A century of excellence at Fort Hare
South Africa’s education system is firmly back in the spotlight, stimulating consternation and debate about the significant challenges that remain in providing access to quality basic education for the country’s young people.
While the latest group of Grade 12 students battle to secure contested university places, even greater emphasis falls on how universities will nurture a new generation of business and political leaders who can make a difference to the country’s socioeconomic development.
The University of Fort Hare in Alice, Eastern Cape, is one such university. As February 8 marks its official centenary, it retains its vision 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.
The centenary celebrations provide an unprecedented opportunity to reflect on the institution’s history and the many forces and events that have contributed to shaping Fort Hare into what it is today. For current students, it is important to acknowledge, record and question its history, and extract the most liberating and valuable elements as the building blocks for a radically modernised institution.
In the process, it is building on the foundational strengths of its historical inheritance, geographical location, stakeholder constituencies and committed workforce to create a relevant and dynamic new institution ready to meet the challenges of today’s world.
The establishment of the university came at a time of conflict and drastic change, as the process of Afrikaner and British colonisation and expropriation took hold, accompanied by the spread of Christianity.
The SA Native College, later to become the University of Fort Hare, was founded in 1916 on the site of an earlier British military stronghold.
Although 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 youth studying as one.
The takeover of the college in 1959/60 by the National Party government put an end to these achievements and Fort Hare was transformed into an ethnic college for isiXhosa speakers.
Despite the immense damage inflicted on it by the apartheid regime, the inherent tradition of excellence survived among the students and 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 SA Students’ Organisation.
The tradition of excellence survived through the affection and loyalty of people towards the university. And when the opportunity arose after 1990 – the year that heralded the final days of apartheid-era administration – many opted to work there. It survived as a result of a new spirit of PanAfricanism 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 new-found opportunities for renaissance. They acknowledged the importance of its remarkable archival records, which contained the papers of all liberation movements. These archives document an extraordinary and sustained educational achievement, forming a corporate memory now made accessible to scholars the world over.
Today, the university is redefining its role as the producer and disseminator of new knowledge – focusing in particular on its central place in reshaping post-apartheid South Africa, and repositioning itself as an 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: integrity, excellence, innovation and ethics. Filtane is director of institutional advancement at the University of