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AGE OF ACCOUNTABILITY

University of Fort Hare VC’s roller-coaster ride for justice in face of murder and criminal syndicates

University of Fort Hare VC’s roller-coaster ride for justice in face of murder and criminal syndicates
University of Fort Hare Vice-Chancellor Sakhela Buhlungu. (Photo: Deon Ferreira) | Graphic: (Bogosi Motau)

Vice-Chancellor of the University of Fort Hare Professor Sakhela Buhlungu shares an extraordinary tale of enduring death threats, the killing of colleagues and shocking betrayal during his five years of tenure.

It has been 18 months since the first murder of an employee rocked University of Fort Hare Vice-Chancellor (VC) Professor Sakhela Buhlungu’s tenure, and 14 months since his bodyguard was gunned down in front of his official residence. During this time, Buhlungu went from having a high profile in public to scaling down his public exposure.

In an exclusive interview, Buhlungu revealed how he went on a crusade for justice, going all the way to the Presidency to try to bring closure to the slain men’s families and reassure his colleagues, university staff and students. And to see the guilty persons charged and convicted.

The murders are believed to be linked to a tender corruption syndicate that has cost the institution millions of rands.

“People think, shame, he is hiding under his bed, but I am not. No, I am on campus every day, cheering our students on. Celebrating all the time,” Buhlungu said.

Petrus Roets, the university’s fleet and transport manager, was shot and killed in Gonubie in East London on 19 May 2022. Mboneli Vesele, Buhlungu’s driver and bodyguard, was shot dead in Dikeni (formerly Alice) on 6 January 2023.

The police have arrested a fellow cop, a local businessman and lawyer, students, university employees – including the head of vetting and investigations, Isaac Plaatjies – and hitmen from KwaZulu-Natal for the murders. But to understand what happened, Buhlungu says it is essential to go back to 2017, when he joined the university.

“When I got here to Fort Hare, I was a total stranger. I came in cold. I had no friends, no faction that carried me in or who rooted for me. Only when I landed here did I realise we have factions, thieves and mafia leaders. Then they realised I was not quite the person they thought I was.”

Professor Sakhela Buhlungu, the vice-chancellor of the University of Fort Hare. (Photo: Supplied)

Though student and staff strikes marred the first two years of his tenure, things took a turn for the worse when the murders started. Roets was the second fleet manager at the university who was killed.

In court documents, the State links Roets’ murder to an extensive anti-corruption campaign Buhlungu had initiated, which earned him death threats. Roets was one of the people he had appointed to correct the situation. Like all the new managers, he stopped all pending payments to service providers.

Vesele was appointed as Buhlungu’s bodyguard, which aggrieved Plaatjies, according to the indictment before court. It is alleged that some of the accused asked him to persuade Vesele to join their mission to oust Buhlungu, but he refused to betray his boss, giving the accused a reason to kill him.

“When Roets was killed in 2022, I realised that this was very serious. He was killed on the fourth day of graduation in the afternoon. It was a Thursday. Fortunately, I was not officiating; the chancellor was. Plaatjies called me. I didn’t take it [the call]. Then he sent a message saying ‘Please call me: Petrus Roets has been killed’. I jumped up and went to phone him.

“The graduation was a moment of joyous celebration, colour, smiles and family, and I thought, I won’t say anything here … I will wait until after the closing ceremony. That is when I announced it. The mood just changed immediately.

“We had just had a council meeting. Council said to do everything to protect people. Isaac Plaatjies was organising the protection. He got people in and did the logistics. I trusted him to do all of that.”

Isaac Plaatjies outside the Alice Magistrates’ Court on 21 November 2023 in Alice, Eastern Cape, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Die Burger / Lulama Zenzile)

Buhlungu said that for the next eight months there was “a sense that the authorities couldn’t be bothered”.

“You know those remote towns where a taxi boss gets killed and then it is on the television for a day or in the newspapers for a day, and nothing ever happens? It was like that with Roets.”

As the police failed to identify suspects, Buhlungu took the fight for justice public.

“I remember stepping on to a podium and saying we will never let this case go. It will never get cold. Of course, the media was there and they ran with it. We put our resources into this. First, we cracked the Roets case. But then Vesele was killed.

“I was back on the podium and, this time, I said forget the police and the police commissioner, and the national minister of this or the other. President Cyril Ramaphosa must act now. Then the President phoned. He heard the message. It was very clear.”

Buhlungu said by the time Ramaphosa called, he was fearing for his own life but had to hide it. “There were messages of sympathy coming in from all over the world. I was concerned for my life as well, but there was a bigger picture.

“I couldn’t afford to be weak or scared at that time. I had to be scared inside. That was the face the public saw.”

The call on Ramaphosa to do something was Buhlungu’s last big public speech before he withdrew from the public eye to get “the backroom work” done.

“Following the discussion with the President, we agreed that he should send his ministers down. He said something will be done.”

Justice Dumisa Ntsebeza, Professor Sakhela Buhlungu and President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: Gallo Images)

But Buhlungu could tell quickly that the ministers didn’t have a plan.

“The first word I heard from them was that there had to be a press briefing. I said fine, do your press briefing, but I am not going. This is not a show. I won’t be part of a charade like that here. I only want to talk to the minister who holds the jail keys.

“I said I will stay away from campus until you are done with your press briefing, but that is it. I want a meeting with [Police Minister Bheki] Cele. It caused a storm, because then they had to come to campus. But in the end, there was a compromise that [Higher Education Minister Blade] Nzimande would come here and meet with members of the university’s council.

“I said I will go to Zwelitsha [East London] to the police headquarters, and meet with Cele and the national commissioners… The media was talking about the tension between me and Nzimande. I said we are not here to play. I said you have got to arrest people,” Buhlungu said.

“The visit came hardly five days after Vesele died. All these clowns came into town and I thought, I don’t have time for this nonsense. Someone has died.”

A national task team was subsequently formed and it became the game-changer.

But Buhlungu was shocked when he was asked for the case number of Vesele’s murder at the team’s first meeting.

“I said I am going to kick you out of this room. I am going to get security to escort you out of that gate. You are coming to waste my time. The SAPS here have the case. It was registered here with them … If you ask me for a case number, it shows that you are a bunch of incompetents yourself. I said I would phone Cele about this and tell him you are wasting my time.”

Buhlungu said during this period there was an atmosphere of fear across campus among students, ordinary staff and more senior people. So, for the institution’s sake, he held fears about his own safety at bay.

“I also wanted to show that we were not leaving. I said we would not go into a safe house. I am not going anywhere. I was staying in the background to watch.

“Then we had the first breakthrough. With the police investigation, I needed to be there. You must keep watch all of the time – be vigilant, alert and assertive. I had to do that. I phoned Cele if I didn’t see things moving. I was calling the generals.

“It helped that we had a task team that was thirsty for something. We had a minister who was thirsty for something.”

Easter 2023 was when the first breakthrough arrests took place. “That fateful Easter weekend, the investigators sent a message on Friday: we got them, but don’t say anything until they appear on Monday.

“I knew who they arrested. The one was a recently retired official we took back to work on contract. He was the chancellor’s driver during ceremonies. Another worked with Roets. One was a former student-turned-businessman who repaired the university’s vehicles. The other two – I didn’t know them – were the boys from KwaZulu-Natal, the hitmen.

“But the big picture wasn’t apparent. I didn’t know where this was going,” Buhlungu said. “I scaled down my public exposure even further. I made a few strategic appearances when the accused was in court. I didn’t want it to be triumphalist at a time when things were still unfolding.

“The university never stopped working. We taught. I went with the flow. I was able to forget until I went home in the evening. Then I would just let the waves wash over me. Even as these things were happening, we were on an upward trajectory – refurbishing classrooms, building in East London and doing our water project. We were working. Our students were succeeding.”

Buhlungu said that along with the arrests came a sense of hope. “We also invited the Special Investigating Unit. We were shadow-boxing with the Eastern Cape premier, Oscar Mabuyane, over his academic qualifications. I was in a very good space. Plaatjies was active, and I let him do his thing.”

And then came the shock of Plaatjies’ arrest. “To say that Plaatjies was close to me is an understatement … He knew what I was thinking and what I was planning. I listened to him, and his advice carried the most significant weight regarding police matters. He was my interface person with the SAPS, the Hawks and everyone else.”

During a meeting with police investigators on 16 November 2023, which Plaatjies also attended, a general who was present asked to speak to Buhlungu alone.

“The general broke the news to me that they are arresting Plaatjies as we speak. I almost fell off the chair … I could have blacked out for a minute, but I didn’t. During these difficult times of murders and so on, I learned to manage my emotions quickly. If it was a shock I have learned to shorten the time of the shock and then listen, be alert and think of the next move.”

Plaatjies was promptly arrested at the meeting. “There was a small army of police officers outside … They took Plaatjies … and had a car waiting to take him away … It must have been a very lonely time for him. He had styled himself as the general, the showman. That is what people called him, you know, the general.”

Plaatjies was summarily dismissed from the university when it emerged that he had faked his qualifications. “I don’t think he saw the arrest coming. He had an exaggerated sense of his own untouchability and invincibility, and he was a cocky man. The things he was doing were brazen.”

Driving back from East London, Buhlungu realised that his driver did not know what was happening. “I suddenly thought, I can’t tell him about Plaatjies; he will roll this car. He was working with Plaatjies and he trusted him. So, I sat [quiet] for three hours. My head was spinning. My driver was completely oblivious.”

Buhlungu eventually told his driver what had happened when they were near his residence. The man’s shock mirrored what would be felt on campus when news of Plaatjies’ arrest became known. People were surprised and scared – they had opened up to him and, suddenly, it turned out that he was involved.

But, said Buhlungu, there was also a strong view that Plaatjies was being framed, that it was a plot to “get” to the vice-chancellor.

“I went into overdrive the day after his arrest. My message was there are two sides to the story: he has either been framed or been involved. I said we have time, don’t rush to take a position. Suspend your judgement. Let’s hear what he says when he applies for bail. People wanted to raise money for his defence … some people were intensely loyal.

“He was a very charming person. He has something about him.

“He went for bail, and it was denied three times. Now he is trying for a fourth time and we haven’t seen the outcome yet. After his first or second bail application, people lost faith that he had been framed.

“I never spoke to him again. I will probably never see him again.”

During Plaatjies’ bail application, the magistrate described him as “dishonest and dangerous”.

“I have come to think exactly that now,” Buhlungu said.

Speaking about Vesele’s murder, Buhlungu said Plaatjies’ callous behaviour on that day shocked him when the truth came out in court. The agreement was always that the bodyguard would phone Buhlungu to let him know he had arrived home safely.

“On that day, Plaatjies called me as the killing was happening. The next thing he says to me: ‘Has Vesele phoned?’ I said no, I am surprised he has not.

“Plaatjies phoned me later. He then stopped our conversation and said there was another call coming in. When he came back on the line, he was all hysterical and crying. He said Vesele had been killed. And he said: ‘I am in Colesberg on my way to the ANC’s January 8 Statement in Bloemfontein. I am doing a U-turn.’ Then he Whats-Apped me. He said he was going to Graaff-Reinet because he was in shock and needed an injection. In court, we heard he had been in East London the whole time. He had lied to me,” Buhlungu said.

“I am confident that the case will be prosecuted. I am satisfied with the investigation’s depth, and I will be watching it closely.”

Buhlungu said the past two years had taken their toll on him both professionally and personally, but he was not complaining.

“It comes with the territory, I suppose. I managed to trim my life right down. The last time I walked in Alice must have been six years ago. I used to love walking, but now I can’t do it. I can’t go shopping in Fort Beaufort. I go on a very protected trip to East London. I can’t go window-shopping and greet friends. I can’t go to restaurants for a meal in these parts. We only go when there is a convoy – maybe spend a little time at Hogsback, but it is just in and out while being protected,” he said.

“I am not that sociable, so I am not complaining. But this alone time allowed me to recharge very quickly after each shock to get a new perspective – a better perspective on life, the world and the university.”

He has been overwhelmed by the community’s support and by people pressing upon him not to quit his fight for justice, and not to let the “thieves prevail”.

“Soon after Vesele’s death, the South African Council of Churches convened a prayer meeting here on campus. We seated 15,000 people on that day – students, staff and community members. It was a highlight for me, but it didn’t stop there. People are writing me letters of support. That is what matters the most.

“I immerse myself as much as possible in these spaces. The people of Alice know we are here for them. The students saw this happen and they were shocked like everyone else, but they went on with life.”

Buhlungu said he created the Vice-Chancellor’s Cup soccer competition for students, the Students’ Representative Council (SRC) and the staff to take on one another, and his excitement is obvious when he talks about how he and the campus have been able to pick up the pieces after the murders and all the shocking revelations.

“This past Saturday and Sunday, the place was just a blast of colour, smiles, energy and people. I played myself,” Buhlungu said, whipping out his cellphone to show the pictures of him in action.

“I am making the best of my life under challenging circumstances. I can walk here on campus and I play here. I played the whole first half of the game. In a very minute way, that illustrates my life here.

“I give a tour of the Alice campus. We are a National Heritage Site. I take 20 people at a time. We ride the bus, we walk. I take the first-year students and I show them everything. I haven’t gone home the last three weekends. I pack my weekends with the campus tours. I have bridged the gap between myself and others, students and staff,” he said.

“I am an intellectual independent. I don’t toe the line. I have never done it and am not going to start doing it now. I didn’t come here as a political choice.

“There is hope now – something bigger than hope.”

Professor Sakhela Buhlungu (centre) with students during the Vice-Chancellor’s  Cup Day. (Photo: Supplied)

Timeline

2017: Professor Sakhela Buhlungu starts his tenure as the vice-chancellor of the University of Fort Hare.

2017-2019: The university is rocked by student and staff protests.

2020: After noticing troubling practices and maladministration, Buhlungu starts investigations and implements sweeping reforms. What he does not know is that this has put him in the firing line of alleged syndicates at work at the university.

May 2022: The university’s fleet manager, Petrus Roets, one of Buhlungu’s appointees, is shot dead at his house in Gonubie. Buhlungu and other key personnel are given protection.

5 August 2022: The Special Investigating Unit starts an investigation into tenders and degree programmes at the university.

January 2023: Bodyguard Mboneli Vesele is shot and killed outside Buhlungu’s house in what is believed to be a missed hit on the vice-chancellor.

April 2023: Five suspects are arrested and charged. They are: Bongani Peter, the university’s chief operating transport officer; Wanini Khuza, a retired supervisor of drivers at the East London campus (he had been brought back on contract and was the chancellor’s driver); Sicelo Mbulawa, a former student representative council member and businessman who provides vehicle repair services to the university; Mthobisi Khanyile and Mthobisi Dlamini, alleged hitmen from KwaZulu-Natal, both with long criminal records. Their bail applications are initially refused, but Mbulawa is later granted R75,000 bail by the Eastern Cape Division of the High Court in Makhanda.

July 2023: A policeman attached to the detective services in Mthatha, Constable Lindokuhle Manjati, is arrested, charged and added as accused number six.

August 2023: Zimele Chiliza, a taxi boss from KwaZulu-Natal, and attorney Pelisa Nkonyeni are added as accused numbers seven and eight, respectively. Chiliza is released on R100,000 bail and Nkonyeni on R50,000 bail.

September 2023: Thamsanqa Mgwetyana, who has been hiding from the police in KwaZulu-Natal, is found and added as accused number nine. He remains incarcerated. In court, it is said that he was the person who linked Isaac Plaatjies, the university’s director of vetting and investigations, to the murders.

17 November 2023: Plaatjies is arrested, charged and added as accused number 10. He remains incarcerated. In the latest court ruling in his attempts to get bail, the magistrate says he was the one who drew up the hit list. He is described as dangerous and dishonest by the court. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • A Rosebank Ratepayer says:

    VC Buhlungu for president! Incredible story – testimony to Christo Wiese’s optimism that we have great people in this country!

  • ST ST says:

    Thank you. Once in a while, we get reminded of the beautiful colours of our rainbow. So much darkness around

  • Geoff Coles says:

    Goodness …… and the hit men come from KZN, surprise, surprise….and SAPS make a dogs breakfast of it all.

  • Jeff Bolus says:

    Respect to the Vice-Chancellor – I salute you. SA needs leaders with moral authority.

  • John Patson says:

    You only have to look at some other African universities, Makerere University in Uganda is one, to see how quickly the wheels can come off.
    Makerere is doing better now, but for a while it was a virtual ruin, with broken windows, broken lecture theatre furniture, chaotic library, peeling paint and dirty — while filled with students desperate to learn.
    When corruption takes hold, the fall can be fast. Hopefully Fort Hare nipped it relatively early.
    But it took murder for the full extent to come to light.

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    Give that man a Bells!

  • Grant Abbott says:

    Very inspiring story… pitty it is out of context and mostly untrue.

    • Anne De Wet says:

      ????

      • Tshepang Moloi says:

        I get the goose bumps when reading this article, I applaud you Prof Buhlungu, may God sustain, retain and preserve you with mighty protection.

    • Iota Jot says:

      Well, please enlighten us.

      • Grant Abbott says:

        The National Tertiary Education Union welcomes the progress made by law enforcement with the investigation into the criminal network at UFH. However, the union remains concerned about this culture of corruption that has continued to thrive under the “watchful eye” of the Vice Chancellor.

        With the latest round of impending charges involving up to 25 suspects, the list of allegations include fraud, corruption, kidnapping and attempted murder and murder. Set off by an investigation by the Special Investigation Unit (SIU) into the abuse of state funds, fake degrees, and corruption the individuals; range from retirees, businessmen, common criminals, taxi bosses, policemen, attorneys, the wife of a policeman, university staff and management – people from all walks of life, painting a grim picture of reality in this community.

        Some of the implicated positions are already in the public domain. We have long held that the mafia state that has been allowed to flourish at Fort Hare cannot be divorced from the VC. As NTEU we are in possession of information and corroborating evidence, documented or testimonial statements in terms of some of the following:

        • The Supply Chain Manager left the university under suspicious circumstances in December 2023 and was awarded with a golden handshake of an undisclosed amount.
        • The HR Director suspended for alleged fraudulent qualifications, in Jan 2024, summarily dismissed the now infamous Plaatjies for alleged fraudulent qualifications.

      • Grant Abbott says:

        Furthermore, this is the very same “award-winning” HR Director that approved the irregular appointment of Plaatjies in the first place back in 2020 and who dismissed NTEU’s concerns as “baseless in law” when we raised concerns about Plaatjies’ selection and appointment process to the VC.
        • The suspended Executive Manager works in the office of the VC and reports directly to him.
        • The member of the Security and Protection Services Team was working very closely with Plaatjies. (Plaatjies as Director of Investigation and Vetting, reported directly to the VC.) This person enjoyed special benefits, such as having his wife employed as a Manager in HR by the same aforementioned HR Director – again, in contravention of the recruitment and selection policy. Worse still, while universities across the country are gun-free zones, this security and protection member carried his personal firearm on campuses with the full knowledge of the VC and other senior managers in the university. He too is reported to have furnished a fraudulent matric certificate when he joined the university.

        All of this points to a wide-spread network of fraud and corruption of the worst kind. In numerous instances, when one connects the dots, they keep linking back directly to the Vice-Chancellor. Many of the key people arrested thus far worked directly in the VC’s office and under his direction; some of these were even appointed directly by him.

    • Thelma Mort says:

      Completely agree. This is outrageous.

  • V Vetman says:

    Deep respect Mr Buhlungu!
    More men like you and South Africa will change to the better!

  • Bob Fraser says:

    Bob F March 24th 2024 at 20:17
    Well done Professor for persevering in the face of such frightening threats and the useless cooperation from government and the wonderful minister of police. You deserve a 12 year old Dimple Haig least.
    One an only admire you

  • Bob Fraser says:

    Bob F March 24th 2024 at 20:35
    Well done Professor for persevering for so long. You have done what the great majority of people cannot be bothered doing. You have at least got an investigation going and it remains to be seen whether it will end with prosecutions and ultimately convictions.

  • Daniel Mouton says:

    Professor Sakhela Buhlungu, you deserve respect and appreciation. It is shocking to learn how the initial (lack of) investigation went. DM, thank you for excellent reporting from the Eastern Cape.

  • Thelma Mort says:

    I cannot believe that the veracity of this account is not interrogated. This is poor journalism indeed.

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