Fort Hare vice-chancellor under fire over alleged affair with employee

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University of Fort Hare Vice Chancellor, Professor Sakhela Buhlungu during an interview on March 24, 2018 in East London, South Africa. Buhlungu’s attempts to root out corruption and maladministration at the institution have landed him with 24-hour security. Picture: Alaister Russell / Gallo Images / Sunday Times
University of Fort Hare Vice Chancellor, Professor Sakhela Buhlungu during an interview on March 24, 2018 in East London, South Africa. Buhlungu’s attempts to root out corruption and maladministration at the institution have landed him with 24-hour security. Picture: Alaister Russell / Gallo Images / Sunday Times

The audit and risk committee (ARC) of the University of Fort Hare has recommended the suspension of the vice-chancellor (VC), professor Sakhela Buhlungu, for overstepping his authority and undermining the committee, which represents the council, the highest decision-making body of the university.

Buhlungu is embroiled in a controversy over an alleged affair with an employee in his office.

The controversy began when he suspended the university’s chief audit executive, Martin Soqaga, the head of the internal audit unit, the duties of which included investigating whether the correct processes were followed leading to the implicated employee’s appointment in the VC’s office.

In July last year a whistle-blower alerted the university to the alleged relationship between Buhlungu and a worker in his office, whose name is known to City Press.

The employee was apparently later promoted to a position that falls under the VC’s administration.

Buhlungu’s office and the employee have denied the alleged affair.

“The VC further denies that he and [the employee] were or are intimately involved and that she has been favoured by him in any way.

“Such allegations are part of an attempt to undermine the VC and the work that he has done since joining the university,” Buhlungu’s office said.

City Press has learnt from internal documents that, amid the probe into the alleged affair, Buhlungu suspended Soqaga.

In a letter seen by City Press, dated December 14 last year, and addressed to Soqaga, Buhlungu detailed his intention to suspend Soqaga, citing that he allegedly “concealed and refused to disclose an investigation report relating to Buhlungu’s office in order for its contents to be amended”.

Buhlungu said Soqaga had refused to report to him about two investigations – one into the irregular extension of cleaning contracts and another into cars that were allegedly bought by employees after receiving kickbacks from service providers.

He said Soqaga’s report would have enabled him to brief council and the higher education and training department about the two investigations.

However, the move to suspend Soqaga angered the ARC.

It said the VC did not have the authority to suspend Soqaga and that Buhlungu was also conflicted and implicated, as the decision maker, to the two investigations.

The committee said Soqaga accounted to its members and not Buhlungu and that, by suspending Soqaga, the VC had overstepped his powers.

Documents seen by City Press also indicate that Soqaga was not directly investigating the alleged affair. Instead an external investigator was appointed for the case. The investigator reported to Soqaga.

In a strongly worded letter written by the ARC in January and addressed to council chairperson advocate Thandi Orleyn, the committee demanded that Buhlungu be temporarily suspended.

The ARC, in its letter, also indicated that a submission was made by a council member that revealed “an indication of his [Buhlungu’s] interference and involvement in the attempt to block and kill the forensic investigation into the appointment” of an employee in his office.

In December last year the ARC wrote to Buhlungu asking him to “immediately withdraw” Soqaga’s suspension, saying his decision was procedurally irregular.

“The CAE [Soqaga] is employed by council and reports functionally to the ARC to ensure his independence from influence by management and, accordingly, the VC has no authority over his appointment, performance assessment, suspension, disciplining and dismissal,” the ARC said.

The ARC said reports sought by Buhlungu from Soqaga pertained to decisions that Buhlungu had made and his actions amounted to “gross unethical behaviour” and would be reported to council.

The ARC said Soqaga was not investigating the two cases of which Buhlungu wanted a report, but that these were with the Hawks.

Buhlungu subsequently responded to the ARC in a letter dated January 3 this year saying the ARC should go ahead and report their displeasure to council.

The ARC requested a special council meeting to table the case against Buhlungu, but City Press understands the meeting has not been held.

Buhlungu’s office declined to comment, saying there were ongoing investigations against Soqaga.

“The allegations relate to an unauthorised and unlimited investigation into the VC’s office and the failure of the CAE [Soqaga] to finalise and report to the VC on an internal investigation which is in no way linked to the VC’s office.”

His office also denied that Soqaga’s suspension was a way to interfere with the probe into the alleged affair.

Soqaga declined to comment.

But City Press has seen a letter dated December 20 last year, wherein he denied allegations made by Buhlungu against him, saying he had no authority to release a report about investigations.

Orleyn said the VC’s office response would suffice.

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