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Celebrating 100 years of education and leadership at the University of Fort Hare

One such university that has been making a significant contribution to the development of all aspects of society for the past 100 years is the University of Fort Hare, a public institution located in Alice in the Eastern Cape. The 8th of February 2016 marked the official centenary of this remarkable institution of higher learning in South Africa, and will have a deep meaning for so many of today’s renowned leaders, both at home and across the African continent, who passed through its learned portals throughout the years.

Its vision remains to be a vibrant, equitable and sustainable African university, committed to teaching and research excellence at the service of its students, scholars and the wider community, a vision it has upheld despite the many challenges facing the institution over the years. Today, what separates it from the rest is that it provides high quality education of international standards that significantly contributes to the advancement of knowledge that, importantly, is both socially and ethically relevant to the technological and socio-economic development of our nation and the wider world.

The University of Fort Hare’s Centenary celebrations provide an unprecedented opportunity to reflect on the institution’s history and the many forces and events that have contributed to shaping the institution into what it is today. For those studying at Fort Hare today, it is important to acknowledge, record and question its history, and to extract the most liberating, enriching and valuable elements from its history as building blocks towards a radically modernized institution. In the process, the institution is building on the foundational strengths of its historical inheritance, geographical locations, stakeholder constituencies and committed workforce, and creating a highly relevant and dynamic new institution ready to meet the challenges of today’s world.

Looking back through history, the institution’s foundation came at a time of conflict and drastic change, as the process of Afrikaner and British colonization and expropriation took hold, accompanied by the spread of Christianity. The South African Native College, later to become the University of Fort Hare, was founded in 1916 on the site of the earlier British military stronghold. The college originated from the sometimes uneasy alliance between the new class of educated African Christians, supported by a number of traditional Southern African leaders, and early twentieth-century white liberals, many of them clergy. The religious tradition at the heart of Fort Hare’s origin, shared by blacks and whites alike, heralded "plain living and high thinking‟, and a form of education that was undeniably Eurocentric.  However it did not make the assumption, central to the Bantu Education implemented in South Africa from the 1950s that black Africans required or deserved a different, inferior education. Thus, the University of Fort Hare produced graduates from South Africa and as far north as Kenya and Uganda, who knew they were as good as the best.  Many went on to prominent careers in fields as diverse as politics, medicine, literature and art. Some politically active alumni like Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Robert Sobukwe and Mangosuthu Buthelezi in South Africa, Robert Mugabe and Herbert Chitepo in Zimbabwe, and Elius Mathu and Charles Njonjo in Kenya, have impacted their nations. In the arts world, Fort Hare has released from South Africa, poet Dennis Brutus, Drum journalist Can Themba, sculptor and painter Ernest Mancoba and Xhosa author and scholar Archibald Campbell Jordan. The first black Zimbabwean medical doctor, Ticofa Samuel Parirenyatwa, and the historian, novelist and politician Stanlake Samkange were also among the many non-South Africans who spent formative years at Fort Hare.

Though Fort Hare operated in an environment of racial segregation even before apartheid, the college contained the seeds of a more tolerant South Africa.  It was as racially inclusive as it could be at the time, with black, coloured and Indian students studying as one. It had men and women students from the beginning; its mainly white staff included black academics like ZK Matthews and DDT Jabavu and student's home languages ranged through Xhosa, Sotho, Zulu, Afrikaans and many others. However, the takeover of the college in 1959-60 by the National Party government put an end to these achievements and instead Fort Hare was transformed into an ethnic college for Xhosaspeakers. Outspoken staff members were expelled and a new administration, conspicuously loyal to the government and intent on imposing its world-view, was installed.   The campus grew over the next three decades, and student numbers increased, but government interventions reduced Fort Hare to the level of “Bush Colleges‟ that were instituted in many homelands.  In a parody of true academic maturity, Fort Hare became in 1970, self-governing and "independent‟. With the creation of Ciskei in 1980, Fort Hare became the university of a microstate, recognized only by its fellow Bantustans and by South Africa's minority government, a marked decline from its previous status as the greatest centre of black higher education in Southern and Eastern Africa.

Despite the immense damage inflicted on Fort Hare due to the apartheid regime, the inherent tradition of excellence survived, firstly, amongst the students and also amongst a small but growing number of progressive academics.  Many rejected the attempt to turn Fort Hare into an ethnic institution and instead kept alive a spirit of opposition, becoming a stronghold of the Black Consciousness oriented South African Students‟ Organization.

The tradition of excellence survived through the affection and loyalty of people towards Fort Hare, and, when the opportunity arose after 1990 when the apartheid-era administration was expelled, many opted to work there. It survived as a result of a new spirit of Pan-Africanism and internationalism, with students from Zimbabwe to Eritrea, and staff from all over Africa and the world flocking to its doors. Many came because they knew of Fort Hare's historical reputation and wanted to contribute to its newfound opportunities towards renaissance, recognizing the importance of its remarkable archival records containing the papers of the ANC and other liberation movements in exile. These archives record an extraordinary and sustained educational achievement, forming a corporate memory now made accessible to scholars from all over the world.

Today, the University Of Fort Hare is redefining its role as the producer and disseminator of new knowledge, particularly focusing on its central place in the reshaping of post-apartheid South Africa, and repositioning itself as the empowerment agent in the political, economic, cultural and social revolution that is unfolding. The institution remains more determined than ever to build on its distinctive and illustrious past, maintaining its commitment to uphold the values that have served it so well over the years, those of integrity, excellence, innovation and ethics.


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