Murder, fraud, corruption — unpacking the University of Fort Hare scandal

Two lives lost, an attempted missed hit on the University of Fort Hare vice-chancellor Professor Sakhele Buhlungu and 25 arrests hang over the university. Picture: PIXLR

Two lives lost, an attempted missed hit on the University of Fort Hare vice-chancellor Professor Sakhele Buhlungu and 25 arrests hang over the university. Picture: PIXLR

Published Apr 7, 2024


A total of 25 people have been arrested in connection with the University of Fort Hare (UFH) scandal that left two people dead and included an attempted hit on the lives of at least two senior officials.

The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) said after Professor Sakhele Buhlungu was appointed UFH Vice-Chancellor in 2017, he discovered serious deals of maladministration, corruption, and fraud.

What came next was a string of hits and Buhlungu appealing to President Cyril Ramaphosa to ensure his safety.

Buhlungu alleged there was syndicate within the Eastern Cape university working with business people who were service providers and politicians, IOL reported.

University of Fort Hare vice chancellor Professor Sakhele Buhlungu. Picture: File image

The most recent arrest of 15 people over the Easter weekend indicate that police investigations were ongoing.

The 15 accused face a string of charges ranging from fraud, corruption, racketeering.

This week their application to have the charges withdrawn were dismissed and they will apply for bail next week.

The UFH is famous for educating the likes of late former president Nelson Mandela, and African National Congress (ANC) stalwarts, the late Oliver Tambo and the late Walter Sisulu.

How many people have been killed?

In May 2022, UFH fleet manager, Petrus Roets was gunned down outside his home.

It is believed that Roets testified in a disciplinary hearing and his murder was a hit.

Richard Vesele, Buhlungu’s bodyguard was gunned down on January 6, 2023.

Richard Vesele. Picture: LinkedIn

It is believed that the hit was meant for Buhlungu but he was not in the car at the time.

It was further alleged that a R5 million bounty was put up for Buhlungu’s life.

At the time of the murder, Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande paid tribute to slain Vesele.

“Today we laid to rest Mr Mboneli Vesele, the Executive Protection Officer to the University of Fort Hare Vice-Chancellor, Prof Sakhele Buhlungu,” Nzimande said at the time.

“I once more pass my heartfelt condolences to the Vesele family, friends and the University of Fort Hare on the murder of Mr Vesele. I remain outraged by this inhumane act which has robbed all of us of this unsung hero,” he said.

“As I said before, I strongly condemn Mr Vesele’s assassination and the threats to the life of the Vice Chancellor, Professor Buhlungu.

“We must continue to unite against corruption, maladministration, poverty, unemployment, unequal opportunity, racism, and gender-based violence and femicide as amongst some of the social problems in our country.

“Equally, the University of Fort Hare and all its stakeholders must ensure that they de-associate from all the unethical acts or conduct which led to various investigations which are currently under way in the university.”

Why is Buhlungu under fire?

According to the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) it is alleged that after his appointment, Buhlungu discovered serious deals of maladministration, corruption, and fraud in 2020.

“He acted upon these discoveries and opened criminal cases as well as disciplinary proceedings against alleged culprits who occupied senior positions at the university,” said Eastern Cape NPA spokesperson Luxolo Tyali.

NPA Eastern Cape spokesperson Luxolo Tyali. Picture: Supplied

“Consequently, he received threats on his life, leading to Vesele being appointed as his bodyguard. Before his killing, two shooting incidents happened, the third being the murder of Roets on May 19, 2022, at the Gonubie entrance near East London.”

Who are the 10 people that were initially arrested?

Police investigations led to the arrest of the 10 people.

It is alleged that the 10 played different roles ranging from soliciting hitmen from KwaZulu-Natal, housing them, and transporting them to the scenes of the crimes.

UFH Director of Investigations and Vetting, Isaac Plaatjies, was arrested in November 2023.

In December he was denied bail, a decision the NPA welcomed.

Plaatjies faces two counts of murder and one count of attempted murder.

At the time of the bail judgment, Magistrate Zwelethu Ngetu agreed with the prosecution that the State had a strong case against Plaatjies and he may interfere with witnesses, more especially given that he had been working closely with the investigating team, thus privy to sensitive information about the case.

The nine other accused are Bongani Peter, 51; Sicelo Mbulawa, 28; Wanini Khuza, 69; Mthobisi Khanyile, 28; Mthobisi Dlamini, 30; Lindokuhle Manjati, 31; Zimele Chiliza, 36; Phelisa Nkonyeni, 31; and Thamsanqa Mgotyana, 47.

They face two counts of murder, three counts of attempted murder, reckless discharge of firearm, theft of a motor vehicle, unlawful possession of firearms and ammunition.

Peter, Mbulawa and Khuza are additionally charged with fraud. Mthatha-based attorney, Nkonyeni is out on R50,000 bail.

While the alleged hitmen organiser Chiliza is out on R100,000 bail.

The court found the duo is not a flight risk and that it was not in the interest of justice for them to be kept in custody.

Manjati, who is a policeman has been denied bail, as well as alleged hitmen Khanyile, Dlamini and Mgotyana.

Peter is a former UFH fleet manager, while Mbulawa is a businessman who allegedly illegally benefited from UFH tenders, according to the NPA.

Khuza is also a former employee of the university. Their matter returns to the Bhisho High Court on October 8 for pre-trial.

What happened to the investigation by the Special Investigations Unit ?

In August 2022, President Cyril Ramaphosa signed a proclamation for the Special Investigation Unit (SIU) to launch an investigation into four contracts and the awarding of Honours degrees at the University of Fort Hare.

“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,” SIU spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago said.

“Furthermore, the SIU will launch a probe into four tenders at the University,” he said.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has ordered the SIU to look into affairs at the University of Fort Hare. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane / Independent Newspapers

“These include contacts for cleaning and gardening services, the leasing of student accommodation tender, the appointment of 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.“

Any unlawful or improper conduct by the officials, employees, service providers, suppliers to the university or any entity will be investigated by the SIU.”

The proclamation covers allegations of unlawful and improper conduct that took place between November 1, 2012 and August 5, 2022.

This week Kganyago told IOL that the investigation had not been finalised.

What are some of the scandals facing former employees?

In an unrelated matter the former University of Fort Hare (UFH) Residence Manager, Thobeka Portia Heshula, 68, her son, Ngcwengo Collin Uhuru Heshula, 41, and his company, Heshula Solutions CC, have been charged with 53 counts of fraud amounting to more than R1.5 million.

The charges, according to the NPA, relate to the alleged awarding of tenders by Thobeka to her son, in her capacity as the official responsible for appointment of service providers and authorisation of payments to those service providers.

Both mother and son are out on R1,000 bail and last appeared in the East London Specialised Commercial Crimes Court on March 12, 2024.

Tyali said Heshula, who has since retired from UFH, allegedly had the first hand knowledge of tenders and contracts which the university needed to procure.

“Ngcwengo Heshula, with the advice of his mother, allegedly generated three quotations, aimed at creating misrepresentation that they were from three separate entities.

“The quotations were allegedly issued under the names of either fictitious entities or entities fronting under separate names.

“The generation of these quotations were calculated to ensure that Heshula Solutions CC or entities with ties to it, would be appointed as the favourable service provider to UFH, as they would appear to have provide the cheapest quotation.

“The accused also allegedly authorised payments of invoices submitted by alleged entities for services that were not rendered.”

The NPA said this allegedly took place between July 2013 and March 2019.

“An internal investigation by the university uncovered the alleged scheme, and Heshula has, subsequent to civil proceedings in Makhanda High Court, since paid back the funds with interest, totalling R2 million.”

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