The goings-on at the University of Fort Hare in the Eastern Cape are both controversial and unfortunate, the latter because two people lost their lives in a hail of bullets and the university boss’ life is at risk; vice-chancellor and principal Sakhela Buhlungu constantly looks over his shoulder.
Is it therefore fair to argue that Buhlungu’s bodyguard, Mboneli Vesele, and former university fleet manager Petrus Roets would still be alive today if those we entrusted with their civil liberties had taken bold decisions at the height of tension at Fort Hare in 2019?
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The matter is controversial because, at the time when an objective assessment of the institution was needed, government decided on a logically incomprehensible cop-out.
First, former higher education minister Naledi Pandor made a unilateral decision in 2019 to appoint seasoned academic Loyiso Nongxa as an administrator at the university.
This effectively dissolved its council – the decision-making body at universities – but left the executive management and its administration intact, meaning Buhlungu remained where he was. Essentially, he and his executive management team were made to work with Nongxa.
This was despite the fact that, at the time, there were allegations and counter-allegations being thrown around among stakeholders – including the then council members, unions, Buhlungu’s management and students – of fraud, corruption and maladministration.
Current Higher Education, Science and Innovation Minister Blade Nzimande revealed that the situation had not changed during his tenure.
Pandor’s intervention was seen as divisive and political by some within the Fort Hare council because it came across as favouring one faction at the expense of another.
Her critics pointed out that interventions at other historically disadvantaged institutions of higher learning involved dismantling both the council and executive management by severing ties with vice-chancellors.
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Those within the council who were opposed to Buhlungu alleged that Pandor had not consulted them before making the decision to appoint Nongxa.
The pro-Buhlungu faction was made up of formidable politically affiliated figures and academics who were seen as purists aligned to Pandor.
The other group was made up of people who were largely seen as corrupt, chaotic, populist political figures in the Eastern Cape – an allegation that was never publicly supported by any evidence.
Pandor made the decision to appoint Nongxa despite the fact that, before appointing an administrator, the Higher Education Amendment Act required the minister to do the following:
- Give written notice to the council of their intention to make such an appointment;
- Provide the council with clear reasons for the appointment; and
- Consider representations.
The rationale, Pandor’s office explained at the time, was that the conditions and state of governance at the institution were such that it was reasonable and justified to depart from the provisions of the law because:
- Although the objective of section 49B(1A) stipulates that a notice should be provided, it was not feasible in the case of Fort Hare because council members admitted that they had difficulties in convening meetings and conducting council business effectively;
- The nature and purpose of the administrative action was to stabilise the institution immediately and to ensure efficiency, good governance, a conducive academic environment and that the university was able to comply with provisions of section 217 of the Constitution in relation to procurement processes, in that it must act in accordance with a system that is fair, equitable, transparent, competitive and cost-effective; and
- Taking into account such circumstances and threats against the security of employees, it was desirable that the matter be treated with urgency.
It was therefore vital to waive the requirement of a notice, receipt of written representation and consideration of the same.
Nongxa then appointed two independent assessors to conduct an investigation into allegations of maladministration at the university.
In the majority, if not in all instances, interventions at historically disadvantaged institutions have commenced with the appointment of an independent assessor who investigates first and then makes recommendations to a sitting minister about whether to appoint an administrator.
A similar process is unfolding at Unisa, as Nzimande appointed a task team to investigate a number of allegations at the institution. The team’s report recommended the appointment of an administrator and that the university’s council be dissolved.
Nzimande then appointed an independent assessor to investigate allegations against the council, as well as vice-chancellor and principal Professor Puleng LenkaBula.
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Such a process was also carried out at the Vaal University of Technology, at Walter Sisulu University and at Mangosuthu University of Technology.
All three institutions faced allegations relating to mismanagement, which are also prevalent at Fort Hare.
The debate about mismanagement and poor governance in some historically disadvantaged institutions has been ongoing for a while. Strangely, Fort Hare was treated as an exception.
An opportunity was missed to rein in the warring factions and get a full understanding of what was happening at the university.
Far be it for anyone to disparage the work performed by Nongxa and his assessors – experts in their field who did their best – but there remain questions about the legitimacy of government’s intervention, and these queries have gained traction.
More important is the fundamental question of whether the decision was objective or partisan, in light of the recent developments.
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Nzimande revealed in the past weeks, after meeting with the new council of Fort Hare, its executive management, trade unions and students, that it became clear that the university had challenges that needed to be addressed urgently.
He said he had also received written submissions during consultations.
“This relates to accusations and counter-accusations by various stakeholders on the challenges at the institution. This includes issues raised around controls over procurement and contract management,” he said.
These claims, the minister said, corresponded with various reports and investigations, including an investigation into the financial health of 26 South African universities for the year from January 1 to December 31 2021.
In the instance of Fort Hare, he said, the report indicated that:
- Members of staff did not declare any business that may raise a conflict or possible conflict of interest with the university, or notify the university of any conflict or possible conflict of interest before such public higher education institution procured any goods or services from such member of staff or organisation within which such member or employee held an interest, in contravention of sections 34(4)(a)(b) of the Higher Education Amendment Act; and
- Employees conducted business directly or indirectly with the university, which entailed or might have entailed a conflict of interest with the university in contravention of sections 34(5)(a)(c) of the Higher Education Amendment Act.
“In terms of the control deficiencies, the management of the university did not implement the necessary policies and procedures relating to procurement and contract management to ensure that conflicts of interest are identified and approved as required by the Higher Education Amendment Act,” Nzimande said.
The Special Investigating Unit is also investigating a number of allegations at Fort Hare, including corruption and mismanagement.
This begs the question:
One logical conclusion that can be drawn is that the intervention exacerbated tension in an already polarised environment because rogue elements are still operating at Fort Hare.