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I quit for my own safety, former Fort Hare deputy vice-chancellor says in wake of VC ‘assassination attempt’

I quit for my own safety, former Fort Hare deputy vice-chancellor says in wake of VC ‘assassination attempt’
Former deputy vice-chancellor of Fort Hare University, Oscar van Heerden. (Photo: Supplied) | University of Fort Hare Vice Chancellor, Professor Sakhela Buhlungu. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Alaister Russell)

The fatal shooting of a bodyguard and the apparent attempted assassination of Fort Hare University’s vice-chancellor appears to be part of a larger pattern of violence against campus management.

The former deputy vice-chancellor of Fort Hare University, Oscar van Heerden, has said the apparent attempted assassination of the vice-chancellor, Professor Sakhela Buhlungu, at the weekend has confirmed his decision to resign out of fear for his personal safety.

He simply was not going to “stick around and find out whether I’m next”, Van Heerden told Daily Maverick.

The incident on Friday, 6 January, in which Buhlungu’s driver, Mboneli Vesele, was killed, was the latest violent attack on Fort Hare staff and management. There have been several instances of targeted violence against management.

When Vesele arrived at Buhlungu’s home in the latter’s car on Friday evening, he was shot by assailants in a nearby vehicle. The 52-year-old died at the scene, but Buhlungu was not in the car. The suspects fled the scene. The South African Police Service said Eastern Cape provincial commissioner, Lieutenant-General Nomthetheleli Mene, had ordered their immediate arrest.

As of Sunday, 8 January, no arrests had been made, police spokesperson Brigadier Tembinkosi Kinana told Daily Maverick. No motive had been established yet either.

Plea to the President

Following the attack, Buhlungu was moved to a safe location. Owing to the high volume of calls and messages he has been receiving, he was unable to provide comment to Daily Maverick.

Buhlungu made a plea to President Cyril Ramaphosa to provide an assurance about his safety. “I need the person who runs the country to say to me and to my executive and my staff: ‘You can rest assured you are covered, you are protected, you are safe.’ That’s where my headspace is right now,” he told journalists.

Buhlungu was set to continue his duties on Monday, with increased security provided by the university.

Condemnation

The attack has been widely condemned by the higher education community. Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande said he condemned “this barbaric murder of Mr Vesele and the attempt on the life of Professor Buhlungu. This attack is not only an attack on the University of Fort Hare, but also an attack on the entire post-school education and training sector.” 

Nzimande also sent condolences to Vesele’s family and the university.

Universities of South Africa (USAf) also condemned the attack.
CEO, Dr Phethiwe Matutu told Daily Maverick. “Violence of this nature clearly has potential to destabilise the sector and is therefore deeply concerning. USAf, as a representative body of South Africa’s 26 public universities, is addressing this issue at sectoral level. USAf, working with the Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology, will coordinate a sectorwide response that will probably involve more stakeholders, such as national law enforcement and security clusters. A thorough investigation needs to be launched, to get to the bottom of this, and to devise appropriate solutions and actions.”

‘Normalising violence’

The council of Nelson Mandela University extended its condolences to Vesele’s family and Fort Hare. “That murder and assassination are taking place in a higher education environment is a shocking reflection of the difficult times that we live in as a nation,” said council chairperson Nozipho January-Bardill.

“As citizens of South Africa, we should never allow such acts of violence to become normalised, and we call on the authorities to speedily bring the perpetrators to justice. We also call on authorities to support and protect whistle-blowers and those who are trying to root out fraud and corruption in higher education and in our society broadly.”

SIU Probe

In August 2022, Ramaphosa authorised the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) to investigate allegations of corruption and maladministration at Fort Hare, said Kaizer Kganyago, head of communications at the SIU.

“The SIU will investigate allegations of maladministration in the awarding of honours degrees, mismanagement of funds and sourcing of public servants for study into various faculty programmes by an individual for personal gain,” said Kganyago.

The SIU would be launching a probe into four tenders at the university. “These include contacts for cleaning and gardening services, the leasing of student accommodation tender, the appointment of a service provider for the maintenance and repair of air conditioning systems, and collusion between officials of the university and service providers, in which such officials held direct or indirect interests.”


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Kganyago could not provide any updates on the investigation, due to the sensitivity of the information. “We can only allow the law enforcement agencies, that have been appointed, to investigate, because we don’t know what the motive is. Therefore, let us allow for the investigation to happen,” he told Daily Maverick.

The University of Fort Hare. (Photo: Flickr / Valerie Hinojosa)

‘Prepared to kill’

Former Fort Hare deputy vice-chancellor Van Heerden has said the incident affirmed his choice to resign due to personal safety considerations. 

“One of the key reasons that I had for taking the decision to resign from Fort Hare was indeed my concern about life and limb. And the fact that my line manager, Mr Roets, was also assassinated,” he told Daily Maverick. “The truth of the matter is that I simply didn’t want to stick around and find out whether I’m next.”

“When I came to the university, of course, I knew there was corruption happening that needed to be worked out. But one did not necessarily assume that you were going to an environment where people are prepared to kill,” Van Heerden stated.

Fort Hare fleet and transport manager Petrus Roets was fatally shot in May 2022. Other instances of violence against university management include shootings of senior managers houses early in 2022, said Van Heerden. It was rumoured that an assassination hit list had also been circulated with “price tags” on the heads of university management figures, he said. In March 2022, assailants had also shot at Buhlungu’s house, after climbing over a wall.

Before his resignation, Van Heerden said, he experienced “being surrounded by armed bodyguards with semi-automatic rifles, driving at high speeds and then accompanying me into Woolworths as if I was a Cabinet minister. These were very unsettling things, I was uncomfortable with it, my wife was not comfortable with it. To constantly have these guns around you, supposedly for your protection, just invites more violence,” he said.

While he was at the university, Van Heerden said, he could not find consensus on the reasons and motives for the violence against management.

“Staff are very obviously feeling afraid,” he said. While senior management believed they were being targeted, other staff such as Vesele were also in harm’s way. This fear could hamper the functioning of the university. “I think it would be naive to think that we will just continue with our day-to-day routines in the midst of violence and intimidation, killings and assassinations. This all negatively impacts the psychology of students and staff.”

*The university, on the other hand, was quoted in News24 at the time of his resignation last year in September that Van Heerden had resigned before the institution could serve charges on him and proceed with a disciplinary process. It said the reasons for the resignation centre around serious misconduct and dishonesty.

Van Heerden extended his condolences to Vesele’s family. “I want to say my deepest sympathies to Vesele’s family. He was a good man; he did not deserve what has happened to him. I want to say to the university staff and students that they must remain resolute in their fight against malfeasance, mismanagement and corruption.” DM

This piece was amended at 10pm on 9 January 2023, to adjust the main illustration to include Van Heerden with the VC Professor Sakhela Buhlungu, to ensure accurate visual representation with the headline on various media sharing platforms. 

The article was also updated with a reported response last year from the university to Van Heerden’s comments about his resignation at the time. Daily Maverick sent a list of questions to the university before the publication of this article.

On Thursday, 12 January, 2023, Daily Maverick received a statement from the university that disputed Van Heerden’s claims, accusing him of being “deceitful” and “self-serving”. Their full statement is published here:

 

 

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Confucious Says says:

    When I went to university it was to learn, play sports and have fun. Nowadays it seems to be a route into politics and indoctrination with intimidation.

  • Hendrik Jansen van Rensburg says:

    And so erstwhile order continues to slide into chaos in South Africa.

    Order from chaos is hard won and it should be jealously guarded. Any sophisticated, modern society depends on order. Civilisation itself depends on it.

    These fundamental truths are lost on our country’s current leadership who do not value the rule of law which, in turn, is dependent on enforcement and accountability.

    Sadly, this state of affairs was predicted pre-1994, so we should probably not be too surprised.

  • John Counihan says:

    Another dreadful event signalling our drift into mafia, failed state territory. And I’m sure the local SAPS will “leave no stone unturned” in tracking down the perpetrator ……….. and nothing will happen!

    • Gordon Pascoe says:

      Cele will visit the family of the slain man, as if that is sufficient. Problem I guess is people lower down the ranks are taking the lead from corrupt cadres at higher levels? It’s become a feeding frenzy.

  • Alain Leger says:

    Unfortunately stealing followed by murder seems to have become the rule when neither is hardly ever punished, whether it be in politics, industry, commerce, finance, education, etc. The rule of law has to be effectively enforced if a democratic society is to survive.

  • Katharine Ambrose says:

    Reminds me of Italy when the mafia were being pursued and judges were targeted by hitmen. Is this the RET s last stand playing out? It’s no longer just the money.. now it’s life and death.

  • Geoff Krige says:

    Are we facing a “total onslaught” against universities? Fort Hare, UCT, Wits and others have faced major disruptions and violence. Who stands to gain by destruction of the universities that stand for freedom of thought? Generally the extreme right wing and corrupt leadership, who just want a compliant electorate that asks no questions, that keeps voting them into power regardless of outcomes, and who don’t know when they are being misled. So investigations should focus on ANC (and Blade Nzimande in particular), RET, EFF, as well as criminal syndicates.

  • John Strydom says:

    Assassination, poisoning and organised crime – the age-old human “solutions” worldwide.

  • Oblivious Traveler says:

    Managers in HE institutions take leave, arrange for other engagements whenever a critical tender is evaluated and then send a subordinate to attend who usually has no clue as to what is going down. This is all part of the process to avoid acountability and avoid having to declare that they have no direct interest in the outcome of the tender ajudication. It also probably is due to threats such as “We know where you live and we know where your children go to school”. The tender process I suspect had already been manupilated by this time. This is the daily reality in Universities today. Not all the murders reach the headlines. Some are only seen as a death notice in internal mail without stating that the person was gunned down. That part you only hear when you start asking their co-workers what had happened. These murders send a clear message to all. In not one of the murders I know about has the perpetrator been caught according to my knowledge. This indicates the sofistication of this criminal enterprise.

  • Roelf Pretorius says:

    These criminal actions just confirms that the ANC does not really want to deal decisively with crime. I mean, those senior members of the dept of Higher Education are probably all ANC cadres, and they also clearly do not trust the governments response, that is why they are resigning. And they should be closer to the ANC than anybody else.

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