Top corruption-busting lawyers in the fight of their lives….

Two top lawyers who cracked open the Corruption Mafia at Fort Hare University are now fighting for survival – after their own shock arrests. In this interview with BizNews, labour lawyer Bradley Conradie and forensic lawyer Sarah Burger describe the trauma of their Holllywood-style arrests as the “ultimate way” of “dealing” with them – after years of abuse and a failed assassination attempt. They share their despair that years of work – with a success rate of 98 – 99% – has been “undone by design”. Since 2018, the two successfully dismantled various criminal syndicates that had infiltrated the university, including the politically-connected, the Nigerian, local business, staff, and student syndicates. They also facilitated the resignations and dismissals of about 40 employees who were involved in corrupt/unlawful activities and breaches of their employment conditions and other forms of mischief/misconduct. Additionally, they lodged about 20 cases with the HAWKS, to ensure thorough investigations and legal consequences for the perpetrators.  Yet, they were the ones thrown in cells, and now have to fight for their reputations – and their freedom.

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Summary of the interview

In a riveting interview with top lawyers Bradley Conradie and Sarah Burger, the shocking tale of uncovering corruption at Fort Hare University unfolds. Their journey began in 2018 when Professor Sakhela Buhlungu sought their assistance in addressing rampant corruption within the university. Conradie and Burger, along with their team, embarked on a mission to root out syndicates and individuals involved in various corrupt schemes.

Their investigations revealed staggering cases of corruption, including embezzlement of funds, academic fraud, and syndicate operations deeply entrenched within the institution. Despite facing numerous challenges, including resistance from within the university, Conradie and Burger persevered, successfully conducting disciplinary hearings and collaborating with law enforcement agencies to pursue justice.

However, their dedication came at a price. Conradie and Burger found themselves targeted for arrest, accused of crimes they vehemently deny. Their arrests shattered their lives, causing immense personal and professional turmoil. Despite enduring hardship and facing unjust treatment, Conradie and Burger remain steadfast in their commitment to upholding truth and justice.

Their harrowing account sheds light on the complexities of fighting corruption in a system marred by political influence and systemic failures. Despite the adversity they face, Conradie and Burger’s unwavering resolve serves as a testament to the importance of integrity and perseverance in the pursuit of justice.

Extended transcript of the interview ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Chris Steyn (00:01.505)

Two top lawyers who have cracked open the Corruption Mafia at Fort Hare University are now fighting for their own survival after their own shock arrests. We speak to Labour lawyer Bradley Conradie and forensic lawyer Sarah Burger. Welcome Bradley and welcome Sarah.

Sarah Burger (00:19.312)

Thank you.

Bradley Conradie (00:19.658)

Thank you. And thank you for having us on your show.

Chris Steyn (00:23.297)

You’re welcome Bradley. Bradley, when did you first get involved with UFH?

Bradley Conradie (00:30.506)

That would have been in 2018 when Professor Sakhela Buhlungu contacted us via my former partner, Halton Cheadle, desperately looking for assistance. He wasn’t too long in the job at the time, but he faced an uphill battle and had no friends, no allies, and I think did not know what to do in order to address the problems at the university.

Finally, we were all able to arrange a meeting. In attendance was myself, my then forensic partner, the vice chancellor, and certain individuals from the university that accompanied him. It became apparent to us during that meeting that the actual problem at the university was that the vice chancellor could never have an impact because he didn’t have a grip on what was happening at the university. It became very obvious that everyone that he dealt with was potentially involved with some kind of corrupt scheme. They’d been together for a long time and they were obviously working against him. We put a plan in place as to how we could help him to address the situation at the university. So we go back right to the beginning to 2018 with the Vice Chancellor.

Chris Steyn (02:02.497)

So what was the Vice Chancellor’s involvement in the cases, Bradley?

Bradley Conradie (02:07.882)

From day one, the vice chancellor was fully involved. You must remember in 2018, he had no allies at all. A small group of people, some of them fell by the wayside, also due to corruption. But he was aware and sat in all of the meetings initially relating to any investigations that had to take place and potential people that had to be investigated, most of whom were identified by ourselves through the work that we were doing there.

Chris Steyn (02:43.521)

So Bradley, what changed after the introduction of Isaac Plaatjies?

Bradley Conradie (02:48.806)

Well, I think Isaac Plaatjies…at least we met him in 2020. And to be fair to him, it was the first time that we had someone from the university with energy and that was able to get things done. One of the most frustrating things was to get information from any department because they were all captured. You’d be promised information, you’d never ever get it.So we struggled to get critical information for investigations and for cases. 

When Isaac Plaatjies came in…he’s got a very proactive approach. He’s a go-getter. He’s got quite commanding personality, and he had the authority of the vice chancellor. He would simply jump on the phone in a meeting, and he would phone up wherever it was that was not giving the information, and he would say, I want the information now. And that would include phoning up executives, and they would jump in order to provide us with that information. That was a positive introduction by Isaac Plaatjies. 

What also happened was that the direct access which we had to the vice chancellor was taken away. We were told that we were only to report to Isaac Plaatjies and there was no need unless we were given permission to do so to report directly to the Vice Chancellor. However, that does not mean that the Vice Chancellor disappeared. We had weekly meetings, I would say, with the Vice Chancellor where you’d be briefed at a high level on what was happening at the university. And these meetings ofte went on till 10, 10.30 at night. We would simply be summoned to update the vice chancellor. I would walk through the door, greet my family at 7, 7.30, and I’d have to go straight to my study. And Sarah’s had to do the same. And it’s not just Sarah and I. There’s a whole team of people. There must have been about eight people in total that serviced the university. But for the more important and strategic decisions that had to be taken people like Sarah and myself would be called in to discuss the cases. What has this person done? What is the next step? Are we going to discipline them? Are we going to seek to recover money from them? Are we reporting them to the authorities? So the vice chancellor was fully emerged in all aspects of the work that we were doing.

Chris Steyn (05:37.569)

Sarah, what did your investigations reveal?

Sarah Burger (05:42.064)

Well, as you can probably imagine, there’s a number of corrupt cases that we uprooted over there. It is a version of a mini State Capture. We uprooted syndicates, Nigerian syndicates, student syndicates, local business syndicates, and people that were severely politically connected as well. Those syndicates were operating with deep, deep roots in the institution.

What I can give you is a couple of examples of what we were dealing with at the time. One was a Head of Student Governance, whom I happen to be a witness in an arbitration, so I am able to mention the name, Sibusiso Ncengwa. And what we discovered with him was rampant cover quoting that had taken place at the university. From what I found, and that was for a limited period, to the value of about 24 million Rand. A criminal complaint was lodged against him as well. Another is an example of an administrator, very, very low position, also in student governance, a lady that was sitting at her desk all day long, drafting quotations and completing quotations for family and friends, businesses, and submitting them to the university to be paid. And from what I could uncover, again in a limited space of time, was that she had disgorged about 14 million Rand from the university. And again, a criminal complaint has been laid against her as well. There are various schemes. Another scheme that we uncovered was that a lady that sat in the Registrar’s office would be selling degrees to students. Now, when I say selling degrees, I mean clearing their debt and zeroing it to a zero balance and releasing the degree to the student despite some of these students having debt in excess of 250,000 Rand which obviously poses huge problems for the university in terms of a deficit of student fees.

Chris Steyn (08:03.105)

Bradley, what was the role of your law firm, BCHC, in all this?

Bradley Conradie (08:09.482)

So what we handled initially was the disciplinary hearings that had to take place. I attended the first disciplinary hearing with the vice chancellor. And when we closed our case on the first day, I remember it clearly. The meeting was held at PWC’s offices in East London. The advocate for the employee came over to us and conceded defeat. He said: Look, I’ve spoken to my client. I said: There’s no way we can conquer that. We walked out of that meeting and the vice chancellor said to me, this is the first time ever that anyone has been accountable at the university. And that is really what opened up the gates. From there, they continue to give us more and more work with identified areas of concern. In fact, we reached a stage where we were saying we don’t want any more work. I’m personally on the record, even in my firm, as saying, please do not take on any more work. We cannot cope with it. We do not want to be this deeply emerged. And no sooner had I said that, then two or three people would be sending through instructions. And I think it’s very important to mention, given the false information that is out there. These instructions were coming from various people. We worked for the Legal department, the Supply Chain Management department, the Human Resources department. There’s another department, I’m sure Sarah will remember the name. I think it’s the Communications department. These people approached us directly. And I can say that I have never met…

Sarah Burger (09:54.192)

Institutional Advancement.

Bradley Conradie (10:03.882)

most of these people ever in my life. I have no relationships with them. If I saw them in the street, I would not know who they are. But they wanted us to do the work because we were delivering results. Our success rate must be somewhere in the region of about 98 – 99 percent. So we reached a stage in disciplinary hearings in the last year or two where the cases put together by Sarah and her team were so compelling that we knew how things would unfold already. There would be a request for a postponement, there would be a sick note for a month, there’d be another reason for a postponement, and on the day people would simply resign because they knew that they would be taken on and that they would be held to account. So that was the role that BCHC was playing.

Chris Steyn (10:58.881)

Sarah, what was your involvement with law enforcement agencies during this?

Sarah Burger (11:05.392)

Well, we were immersed in assisting various law enforcement agencies, including the SIU, the Hawks, and including the Task Team, who ultimately arrested us. One of Horizon Forensics’ first reports that we ever produced for the university involved various employees, and it forms the basis of the proclamation on which the SIU exercises its current powers at the university.

Subsequently, when the SIU sought to extend that proclamation about 10 months ago after Oscar Mabuyane won part one of his interdict on a technical point that they weren’t permitted to investigate his Masters, they came to Horizon Forensics and requested that we draft an additional piece to go to the president to extend the proclamation.

So we’ve been integrally involved in that. We’ve cooperated with them and provided them with evidence. They visited our office on numerous occasions. They have me on WhatsApp. They’ve emailed me. As early as February this year, two captains from the Hawks Commercial Crimes Unit and a senior advocate, also from East London, came to visit me at Horizon Forensics and spent three full days, which even they said was not enough, to come and discuss three high profile cases with me. One related to a lady, the only lady that has been arrested in more than 20 criminal complaints that we’ve lodged. And that is a case from 2019 where they wanted me to be a witness and sign a statement. The other two cases, and this is really, this is really where it hits home for Bradley and I and the current situation that we are in, is that they wanted to discuss the alleged academic fraud of Oscar Mabuyane, which we also investigated and produced an affidavit for in 2021 for, as well as his supervisor, Professor Edwin Ijeoma, who in addition to facilitating that alleged fraud, is also accused of allegedly stealing five and a half million Rand from the university. 

So, you know, as we sat there, I said to the law enforcement officials that this is very, very politically charged. I’m prepared to assist you, but I don’t really want to be involved beyond this. 

And knowing that only one person has been arrested is rather remarkable in the current circumstances because Bradley and I were arrested a month after that meeting for a case that was only opened in January this year.

Chris Steyn (14:05.153)

Now, Bradley, you say that you met Isaac Plaatjies for the first time during August 2020, but the allegation against you is that you paid a million Rand towards a house for him.

Bradley Conradie (14:18.186)

Obviously, given the criminal case, I’m constrained in terms of what I can say, but by no means do I want to avoid the question. Had the police done their job…There are simple procedures required whereby you investigate a case, you approach suspects, you question them, you get their version, you form a view if they answer you or if they don’t answer you, and then you decide whether or not you’re going to arrest. None of that has ever happened. I’ve never been questioned till today. I spent 14 days in prison. It still sounds surreal that I’ve been to prison. And I’ve never, ever been asked what my version was. But in a nutshell, I did meet him in about August. It’s the exact date I don’t know, but it’s sometime in August, September, introduced by the Vice Chancellor. Anyone that has met him, and the Vice Chancellor himself has conceded this in many newspaper articles, that you’re completely seduced by the man. He has great ability to get things done. He’s a go-getter, he’s a networker, he’s a fixer, and he has immense energy. 

At that same time, well, towards the end of the year, say early December, I owned 51% of Horizon Forensics. This was never a secret, by the way. Everybody at the university knew that, and it was disclosed. And I had a partner who was a forensic investigator, which I was not. He owned 49% of the business. He suddenly dropped a bomb on me at the end of a meeting, and he said,  By the way, I’ve been offered a job via clients of ours that we have in the Isle of Man. And we had discussions about when is this going to happen. And he said, well, he wasn’t too sure. It’s going to take some time. To cut it short, three or four days later, everything was finalised, and he was packed household, car, gone, everything.

Bradley Conradie (16:30.41)

And I said to him, this leaves me and the company, which was already established since 2013 with an international footprint. People think we only work for Fort Hare. You’re leaving me in a position now with…there are employees, but I do not…I understand forensic work, but I need an operational person. I’m practicing at BCHC. And we agreed that a list of people would be put together that would meet the right criteria. And had the police spoken to me, they’d also know, because there’s evidence for everything that I’m saying, and there are witnesses that a short list was prepared and Sarah knows that on that list, one of the people for consideration was Isaac. And I offered him that opportunity. His response to me was that he was humbled by it. And what I’ve got to stress: He had just joined the university. And the documents will show this. He was on a fixed-term contract from month to month, which I think was coming to an end the end of December, and it was extended till the end of January, which is exactly the period when my partner was exiting. His formal exit date would have been the end of February 2021 to coincide with the financial year and all of his other plans.

The offer was the 49% as well as the salary which my partner had earned. I went away over the holidays. I thought about it. I spoke to various people. And ultimately, for reasons I won’t go into now, I decided I wasn’t going to go through with the deal. So I reneged on a deal which I had entered into in good faith. And we reached an agreement as to how we would resolve that, which was on a financial basis. And as I said, there are documents that exist that support that entire period of time, but we’ve never ever been asked for a version on it. Rather, we’ve been very, very unfairly and maliciously…If you listen to what Sarah has had to say, we uncovered and broke the Mafia at Fort Hare, which have been operating since 2010, 2011 with impunity. Now the story out there is that the Mafia…includes us…I’m a Mafia member now as well as Sarah, is what has now been discovered with the rest of the fifteen people. Well, they may be merit in some cases. 

We don’t know 85% of the people that are co-accused at the moment, we have never met before in our lives. So it is shocking when you have to sit in court next to people you’re accused of being corrupt with and having a scheme in place, but you don’t know them. 

Obviously, we know Paul Tladi who actually came in just before Isaac to assist the vice chancellor. He subsequently almost stepped aside because he couldn’t take the pressure of it, and he alleged that people wanted to kill him.

And then Isaac was brought in. We know him, but for the rest of the people, I didn’t know them. I knew some of them by name. This is even employees that worked there. But yet, for some reason, our names got added to the bottom of that list, and we got arrested in, I think it’s News 24 described in a Hollywood-style fashion.

I mean, it is unbelievable what we went through during that process. And yeah, I can talk about more of that in a minute.

Chris Steyn (20:37.665)

Sarah, over to you. What has your arrest meant for you?

Sarah Burger (20:44.496)

It’s quite indescribable and I don’t think words can actually pin it down, but it’s been a tremendously stressful, anxious period in my life, but not just my life. I have to consider that my immediate family and my friends who look to me as well, they’re in pain alongside myself. And it’s more painful for me because I am the only person in my family, my immediate family, to have gone out and got a degree and worked hard to get it and be in a demanding profession. So it’s shaped my very existence. It’s shaken my foundation as an attorney, as a forensic investigator. Yeah, I just, I’ve obviously got feelings inside of me that I can’t even describe because I wake up in the morning shaking most days because I realise I’m a person out on bail. I’m an attorney and a person out on bail. And that reality frightens me, you know, it affects every beauty in my life. It’s been tainted with it. 

As Bradley says, 85% of those people in the courtroom, I stand around and I look and I also don’t even want to make eye contact with these people because up to the day of our arrest, I was working for the university. So when we say we’ve been working with them since 2018, I’ve been working with the university long before Plaatjies arrived and six months after. So we were being instructed directly by the Vice Chancellor and his executive. 

So, yeah, it is an enormous shock for me. What saddens me about the current circumstances that we are in is that I’ve been in the process humiliated and discredited. The cases that I’m meant to be a witness in, I don’t know what will happen to that when people look at me as an accused and a fraud and corruption case. 

And then the anger that I feel on a daily basis and the real deep, deep sadness is that I know that there are senior officials at the university that have relied on the integrity of Horizon’s work. There are senior officials in law enforcement that still believe in us and still have relied on the work that we’ve produced, which are neatly packaged cases, ready to fly, ready to go, they’re trial ready. But yet, on the one hand, you’ve got senior officials that know that some of the facts that are coming out in the media are untrue, and they’re not standing up. They’re sending messages of condolences, which is not enough for me. Stand up and correct the facts. Correct the facts. 

We are here to help. And that’s what we have always done. We’ve been taking calls late nights, weekends, evenings. We’ve sacrificed personal time with our families on numerous occasions. I had to kill the braai that I was busy with on a Saturday night, book a flight on Sunday morning to be there on Monday morning to go and assist with a new investigation, whatever the case may be, to be available for meetings at the highest levels. And those officials know it, and they just sit back in their comfort of their homes and say, thank goodness it’s not me. So it’s a tremendous struggle on a daily basis. For me personally, the last four years of my life have been dedicated to university. They’re not Horizons only clients. We do a variety of other matters, but they were a very big part of my life that I invested a lot of energy into.

Chris Steyn (24:40.257)

Bradley, what has your arrest meant for you?

Bradley Conradie (24:45.482)

Shattering. It’s shattered my entire world, and I don’t want to define my world as just being my work. I come from a working-class family, a poor family. Today, I’m a household name when it comes to labour law, whether it be amongst university students or top judges in the country. I’m a contributing academic or contributor to the leading academic textbooks in this country. I’ve argued some of the biggest cases in this country right into the Constitutional Court. I’ve built all of that from absolutely nothing. And to sit and watch how people simply destroy that, that is heartbreaking. 

When I first took on this work, colleagues, friends, and most importantly, family said to me, you don’t want to go and do work in the Eastern Cape. You’re crazy. You do not want to go to Fort Hare. But we are lawyers. We had a client. That client needed help. And we went and we offered that service. And we’ve explained to you how we got sucked in to the clean-up, which we pretty much succeeded in doing, but it’s all been undone now and all by design. We literally gave up our lives for the University of Fort Hare. And when all these killings started, not a single person came to us and asked us, are you safe? Is anyone looking after you? 

I mean, what Sarah didn’t mention to you is that the SIU, the NPA, and there was another organisation, warned us that our lives are in danger. And it was in danger. We narrowly escaped being assassinated two years ago in East London. And we were completely hyped up that day. It was the first time that we had returned since the killing of, I think it was Mr. Roets, because we refused to go there, because no one at the university, despite what they may say, knows anything about any of the cases, the details we sit with, which we have shared with the SIU and the Hawks and the NPA, but the details sit in our head. So we refused to go to the Eastern Cape. Other members of our team still agreed to travel to do work, but the work that they did wasn’t the same as the work that Sarah and I did. So we were then asked to please attend a two-day workshop with the SIU at the headquarters in East London. And we agreed. And on our way there, we were approached by four men, but narrowly escaped. They drew a pistol. But we were so alert from the time that we reached the airport that we agreed that Sarah would look one on the left and I would look on the right because the reality of being assassinated, it was there. And because we were alert, we managed to get away. And I never told my family about this because they never have let me out of the house ever again – and I wouldn’t be able to commit to the work that I’d started.

Bradley Conradie (28:27.082)

My family has taken immense strain, but they’ve been very, very supportive. In the circumstances of our imprisonment, the fact that in this so-called constitutional democracy, I waited 14 days before I was granted bail, 14 days…arrested before Easter weekend. It just smacks of absolute cruelty, and it was designed to be cruel.

It was designed to hurt us, to arrest us on a Thursday before an important long weekend. I should have been out on the Saturday already in the ordinary course, but for 14 days, I was in a prison, in a cell. The person opposite me was in jail for murdering three people. I survived it, which hopefully has made me stronger, but I’m still traumatised by it.

Bradley Conradie (29:24.522)

My family had no idea what was happening. We’ve got brilliant lawyers. They kept them up to date, but you have no contact with them. They don’t know what is going to happen, what is going to happen next. My family at home, we had our front door kicked in without a warrant, without a warrant. And when my wife was taken by surprise, asked for the warrant, she was just shoved aside and shown an identity badge. The warrant was produced 40 minutes later. This is in a country where we fought so hard for a Constitution, a Bill of Rights, that these type of things would never, ever happen. She was not restrained, she was restricted from moving around in her own house until the warrant arrived 40 minutes later. I don’t think you need to explain to anyone that that is unlawful. But the saddest part is that my children were in the house, and I asked and pleaded at least six times that they be allowed to leave without this whole spectacle taking place. Eventually, we managed to convince them to let my children slip out so that they didn’t have to witness what was taking place. So emotionally, it has hit me very, very hard. Luckily, we have great support.

And obviously, I’m receiving therapy, medication, just to keep me going. We’ve got colleagues in the profession, senior counsel, advocates came to visit me, phoned me, emailed me, attorneys, and just good friends. And almost all of them said, we don’t even want to hear your version, because we know you as a person. In 25 years, you’ve never ever put one foot out of line. You’ve only contributed. So that support professionally and personally, it really, really helps. But it’s not easy. I mean, as Sarah’s correctly said, I don’t sleep at night other than, you know, I take medication to try and help me sleep. But I wake up in the morning and this is on my mind. I go to bed, this is on my mind and we have to take various steps every single day to try and deal with this issue. So you really live the trauma each and every day. 

But having said all of that. If I had to do it or was asked to do it all again, I would do it all again because that is what we do as attorneys. And I don’t think as South Africans we contribute enough. We all just walk away and we now have a nice braai today and we talk about the arrest of Conradie and Burger and, disgusting, they must be corrupt, et cetera. But we’re not holding the true people to account.

The day we signed off on the report for Mr. Mabuyane was a very important day in our lives. And after it was finalised, I said to Sarah, please put my name on it and take your name off because I am the owner of the business. Not that she wanted to take her name off. She was prepared to own what she had done, but I said it’s only right.

And then I said to her, secondly, please, I need you to understand this. We have a choice right now to make. We can either press send and send this off and hopefully it gets investigated and it gets dealt with, or we can throw it in the bin. But if we choose the first option and we send it off, this is what I want you to understand. Life as you know it now will probably never ever be the same. And I think those words were almost prophetic. And we both agreed within seconds that we have an obligation as lawyers to uphold the truth and to respect the oath which we have taken. And we sent it off. And what has happened to us now is only a fraction of what has happened because we’ve been abused for years.

Bradley Conradie (34:00.138)

And the two of us have been abused directly, abused, insulted, humiliated. But we continued. We never thought that it would reach the stage where what happened to us would be the ultimate way of, as we see it, of dealing with us. And just finally, I’ve been around, I was around in the 80s. I was at university studying law when the interim constitution came out. We dreamt about and we worked towards a system of justice where the way in which we were arrested would never, ever take place, where people would have rights, where your dignity would be respected, where fair process would be followed, and liberty would be the most important thing, and all for good reason, given the history of our country.

I discovered, and I’m sure Sarah will agree, the government has failed us as far as socioeconomic rights are concerned. We don’t even have to debate that. There’s guaranteed rights that people have, the basic rights. But I never knew, because I’ve never been in criminal law in the criminal space, that there are no rights for people that find themselves on the other side of the law. Those rights are absolutely abused. So in my view, the Bill of Rights only exists on paper and that for me is the saddest thing. And that means that the entire Constitution is undermined and that’s a threat to everyone in this country. And that deeply, deeply saddens me that we find ourselves in that position.

Chris Steyn (35:51.937)

Thank you. That was Bradley Conradie and Sarah Burger, the top lawyers who spent years uncovering corruption at Fort Hare University, only to be targeted with shock arrests. Thank you, Bradley, and thank you, Sarah. I’m Chris Steyn.

Bradley Conradie (36:06.538)

Thank you, Chris.

Sarah Burger (36:06.64)

Thank you, Chris.

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