted mainly the development of infrastructure and students’ accommodation of ‘black’ universities. The department further introduced a new Developmental Grant plan from 2015-16 to 2021 to further inject money into these ‘black’ universities (and colleges).

Again, those of us who have been paying attention to the developments would have noticed that the minister’s attempts to fund these universities have not been followed by stringent accountability mechanisms that invite the attention and confidence of the public into the distribution of these millions within these universities.

Instead, the minister has focused his attention on the employment of vice-chancellors, especially women, into VC positions, which is a good thing, but with little feedback on how the public funds are being utilised and who benefits from the millions that his department has been sending to these embattled universities. I have UFH and UniZulu in mind.

At UniZulu, questions have been raised about Professor Xoliswa Mtose, the vice-chancellor. A case has been made against her. Nzimande wrote a letter to the council in 2016, according to reports, but does not appear to have acted again.

Moreover, private companies have conducted many forensic investigations at the university – some have been made public but some have not been made public. In fact, according to the former chief financial officer of the university, Josephine Naicker, three forensic reports were never made public due to the instructions of the current vice-chancellor.

We also know that, when Naledi Pandor took over the higher education ministry a few years earlier, she initiated another forensic investigation in 2018 into corruption allegations in the financial affairs of UniZulu.

This investigation did not go further – if it did, we do not know the outcomes of it. This is because President Cyril Ramaphosa returned Nzimande to the higher education ministry in 2019 and Pandor became the minister of international relations. Thus, as far as I am concerned, these allegations have not been fully tested. The minister has not spoken publicly about these allegations. He has not even told us if they are true or false.

University of Fort Hare

The shenanigans pointed out above have not only gripped UniZulu. The University of Fort Hare, another predominantly black university, has experienced many challenges.

All these challenges have led us to where we are – with the death of the bodyguard of the vice-chancellor, and a threat to the vice-chancellor’s life.

The violent and deadly nature of corruption is not new at UFH. Some will remember the corruption stories reported by the Daily Dispatch, a regional newspaper, between 2007 and 2015. These stories focused on events ranging from violent student protests, including blatant maladministration that intensified with the murder of a senior official responsible for supply chain at the university. Subsequently, the then deputy vice-chancellor Dr Jabulani Mjwara asked the university to provide him with bodyguards, claiming that his life was in danger.

Mjwara resigned in 2015 following a probe of ZAR10 million (now about US$582,000) of unauthorised expenditure. He resigned while the probe was still under way. The mess and corruption in the procurement systems of the university have subsequently unravelled. From disputed contracts in the building of students’ residences to the company responsible for the ‘maintenance’ of residences, UFH became a hazardous space.

Most recently, in 2022, a fleet and transport manager of UFH, Petrus Roets, was murdered in what appears to be another corruption-related hit.

The nature of corruption and inept leadership in many of the ‘black’ universities has been ignored by DHET. For instance, the vice-chancellor who preceded Buhlungu, the medical doctor Mvuyo Tom’s exchange with the department of higher education is worth citing in detail here.

Tom wrote to the DHET on 5 March 2015 requesting assistance with short-term funding of ZAR20 million (apparently as an advance on the next subsidy payment). The director-general of DHET at the time, Gwebs Qonde, wrote back on 11 March approving the request, but noted that ‘The university’s financial position is weak’, given that it had an operating deficit of ZAR42 million the previous year, and requested a turnaround strategy to be submitted to the DHET.

According to the DHET report, by 1 November 2015, Tom wrote to the DHET yet again “requesting further financial assistance”.

The director-general responded on 19 November, giving approval for the university to utilise ZAR35 million of its earmarked infrastructure grant to obtain short-term financial relief, but commenting that “the long-term financial situation of the university is of great concern to the department”, and that, “I have noted some of the poor decisions made by UFH with respect to financial management in general”, and that “you are reminded to provide a turnaround strategy”.

Tom responded to the DHET letter dated 23 March 2016 “acknowledging approval of yet a further advance of ZAR35 million against the infrastructure grant, making an advance of more than ZAR60 million in all.

The letter concludes: “Finally, we have noted, but refute, the suggestion of “a deep-seated management failure” (according to an extract taken from an independent assessor or investigator’s report published in 2019 by DHET).

No reasons are given for this ‘refutation’. Thus, the department is not very forceful nor outrightly outraged by the poor management of finances. Instead, the university management is treated with kid gloves.

Unscrupulous management practices

In short, the two examples of the challenges facing ‘black’ universities in South Africa show us two specific problems. One, the department has a tolerance for the unscrupulous management of these universities. We have to ask why. Why would the department keep inept management in some of our universities but continue to pump millions into the development of these universities?

In both cases discussed in this article, UFH and UniZulu, we can see that the ministry of higher education and training did not appear to intervene when officials of the university were murdered.

Secondly, the behaviour of ill-performing vice-chancellors (in the case of UFH), including their executives, is allowed to continue and these executives keep their positions even though they have clearly been shown to be incompetent. The question still lingers. Why is DHET allowing this? I will not speculate on the reasons here.

However, for those of us studying higher education institutions, we need to investigate the systems that prevail in our universities and why these systems allow for corruption in ‘black’ universities.

Why are we not seeing the violence that we have observed in ‘black’ universities in historically ‘white’ universities? Just to be clear: I am not suggesting here that the same violence that confronts ‘black’ universities must also happen in ‘white’ universities. Instead, I suggest that we need to study the procurement trends in these universities. That will also allow us to investigate the companies, including pseudo companies and unscrupulous ‘business people’ that are milking our universities.

Furthermore, do ‘black’ ‘new’ businesses have a sense of entitlement in these ‘black’ universities? What systems and structures enable this entitlement? What role are students, councils and top executives playing in the procurement decisions?

In other words, while we are concerned with the transformation of curricula and institutional cultures, there is something else that we need to investigate: the procurement systems of our universities. The investigation would allow us to understand the extent to which procurement services in other universities (in particular ‘white’) have really transformed.

The ministry has to be ‘proactive’

What I am suggesting here requires the involvement of the ministry of higher education and training. It requires a proactive position from the ministry that will help address the scourge of violence confronting ‘black’ universities.

One of the things the ministry could do is to enforce a public declaration of the names of companies that are providing services, including procurement to our universities. We must know who provides our milk, sugar and coffee – but also, who is building residence premises and maintaining the infrastructure of our universities.

In sum, the anger that the minister seemed to have directed at Fort Hare University Vice-Chancellor Buhlungu during the SAfm interview is misplaced.

His department has a responsibility to act on the violence that confronts South African universities. The minister must stop being reactional and actually do his job. As I suggest in the paragraph above, the minister could consider making public the names of all the companies that are doing business with our universities.

After all, the majority of South African universities are state-controlled – it would not make sense for any company to refuse to be named publicly. I think that, this way, the shenanigans that are dragging our universities into the mud and threatening the lives and livelihoods of dedicated black professionals who want to do good, can be exposed and these professionals protected.

May Mboneli Vesele’s soul rest in eternal peace, and strength to his family. Strength to Professor Sakhela Buhlungu and his family.

Sandiso Bazana is a PhD candidate as well as a teaching and research assistant at Grenoble Ecole de Management, France. He is also a lecturer in organisational psychology at Rhodes University, South Africa. He studied at the University of Fort Hare from 2007-13 and worked at the institution as a lecturer from 2013 to 2014.

University World News – Africa has offered the South African Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Innovation the opportunity to reply to this commentary. Ishmael Mnisi, the spokesperson for the ministry, did not respond to the request. However, Dr Blade Nzimande, the minister, visited the University of Fort Hare (UFH) in January and met with stakeholders – the council, executive management, students and unions – regarding conflict of interest allegations uncovered in 2021. In addition, Bishop Ivan Abrahams, the chair of UFH’s council, indicated in January that a policy on the declaration of interests with concomitant verification and reporting responsibilities would be finalised this year.