PEDRO MZILENI | Buhlungu needs all the support to restore Fort Hare’s glory

Once-great institution mired in graft and killings

. File photo
. File photo
Image: MICHAEL PINYANA

Since the appointment of Professor Sakhela Buhlungu as Fort Hare vice-chancellor in January 2017, the university has taken a different and a more productive direction to reposition itself as a credible knowledge-making institution of higher learning, teaching, research, and engagement after decades of instability, corruption and maladministration.

The 2019 forensic report released by independent assessors who investigated Fort Hare tabled these challenges. Three frightening findings  were made.

First, it found that the structures and committees responsible for financial management and procurement  at the University are “rudimentary” and vulnerable to political interference. To be “rudimentary” in financial terms is in essence to be engulfed in poor financial governance and controls.

Second, the administrative  affairs of the registrar’s office – an office responsible for publishing graduation lists, council minutes and registration systems, among others – was  in a mess. In other words, the university could not accurately track who is registered, who graduates, and how previous decisions of council or senate were taken.

Third, it found that academics were making extra income because of the flawed research policy of the university – a policy that allowed each supervisor of a master’s student earn a R20,000  in cash for every student that graduates at this level. For a PhD student, the supervisor would pocket R60,000.

At other universities such funds would be debited to institutional revenue so they can be used for further research, give bursaries to poor yet talented students, appoint good lecturers and professors, and build infrastructure where it is needed. This was not the case at Fort Hare.

This is the type of university that Buhlungu inherited in January 2007 and removing this entrenched culture of corruption was going to be a steep mountain to climb. One needs to remove the culture of instant gratification, taking shortcuts, laziness, low expectations, corruption and selfishness for a modern university to stabilise, function and thrive with the highest standards of excellence in an international knowledge economy.

Numerous dismissals have  occurred at Fort Hare since Buhlungu arrived. Multiple tenders and questionable contracts were identified and terminated. Irregular appointments and hiring policies were also identified. Poor governance and dysfunctional departments were revitalised. The illicit political power that student organisations and unions had over the university and its executive leadership were also rectified.

Major cases of criminality were referred to law enforcement and court cases ensued. For all these efforts, Buhlungu was reappointed by the Fort Hare Council in January 2022 to serve a second term as vice-chancellor. His second term shifted focus towards  improving the research standing and academic prestige of the university to world-class standards.

These efforts did come without fierce opposition. Senior staff members responsible for finance, supply chain management and the executive have been killed  at the university. There have been direct threats to Buhlungu’s life – with his bodyguard Mboneli Vesele killed outside the vice-chancellor’s home at the beginning of the year.

Senior politicians in the Eastern Cape have also been  found to have been responsible for the irregular awarding of academic qualifications  at the university. In addition, politicians interested in tenders have come under scrutiny. As a result, the university  requested the Special Investigation Unit to investigate all instances of corruption at the university.

There are politically inclined bodies within the university seeking to delegitimise the work of the vice-chancellor, such as unions and the alumni convocation, who claim an arrogant dictatorship  that doesn’t consult them is in place. These claims were further politicised by minister Blade Nzimande when he visited the university recently to challenge its council  over efforts it has  made to renew the university.

All these internal and external attempts that seek to interfere with the good work of the Fort Hare executive leadership should be condemned by the academic community.

The vice-chancellor and the rest of the Fort Hare council must ignore the political noise and use their institutional autonomy to focus on their renewal work – which is to uplift the name of the university and its qualifications, provide quality education to the poor youth, table quality research for local and worldwide impact, hold everyone accountable and to high standards, and keep co-operating with law enforcement agencies to remove those who seek to delegitimise anti-corruption.

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