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Fort Hare VC says alleged criminal syndicate masterminds were connected before arriving at university

Fort Hare VC says alleged criminal syndicate masterminds were connected before arriving at university
Illustrative image, from left: | Isaac Plaatjies’ former assistant Ansa Smith. (Photo: Supplied) | Former Fort Hare human resources director Paul Tladi.(Photo: Supplied) | Pentagon boss Anwar Khan. (Sourced from his Instagram @doggftw) | University of Fort Hare Vice-Chancellor Professor Sakhela Buhlungu . (Photo: Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Alaister Russell) | University attorney Bradley Conradie. (Photo: Supplied) | Alleged syndicate mastermind Isaac Plaatjies. (Photo: Gallo Images / Die Burger / Lulama Zenzile)

As 15 accused, arrested for running an alleged criminal enterprise aiming to defraud the University of Fort Hare, appeared in the Dimbaza Magistrates’ Court last week, vice-chancellor Professor Sakhela Buhlungu believes the main instigators were likely connected before coming to work at the university.

University of Fort Hare vice-chancellor Sakhela Buhlungu said he believed the masterminds of a well-organised “mafia” that was allegedly set up to loot the institution had connections before they came to work at Fort Hare.

fort hare criminal syndicate

At one stage, he said, a heavily implicated employee was kept on staff to allow him to continue with his alleged criminal enterprise and connect with the other syndicate members. 

It is alleged that this employee held a crucial bank account that received and disbursed alleged corrupt payments made in exchange for lucrative university contracts.

“The arrests were not a surprise,” Buhlungu said.

“I saw it coming all the way. I get regular briefings from the SIU [ Special Investigating Unit] and the national task team,” he said.

He said he was also able to assist investigators in getting crucial access to documentation and other evidence.

“I will not allow Fort Hare to fall. There are many crucial reasons why this university must be saved,” he added. “The University of Fort Hare remains the only historical black education institution [in Eastern Cape].”

Buhlungu said he had received the full backing and support for his corruption-busting investigations from the university’s council and countless people worldwide.

He was speaking to Daily Maverick on Sunday, 7 April 2024, days before 12 of the 15 accused, who face charges of creating an atmosphere of terror at the university to profit and receive kickbacks from protection and investigation contracts, will appear in court for bail hearings.

Buhlungu said he has been drawing links between the accused and has concluded that the alleged plan to loot Fort Hare was likely hatched in Johannesburg, where some of the accused were based before they came to work at Fort Hare, before the role players arrived at the institution.

Atmosphere of terror

The State alleges that the university’s former human resources director, Paul Tladi, and its director of investigations and vetting, Isaac Plaatjies, along with other accused, created a deliberate atmosphere of terror at the institution to allow for a deviation from the usual stricter tender procedures.

According to the indictment, this allowed them to approve contracts for protection-, forensic-, cyber- and human resources-related services at inflated prices. It is alleged that for these contracts, university employees received payment, with Tladi and Plaatjies each receiving millions of rands in kickbacks while several other employees were rewarded with payments of thousands of rands.

The university’s attorney, Bradley Conradie, and the company Horizon Forensics, of which Conradie was a director, were also allegedly paid kickbacks.

The State alleges that the well-known personal security firm Pentagon was unlawfully paid more than R1-million a month for bodyguard services. Pentagon boss Anwar Khan is the former bodyguard of rapper Kiernan “AKA” Forbes, among other celebrities.

The indictment also mentions the involvement of Terrence Joubert, a former murder and robbery detective, risk specialist for the National Prosecuting Authority and investigator for the Asset Forfeiture Unit, as having received kickbacks through Pentagon while also paying kickbacks through his own company. Joubert was a witness at the Zondo commission of inquiry into State Capture.

It is alleged that others who received contracts at vastly inflated prices and were paid kickbacks included a presiding officer for the university’s disciplinary hearings and a cyber investigation company.

‘Follow the money’

“If you follow the money, you will find that university funds indirectly paid for the hitmen who killed Petrus Roets and Mboneli Vesele,” Buhlungu said.

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

“Vesele was a good man,” Buhlungu said. “He was always very suspicious of Pentagon. He didn’t want to report our movements on the shared WhatsApp group. He told me. I believed he saved my life. Nothing would have stopped them from ambushing us,” he said.

According to documentation found in an abandoned car, there was a price of R5-million on Buhlungu’s head.

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

Prosecutors claim that the plans to defraud the university specifically targeted Buhlungu and the institution’s chief financial officer, Charles Matumba.

While Isaac Plaatjies has been described as the mastermind behind the scheme, the indictment points to Paul Tladi as a second mastermind, who also received millions in kickbacks. It further claims that kickback payments continued even after Plaatjies was arrested in November 2023 and continued until February 2024.

Plaatjies was dismissed from the university in 2024 after his arrest in November 2023.

“We sent Tladi to prison to hand him his letter of dismissal,” Buhlungu said.

He said that they were also trying to recoup money paid to Plaatjies after it had emerged that all his qualifications were fake.

Two cases

There are now two court cases dealing with organised crime at Fort Hare University. Plaatjies is an accused in both. The first case relates to the violent crime at the institution, including the murders of Roets and Vesele. The second deals with the alleged syndicate that fuelled it.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Criminal enterprise at Fort Hare created an atmosphere of terror for kick-backs

In the case against the alleged syndicate, the accused are: Plaatjies and his former assistant Ansa Smith; Tladi and his wife Lucrecia Davids; Mbulelo Gingcana and Louis Mawila (both managers at Fort Hare in supply chain management and finance respectively); Nozuko Mabombo (Buhlungu’s former 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, allegedly a close partner of Khan (who allegedly facilitated payments through his company); Craig Retief (awarded a tender for cyber-forensic investigations); Khan (owner of Pentagon); and Nthabiseng Makhoba (whose company is accused of paying kickbacks to Fort Hare employees in return for lucrative contracts to preside at disciplinary hearings).

Past links

Buhlungu said on Sunday that increasing evidence points to the accused knowing one another before they came to Fort Hare and the plan was likely to have been hatched much earlier than he initially thought.

Plaatjies first arrived from Johannesburg with a fake Master’s degree (cum laude) and a string of other qualifications, but did not even have a matric certificate.

He was arrested in November 2023 on charges relating to the two murders at the university and again in March on organised crime charges.

Read more in Daily Maverick: University of Fort Hare’s head of investigations arrested for murder and attempted murder

“Plaatjies came to us from Johannesburg. I am convinced that he and Paul Tladi knew each other.”

Tladi, the former human resources director, also claimed to have a PhD, which he did not.

“We found this out during a recent qualifications audit,” Buhlungu said.

“Tladi came to us from a diamond mining company in Botswana. He arrived during a difficult time. I was busy moving against the mafia that was in place at the university and I really needed an HR person. Tladi was always a person who was willing to please. He can smell where power is, and he will play to that person in power. If I said jump, he said, ‘Consider it done’.”

Buhlungu said they were involved in a lot of disciplinary hearings and dismissals at the time.

“The story that he sold to me was that he was getting pushback and threats himself. One weekend he came back and said he was driving from Port Elizabeth [now Gqeberha] on the Port Alfred Road. He said a Fort Ranger and another car pushed him off the road and fired shots.

“Of course, I was concerned. I said, ‘Go and open a case’. The car he was driving had a little dent on the front bumper. One of my acting deputy vice-chancellors didn’t believe him at all. We had to fire her later as well because she was implicated in the cleaning contract scandal, but at the time she drove out to where he said this took place and she took pictures.

“There were no skid marks, nothing, no shots and no bullet holes. The dent on his bumper was not caused by rails on the side. I said to her I understood but I still wanted to organise protection for him just in case. 

“I didn’t trust her either. I thought she wanted to get rid of him to weaken my hand.”

Buhlungu said Tladi refused to account for the discrepancies between his account and the findings.

“Then I started thinking, I think there is something here. His work was very sloppy. In 2021, he took leave. He said his wife had stage four brain cancer. He was away from work. Human Resources was not functioning. It was a mess. Then we found obvious signs of trouble. He had employed several people without budget in unfunded positions and so on. I said he must either face a disciplinary hearing or leave.”

Buhlungu said he then sent Tladi to Conradie to draw up an agreed severance package. However, when Conradie sent back the paperwork Buhlungu said the amounts offered to Tladi were shockingly high.

“When I think about this in hindsight, I think of that eight-page agreement that I put in my desk drawer. The amount was staggering. I just decided at the time that I was not considering it.”

Tladi returned to work in 2023.

“We discovered that he had hired an army of additional people in unfunded positions, but they were getting paid. Also, there was evidence that he had been abusing flights and car hire. But we haven’t yet found the connection between Tladi and Plaatjies. There were emails that showed they spoke to each other like very familiar people.”

Buhlungu said Plaatjies’ contract was going to end in August 2023 but, having obtained some evidence, investigators from law enforcement teams suggested that he be kept in place.

“We discovered that he had a conduit account in his name. Everything went through that account. You can see who paid into it and who received payments from it. I am talking about huge amounts of money that went in and out of there,” he said. 

Tladi was dismissed from the university at the end of March.

Calling the accused

“I had to keep all of this to myself until now at the end of March when we got the call saying that the general from the [police] task team wanted to see us,” Buhlungu said.

“When we arrived, the briefing on the progress of their investigation was one slide long but all the names were on there.”

“I knew, but I was still shocked about the amounts. The police said the suspects were not answering their phones so I said I will call them.”

Buhlungu phoned them one by one and summoned them to his office.

Others, including Tladi, Retief and Conradie, who were in Johannesburg, and Joubert and Khan in Durban, were rounded up by police.

Mbulelo Gingcana was a Plaatjies appointee, Buhlungu said. Gingcana, Buhlungu explained, was the former head of procurement at the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa and had told him that the Zondo Commission had cleared him of wrongdoing.

Similarly, Van der Haar and Smith were also brought on board by Plaatjies. “We later discovered that Tladi gave Van der Haar, an IT specialist, an unauthorised R250,000 raise.”

Buhlungu said he did not know if Plaatjies had a hand in the appointment of the financial manager Louis Mawila.

“But they were close.”

“However Plaatjies had a game he often played. He liked to fuel suspicion against someone. He always said he wanted to chop Mawila.

“I am trying to work out if these people knew each other before they ended up at the University of Fort Hare. I am almost certain Tladi knew Plaatjies and that Tladi knew Mabombo and that Mabombo and Plaatjies knew each other. Van der Haar I know knew Plaatjies. I also think Plaatjies had known Gingcana before he came. He knew Smith before she came to the university.”

Buhlungu’s former office manager, Nozuko Mabombo, also came from Johannesburg.

“She was in a very central position as she wrote the minutes for all executive meetings. She knew things about all of us.” 

He said she was initially given protection as she claimed shots had been fired at her house as well, but upon investigation the police became suspicious. An attempted murder charge initially brought against some of the first group of accused, claiming that she was the victim of an attempted hit, has also now been dropped.

“There is footage showing a group of casual young men milling around her gate and firing shots into the air,” Buhlungu said.

He said that in 2023 he had given her a chance to resign or be fired after it was uncovered that she had allegedly abused vehicles and bodyguards provided to her. This included providing bodyguards and a vehicle for her husband’s golf tours and using bodyguards to unload building materials.

“When I gave her the choice she said she was ill and later had herself booked into a psychiatric hospital.”

He said that in her case, they also found that she had falsified a pay slip.

The bail application of 12 of the accused in the alleged syndicate case will continue on Thursday. DM

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  • J vN says:

    Another tremendous transformation success story.

    • A Rosebank Ratepayer says:

      It’s a pity that the chaterati are only able to focus on wrongdoing and not be supportive when steps are taken to deal with corruption.

      It’s like they they drive some sick satisfaction from seeing things fall apart.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    How ashamed Nelson Mandela would be if he was still alive today.
    To fight for justice for so long only to see your efforts trashed by the very people you was trying to help!
    FortHare was once the beacon of hope – only to end up as one of the many troughs used by the politically connected! Shame on you all.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    To Mr Roets and Mr Vesele in memoriam, to you Professor Buhlungu, Mr Matumba and to all your honest colleagues I send my respect and thanks. I have no doubt that you all suffered greatly in the pursuit and protection of honesty, of the law, and of the countless students who will hopefully continue to be able to get their qualifications as a result of your actions.

    My thanks and respect goes out to you all.

  • Just Me says:

    When you see that the institutes of higher learning become criminal enterprises and that all SA’s SOEs have become criminal enterprises, you note that the common denominator is the criminal organisation called the ANC.

  • Cakwem says:

    Thank you

  • Grant Abbott says:

    I thought reporters were supposed to be unbias? Everything there has written about Buhlungu paints hin as the Messiah of Fort Hare… if all these people somehow knew each other before Fort Hare, that is largely irrelevant. The VC is failing to take any responsibility. How can do many people and service provided who are so corrupt be appointed in to an institution on his watch? If this is the narrative he is peddling, then actually he is saying that he is incompetent to do the job.

  • Mary Smith says:

    Prof Buhlungu, bravo to you and your honest staff who are heroes, deserving the highest respect for putting your lives on the line. You are our champions!

  • Manny Teixeira says:

    Of course they connected. What is this mindset that stealing is a legitimate business in africa. Why can’t these people channel their efforts into starting legitimate businesses. Its always being the middle man or becoming a mafia, its all over eskom, Richards Bay and the rest of kzn, the construction, prasa, transnet, taxis, universities. It destroys the country, this is the main reason why africa is failing and gets poorer every year. These despots loot with authority from goverment itself. The zama zama proceed with impunity, illegal immigrants that walk onto a highway in peak hour and rob starnded commuters at gunpoint, who in goverment is protecting and benefitting from these criminals. Pray for Africa.

  • ilike homophones says:

    corruption and theft existed already in the 1980’s,

    when chris erasmus was murdered,

    after he discovered major corruption

    while he was in computer programmer of their financial system

  • Elise Levendal says:

    What had happened at Fort Hare had very little to do with transformation. What horrifies me is the cruelty, dishonesty and criminality that forms part of the minds of some individuals. This corruption was planned years ago and masterminded by people outside and inside the University. Disgusting. Thanks to those who came forward and blew this open.

  • Tshepang Moloi says:

    I commend this courageous man, Buhlungu who took it upon himself to protect the impugned reputation of UFH. Big up Prof!

  • Jane Lombard says:

    I posted the comment below in response to the VUT exposé:

    Thank you, DM, for your reportage on universities. I hope readers can see that much of this is a result of the muscular corporate nature of the modern university (common also in the so-called West). Apart from UFH and UZ degree syndicates, which have led to assassinations, the vast majority of teaching faculty have nothing to do with this rot. Tenders involving transport, catering, accommodation, etc., seem to be the cause. Universities are becoming government outposts (check the apartheid precedent regarding historically black universities). The administrative bloat, where the MBAs in charge prefer to hire more management than lecturers, is hastening this decline. Teaching and research faculty have almost no say in what is going on. May they continue to stick to their knitting until the department wakes up, even while it is tremendously demoralizing

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