University of Fort Hare VC Professor Sakhela Buhlungu. File picture
University of Fort Hare VC Professor Sakhela Buhlungu. File picture

UFH vice-chancellor wants probe into ’political interference’ at universities

By Edwin Naidu Time of article published Mar 28, 2021

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The vice-chancellor of the iconic University of Fort Hare (UFH), an institution that has produced presidents, princes, pop stars and poets, has rubbished a claim by ANC MP Jane Mananiso that black university heads were not carrying their weight, compared with those of other race groups at institutions of higher learning.

Rather, Professor Sakhela Buhlungu said, many South African vice-chancellors had to navigate challenges and turmoil brought on by students who had been influenced by politicians.

Buhlungu said he was aware of instances when politicians had sponsored students to cause instability, offering them broken promises of “heaven and earth”. But, once the protests subsided, many students who had been disbarred as a result of their activities were begging to return.

“The biggest challenges affecting these institutions are [the] politicians themselves,” Buhlungu said.

“Firstly, it’s interference and, secondly, politicians are involved in unsavoury activities in working, of course, with people on the inside,” he said.

Mananiso made the claim in a question and answer session of the portfolio committee on higher education, science and technology in Parliament on March 5, during an oversight inquiry into the appointment of Professor Peter Mbati as the vice-chancellor of the Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University.

She said her comment was based on engagements that the committee had had with key stakeholders of the Department of Higher Education and Training during which the perception had been created that most institutions that were led by black people were not performing as well as those led by other races.

But Buhlungu said many people who were part of the portfolio committee were more caught up in politics than showing a duty of care towards matters at tertiary institutions.

During a previous meeting of the portfolio committee at which he spoke on UFH’s affairs after it had come out of administration, Buhlungu said he was shocked when a member of Parliament asked him: “Why do you manage the institution with so much arrogance?”

“When it came to answering, I just skipped that one.

“But I shall forever remember that individual, whose question was completely empty when faced with issues of money and prudent management of academic institutions,” said Buhlungu.

“All she [the portfolio committee member] remembered was the word ‘arrogant’, because the students had told them that management is arrogant.”

Buhlungu said Mananiso’s was a very dangerous logic because one could then argue, by the same token as university leaders, that the country was in such trouble because Parliament had chosen a president and was run by black politicians.

“I’m sure that she would be very, very unhappy with that answer.”

He added that Mananiso’s comments appeared to be those of someone who had internalised racist thinking and self-hatred.

“It’s really unfortunate for a politician who sits on the higher education Parliamentary committee to make such a claim … [it] is beyond ridiculous; it is astonishing.”

He said efforts by many like him to bring about stability at institutions, had been interrupted, and sometimes derailed, by politicians.

Ironically, the chair of the committee, Phil Mapulane, was investigated by the Hawks a decade ago over an alleged instance of a multimillion rand tender fraud which was dropped when his alleged accomplice, who turned state witness, said he had made false claims.

His background did not show any higher education experience.

Under his watch, the committee had focused strongly on the running of former historically disadvantaged institutions, calling them to account, but ignoring difficulties at historically advantaged organisations – for example, racism claims at UCT.

Buhlungu said he believed that the committee was driven by political and not educational interests.

“In this province [the Eastern Cape], we have a premier [Oscar Mabuyane] who thinks that we should account to him, who will wake up on a Sunday morning and speak to the Daily Dispatch [newspaper].

“On Monday morning, it is on the front page, ‘Premier lashes University Fort Hare VC’, because a student drowned in the swimming pool in Alice.”

He said this would be followed by “noise that the students should have had someone to look after the pool or them, and so on and so forth”.

“And he is blamed because there are ‘too many deaths happening’.

“But no, it’s not because of that. It’s because they are driven by political interests that they [politicians] are interfering in our affairs.”

Following protests last year, many students at UFH could not continue with their studies.

“They were dumped (by the politicians), now they’re sitting at home. And some of them call me and say: ‘We were misled. We were young, and we were given money to cause instability’,” said Buhlungu.

He said the effect of political interference at higher education institutions should be looked at urgently.

When analysing the performance of his institution, Buhlungu credits the role of its former head, Professor Derrick Swartz.

“Derrick picked it up; it was in tatters.

“Financially, it was on its knees. Honestly, he pulled it up by the bootstraps and should be given more credit for what he has achieved. Similarly, many others like him have run stable institutions without receiving credit for their work,” he said.

Fort Hare alumni include politicians Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Robert Sobukwe, Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, Robert Mugabe, poets Dennis Brutus and Mandla Langa, Drum journalist Can Themba, sculptor and painter Ernest Mancoba and Xhosa author and scholar Archibald Campbell Jordan.

The Sunday Independent

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