Fort Hare lawyers paid R78m 'without agreement'

Conradie, Burger had earlier claimed political plot for their legal woes

24 May 2024 - 06:30
By Lindile Sifile
More suspects in corruption and murders at Fort Hare University have been arrested.
Image: MICHAEL PINYANA More suspects in corruption and murders at Fort Hare University have been arrested.

Since their release on bail, two lawyers accused of corruption at Fort Hare University have claimed that their arrests were part of a political conspiracy to protect Eastern Cape premier Oscar Mabuyane.

But the state believes the two have coined R78,3m in total through two companies – Horizon Forensics, and law firm Bradley Conradie and Halton Cheadle (BCHC) – which were part of a looting frenzy that almost bankrupted the institution.

Bradley Conradie and Sarah Burger, who are directors of Horizon, were arrested in April, together with 13 other people who are alleged to be part of a syndicate which operated at the university for years. The two were brought in by university vice-chancellor Prof Sakhela Buhlungu in 2018 to investigate widespread corruption at the institution.

Part of what they uncovered, they said, was academic fraud involving high-profile politicians, including Mabuyane, which they said they handed to the Hawks.

Mabuyane has denied any wrongdoing.

In media interviews, since they were released on bail, they claim to be victims of a political conspiracy. However, the NPA’s indictment lists 14 payments that were transferred to Horizon since 2020, without a service level agreement (SLA).

The NPA examples of how Conradie’s second company, BCHC, received several payments with a total of R44,7m, also done without an SLA. Prosecutors also believe Horizon paid an R1m bribe towards the down payment of Issac Plaatjies’s house in Nahoon, East London.

Prosecutors believe Plaatjies, the university's director of investigation and vetting unit,  was instrumental in the looting scheme and facilitated payments from the university to a number of service providers who have since been arrested.

Speaking to Sowetan yesterday, Conradie said the money he paid to Plaatjies was a business settlement for  deal he wanted to get into with Plaatjies after their meeting in August 2020. 

"What people don't know is that Isaac [Plaatjies] had no position and was on a month-to-month contract with the university with no budget. I wanted to get into business with him and then changed my mind. I had nothing to benefit from him. We did not need anyone to give us work. And the shocking bit is that the police never asked us anything about the payment which I knew was for Isaac's house," said Conradie.  

On the payments he received from the university, Conradie said the amounts, which he is yet to get audit for, were inflated by people inside the university and his company would normally get a fraction of what they agreed upon with the university. 

"The investigators must have gone to the university and asked employee to type certain figures next to our names. We were making nominal amount from UFH because we had to hire some services from other people. We had to pay for flights and meals.  We carried a lot of liability," said Conradie.

He added that some of the money they received from the university was for long overdue invoices. 

"Payments were often delayed for up to six months at a time. Even if you received a payment every month these payments were often for long overdue invoices," said Conradie. 

Conradie's companies only signed the SLA in March, just less than two weeks before he and Burger were arrested in Cape Town.

In May 2022 the university's CFO raised queries about companies that were being paid without SLAs and instructed the institution to refrain from doing so and said all work valued about R1m should go to tender or a deviation from that processes should be requested in advance.  However, both Horizon and BCHC managed to have their invoices paid despite this. 

Conradie said there was no legal requirement to enter into an SLA as universities were not governed by the Municipal Finance Management Act and were not audited by the Auditor-General.

"Also, police don't understand how SLA work," he added.

Burger said they were only required to register in the institution's database. 

"In 2020 we pushed for an SLA because we realised that the university was a bad payer. We pushed to have it signed in 2022 and 2023. It was only signed in March this year when the university said they would not pay us until we signed. At the time we were already exiting the university," said Burger.

The pair said by the time the SLA was signed, their relationship with Prof Buhlungu had soured because he felt that they were in support of Plaatjies. 

"The VC (Buhlungu) painted Isaac [Plaatjies] as a person who can make things happen. He was a go-getter and able to network with people and we believed in him (Plaatjies). We felt betrayed by him (Plaatjies)," said Conradie.