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Criminal enterprise at Fort Hare created an atmosphere of terror for kick-backs

Criminal enterprise at Fort Hare created an atmosphere of terror for kick-backs
Fort Hare's vice-chancellor, Professor Sakhela Buhlungu, speaks during a DA oversight visit to the university on 9 May 2023. The visit followed assassination attempts on senior staff members at the university. (Photo: Gallo Images / Die Burger / Lulama Zenzile) Ansa Smith, assistant to alleged mastermind Isaac Plaatjies. Photo: Supplied According to the State’s indictment, human resources director Paul Tladi was a second mastermind of the alleged scheme to defraud the University of Fort Hare.Photo: Supplied

The work of an alleged syndicate at the University of Fort Hare is unmasked as the State’s case becomes clearer.

When University of Fort Hare vice-chancellor Professor Sakhela Buhlungu went all the way to President Cyril Ramaphosa to fight for justice for two murdered employees, he never imagined that two of the people in his trusted management circle would be ousted as the alleged masterminds. This week, Buhlungu said he felt a deep sense of betrayal.

The State now alleges that what Buhlungu and his supporters first thought was violent retribution against the graft clean-up spearheaded by him and his leadership team was much more sinister.

The indictment names Buhlungu as a victim of the “criminal enterprise” set up at the university. It also alleges that these crimes were fuelled by kickbacks paid by the private sector for lucrative forensic investigations and bodyguards.

Anwar Khan, owner of the private security company Pentagon and a former bodyguard of musician Kiernan Forbes, known as AKA, is mentioned in the charge sheet as an alleged funder of kickbacks.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Fort Hare murders — ex-SAPS member, 14 suspended university workers arrested

Read more in Daily Maverick: Secret briefings, money trails revealed as more Fort Hare officials and auditors appear in court

These are said to have been paid to Fort Hare’s human resources director, Paul Tladi, and its director of investigations and vetting, Isaac Plaatjies. Horizon Forensics, of which the university’s attorney, Bradley Conradie, is a director, is another company that allegedly paid kickbacks.

The State alleges that Pentagon was paid more than R1-million a month for bodyguard services. The indictment also mentions the involvement of Terrence Joubert, a former murder and robbery detective, risk specialist for the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and investigator for the Asset Forfeiture Unit, as having received kickbacks through Pentagon.

Prosecutors have set out an intricate case of racketeering and corruption against 15 accused, including Plaatjies, Tladi and several other managers at the university.

According to the State’s case, they devised and operated a scheme to create an “atmosphere of terror” on campus, making it easy to authorise deviations from normal procurement processes and allowing them to bypass normally stringent tender procedures that have been in place since 2019. Plaatjies and his assistant, Ansa Smith, then “vetted” these companies.

Buhlungu has been on a hit list that was allegedly created as part of this atmosphere of terror, and a price of R5-million was placed on his head.

The State’s case against alleged mastermind Plaatjies and those who had committed the violent crimes is ready for trial in the Bhisho High Court later in 2024.

Profit from fear

But this week, a more sinister layer to instability fuelled by criminality at the institution unfolded.

Former Fort Hare fleet manager Petrus Roets and Buhlungu’s bodyguard, Mboneli Vesele, were allegedly killed as part of the criminal syndicate’s plan to profit from an atmosphere of fear on the campus.

This is one of the allegations made by the prosecution in a provisional indictment setting out several charges of crime and corruption against university employees and prominent private sector business owners who allegedly paid the kickbacks.

Prosecutors claim that the plans to defraud the university specifically targeted Buhlungu and the institution’s chief financial officer, Charles Matumba. These plans were set in motion shortly after Buhlungu had arrived at the institution in 2017.

The indictment points to Tladi as a second mastermind who had also received millions in kickbacks. It further reveals that kickback payments went on even after Plaatjies was arrested in November 2023 and continued until February 2024.

This week, as a team of high-powered lawyers took up representing the accused, the magistrates’ court in Dimbaza (formerly Alice) had to deal with several technical issues raised by the legal team. An application challenging the court’s jurisdiction because an East London magistrate had signed the warrants of arrest was dismissed.

Read more in Daily Maverick: University of Fort Hare VC’s roller-coaster ride for justice in face of murder and criminal syndicates

Some charges falling under organised crime legislation were also not put to the accused as the NPA must, by law, first provide authorisation, and two of the accused, Conradie and business owner Craig Retief, were hospitalised.

It is expected that the accused’s bail application will continue next week.

The State alleges that Pentagon, EL Reign, Retief, the law firm Bradley Conradie Halton Cheadle, of which Conradie is also a director, and Horizon Forensics paid kickbacks for emergency contracts at the university.

It is also alleged that the prices paid for these services were inflated and that the 10 Fort Hare employees, including Plaatjies and Tladi, had a hand in this. DM

Timeline

This is what the State says happened:

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

2019: Isaac Plaatjies is appointed as the university’s manager of transformation. Later he is promoted to head of investigations and vetting. ­After his arrest, it is discovered that his qualifications are fake.

In April 2019, the State alleges, all the accused, except for Plaatjies and the university’s human resources director, Paul Tladi, are in Buhlungu’s inner circle and start implying that the Fort Hare campus is a dangerous place. This necessitates bodyguards and forensic investigations.

2019: The alleged payments from Anwar Khan and his company, Pentagon, start, according to the State. Between 2019 and 2024 (even after Plaatjies is arrested in November 2023) payments allegedly flow from Pentagon and/ or Khan to several employees at Fort Hare. The bulk of the money, millions of rands, is paid to Plaatjies, Tladi and the latter’s wife, Lucrecia Davids. Hundreds of thousands of rands are also paid to other Fort Hare employees.

Buhlungu agrees to a R33-million contract for Horizon Forensics to investigate chaos in the university’s supply chain management department. Other contracts are also given to people currently accused before court.

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. The university makes an outside appointment of a bodyguard for Buhlungu – a move that angers Plaatjies, according to papers before court.

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

January 2023: Buhlungu’s 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: Another of Buhlungu’s bodyguards, Msingathi Langa, is killed in a car crash while driving a Mercedes-Benz that is hit on the side by a bakkie.

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 (who had been brought back on contract); Sicelo Mbulawa, a former student representative council member and businessman who provides vehicle repair services to the university; and Mthobisi Khanyile and Mthobisi Dlamini, alleged hitmen from KwaZulu-Natal. Bail applications are initially refused, but Mbulawa is later granted R75,000 bail by the high court.

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. Chiliza is released on R100,000 bail and Nkonyeni on R50,000.

September 2023: Thamsanqa Mgwetyana, a fugitive, is found and added as accused number nine. He remains incarcerated. In court, it is said that he was the person who linked Plaatjies to the murders.

17 November 2023: Plaatjies is arrested, charged and added as accused number 10. He remains incarcerated. In his latest attempt to get bail, the magistrate says he was the one who drew up the hit list. The court describes him as dangerous and dishonest.

December 2023: The State indicates that the case against the accused charged with the assassinations, kidnapping and other violent crimes is ready and will be tried in the Bisho High Court.

30 March 2024: In a separate case, 14 new accused are arrested on charges of fraud and corruption. Plaatjies is rearrested in this case. Also arrested are his assistant Ansa Smith, Tladi, Davids, Mbulelo Gingcana and Louis Mawila (both managers at Fort Hare), Nozuko Mabombo (Buhlungu’s office manager), Wayne Gosain van der Haar (of the university’s IT department) and Thamsanqa Sonjica (of the university’s protection services). Private business owners arrested are Sarah Burger (a lawyer and director of Horizon Forensics), Terrence Joubert (who allegedly facilitated payments through his company), Craig Retief (given a tender for cyber-forensic investigations), Khan (owner of Pentagon and former bodyguard to rapper Kiernan “AKA” Forbes) and Nthabiseng Makhoba (whose company is accused of paying kickbacks to Fort Hare employees). DM

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

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Grant Abbott says:

    The DM needs to be questioning the VC on how he didn’t know what was happening right under his nose. He’s not the anti-corruption agent he is misleading this reporter to believe.

    • nawbanksia says:

      You cast defamatory accusations without any proof. It was only when this VC was appointed that the corruption at FH was exposed. And he was nearly murdered for doing so. I knew him as Dean at UCt and had the highest respect for him.

      • Devan Pillay says:

        Quite correct. Grant Abbot seems to be commenting out of ignorance. He needs to follow this story from the beginning. This reporter has done a very good job.

        • Solomzi Mpetha says:

          Unfortunately for both of you are completely ignorant of basic facts. I have followed this story as far back as 2020 when this VC appointed Isaac Plaatjies in an approved position and linking his contract to his. The internal notice shocked everyone in UFH. That is when Grant’s union NTEU started questioning this. I read their statements to the university staff and media being critical on the process followed. Plaatjies qualifications were raised, but the VC played deaf. How does an investigator appoint senior procurement and finance managers under his watch and the CFO? The accounting officer is fully accountable for what happens in his organisation, why is this one getting a free pass of playing ignorant? All R1m payments are paid after the VC and CFO signs them, that’s the procedure and policy in that institution.

  • Solomzi Mpetha says:

    I just wish you could get your facts correct. The narrative being guarded here is that Buhlungu is an innocent person in all this, and that is not correct. If Horizon Forensic got R33m and Buhlungu agreed, where is the council approval for over R20 contracts and when was the tender advertised? Plaatjies and Tladi were in Buhlungu’s inner circle don’t push them away from the main mastermind. BCHC attorneys contract was over R20m, where’s the tender and who signed payments. VC signs all over R1m payments. Was he complicit or negligent when signing these? Where was he when Vesele was murdered? On you 23/03 article you mentioned that Vesele was to call when arriving home. Vesele and VC stayed in the same yard so where was he going? 7 Jan article on DD Buhlungu says he heard the gun shots, this is contradictory to your article because Vesele was to call when he gets home. There’s so many questions that man has to answer, this apparent shock of his is not genuine at all. There is more I can share but not enough space to write.

    • Devan Pillay says:

      I am very suspicious of people who cast unfounded aspersions on the VC, who as anyone who has followed this story knows, has spearheaded this anti-corruption campaign since he got to Fort Hare. I worked with him at Wits University, and while we did not always agree on matters, we all knew him as a man of the highest integrity and principle, alomost to the point of stubbornness. You need to reveal who you are and what your own role is in all this, PM Vulane….

      • Solomzi Mpetha says:

        Devan, Wits and UFH are world’s apart and the time lines are far apart. I did not cast any aspersions on the VC, read pragmatically and not emotionally. What I raised there are unanswered questions and this that do not match based on over 20 articles from 6 different publications that I have read. These are questions being asked in different circles as well and we will continue to ask them and assist Saps to leave No STONE UNTURNED. Being it is comfortable or not for you and those that fly with rhetoric and popularism.

    • Titus Khoza says:

      Yes, but why not go and join the defence team of the accused?

  • Klaus Rainer Willner says:

    Please let me first read the article before I comment it.

  • Klaus Rainer Willner says:

    Unfortunately this sad story fits into the wider picture that our beloved South Africa is a flawed society overwhelmed by corruption and criminality. Good that Daily Maverick is keeping an eye on it.

  • Solomzi Mpetha says:

    On the 2nd April 2024 BCHC wrote to Labour court saying the represent UFH. Plaatjies was arrested in Nov 2023, Tladi suspended end February 2024, BCHC owner accused of fraud and corruption at UFH, so who gave the instructions to the same BCHC to continue representing the university and who is getting a kickback for this case this time? Are we still saying the VC knows nothing and the “I didn’t know” card still acceptable. When is the accounting officer of the institution held accountable. Where is the Council?

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