broken moral compass

South Africa’s universities swamped by corruption, organised crime

By Ray Mwareya

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Posted on August 25, 2023 13:21

Fort Hare University was known for educating the great minds of South Africa’s struggle. (All rights reserved)
Fort Hare University was known for educating the great minds of South Africa’s struggle. (All rights reserved)

Universities in South Africa are plagued with illegal, even murderous, practices. The decay at Fort Hare mirrors a deepening ‘university capture’.

After a hitman tried to assassinate the vice-chancellor of Fort Hare University but ended up gunning down the academic’s bodyguard, in January 2023, South Africa’s police abducted and tortured a union leader, according to the union concerned.

“Our president was tortured for seven hours and then dropped off back at home,” says Grant Abbott, secretary general of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), a whistleblower union focused on exposing corruption at Fort Hare University. “To date, he has not been arrested or charged since this gross human-rights violation.

“The information they sought was about the so-called attempted assassination of the university vice-chancellor. There is no evidence linking our president to any of the shenanigans going on at Fort Hare. It is clear to us that the only objective was intimidation and harassment.”

The South African police did not respond to The Africa Report’s request for comment.

Target for financial abuse

Fort Hare University, in Alice, Eastern Cape province, is not the only university suffering from corruption and violence in South Africa.

The University of South Africa (UNISA), one of Africa’s biggest distance-education universities, was placed in administration earlier this month.

With R38bn ($2bn) in state subsidies in 2023, South Africa’s universities are among Africa’s wealthiest, which makes them a target for mafia groups.

“It is tragic that many of our universities are experiencing the range and severity of governance challenges [that] we have seen of late,” says Jacques Rousseau, a council member of the University of Cape Town (UCT), which suffered leadership meltdowns despite being Africa’s top-ranked university.

“The vast majority of South African universities are state institutions, so it would be surprising if similar abuses of power [to those seen in ‘state capture’] were absent in university governance.”

Fort Hare’s rise and fall

Fort Hare is famous for educating African leaders such as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and South Africa’s struggle heroes, Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo.

During apartheid, it was known as the ‘university for black elites’. Today, the university has descended into a politically motivated playing field of murderous assassinations, scams and organised corruption.

In January, according to local media reports, after the assassination attempt on Professor Sakhela Buhlungu, the academic went into hiding. He has vowed to uproot crime cartels that have captured the university.

In May, a court in Durban heard that a R5m bounty had been placed on the vice-chancellor’s head and that a hit list with 13 targets on it had been found in an abandoned vehicle. The hearing was connected to bail applications of suspects in another murder case at the university.

The magnitude of organised crime sweeping Fort Hare University became clear when two cabinet ministers – Oscar Mabuyane (Eastern Cape premier and a key ally of President Cyril Ramaphosa) and Noxolo Kiviet, South Africa’s public service minister – were implicated in a scandal. Influential people allegedly bought fake degrees from Fort Hare without meeting educational requirements.

An inquiry is under way, and a Fort Hare senior academic and administrator accused of facilitating the fake degrees has been fired. Mabuyane and Kiviet did not respond to The Africa Report’s emails asking them for comment.

‘University capture’

According to domestic reports, the South African national prosecuting service has charged a former student leader at Fort Hare University with financing murders, and being the ringleader of a cartel that eats off the university’s multi-million-rand contracts.

The decay of Fort Hare mirrors the widespread ‘university capture’ deepening across South Africa, where even luminaries like UNISA and UCT are mired in crises.

Universities that serve rural communities are critical to reducing wealth inequality

UNISA faces institutional collapse after a report commissioned by South Africa’s education minister revealed instances of the selling of qualifications, organised looting of finances and infrastructure, and abuse of leadership powers.

The UCT is also suffering a governance crisis where the university senate has devolved into factions and leadership coups to the extent of imperilling the day-to-day operations of the university.

The Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) has been mired in a R200m grant-looting scheme that has implicated outside contractors and senior leadership.

Rogue ruling-party elements

“On numerous occasions, NTEU has said that university capture [in South Africa] is a real thing,” Abbott says. “Fort Hare is but one institution embroiled in such criminality.

“Assessment reports on the state of UNISA and CPUT expose a staggering amount of mismanaged funds and blatant disregard for proper governance practices.”

Educationist Jonathan Jansen, the former vice-chancellor of South Africa’s Northwest University, and author of The Fall of the University of Cape Town, says that “the idea of a university is under threat in South Africa today”.

“Unfortunately, in the post-apartheid era, Fort Hare University has been held by rogue elements within the ruling ANC party,” he tells The Africa Report.

“The real challenge is whether the ANC will act against its own senior members who have benefited from corrupt relations with Fort Hare University.”

Blow for black students

If the quality of universities is compromised by organised criminality, it will be a huge blow for the black working class in South Africa, “given the value tertiary education can, and should, offer to South Africa’s development and standing, its prospective students, as well as the international community”, says Rousseau.

South African universities are resilient

Only 6% of South Africans have a diploma, a 2021 education ministry report revealed. Of the 1.7 million degree holders in South Africa, just 4.1% are black.

“Black South Africans are starting and graduating from university at a historical disadvantage,” Brian Jolo, a former student representative leader at the University of Limpopo, tells The Africa Report.

“Universities that serve and tap into rural and working-class communities, the likes of UNISA, Fort Hare, University of Western Cape and Zululand University, are critical to reducing South Africa’s shocking wealth inequality.”

Jansen holds out hope that the country’s beleaguered universities will overcome the current misery.

He cites the highest-level probe that Ramaphosa has ordered into the mayhem at Fort Hare as well as the calm at UCT following the ouster of the first black female vice-chancellor.

“South African universities are resilient,” says Jansen. “I am confident they have the capacity to manage their way out of trouble.”

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