History, politics and leadership
South Africa of the 20th century was a deeply tumultuous place. The University of Fort Hare weathered these tides of history, politics and prejudice – at times enacting the spirit of the day; at others, challenging, rallying against and rising above them to forge a new reality. This ebb and flow was profoundly determined by those at the helm of the institution, both the administrative leadership of the University and those student leaders who became the voices of generations of young minds at Fort Hare. Explore the dynamics of history, politics and leadership at Fort Hare in this introductory section.
Despite the physical and spiritual vestiges of colonial conquest, the Tyume River valley is a historic symbol of regeneration for young Africans. As the region developed with the earlier Lovedale Mission institution and the Victoria Hospital, Fort Hare emerged as a birthplace of African leadership.
A broad history of the University of Fort Hare cannot be presented in a single narrative. It holds within it a complex web of themes. An inclusive account of education in southern Africa must draw connections with processes of African nationalism and intellectualism. These facets are pervasive in Fort Hare’s centennial record, and must come to the fore in a rendition of its history. But Fort Hare’s history also extends well beyond these concerns.
While the early geography of the campus is confined to Alice, this eminent knowledge production site is more than a mere garrison in the Eastern Cape. Its socio-political and intellectual reach has extended well beyond the precinct of Alice and the borders of South Africa. And although 1916 is inscribed as its foundation year, the seeds of Fort Hare were planted many years before then. Our documentation of this history in the Centenary Exhibition is part of an ongoing project to record and preserve the identity, history and legacy of Fort Hare. And so the life of Fort Hare will extend well into the future.
This is a complex, rich and dense history: there are challenges in depicting its ebbs and flows and the diverse experiences of the many individuals who have graced the corridors of this august institution. Although Fort Hare has in many ways been moulded by the country’s past, it has always fought to rise above the realities of the day, and has, in recent times, transcended that past as it continues to redefine, reshape and remake its identity.
The University of Fort Hare
On 8 February 1916, Fort Hare officially opened its doors in the small rural town of Alice in the Eastern Cape. It was the first higher education institution in southern Africa for black students, although it admitted all races and genders. Originally known as the South African Native College, in the past century Fort Hare has graduated countless “Fort Hareans”, whose intellectual and political leadership has catalysed seismic change in South Africa, Africa and the world.
The period 1900 to 1916 saw fervent planning for the establishment of the University. Presbyterian missionaries from Lovedale Mission joined forces with community luminaries John Tengo Jabavu, John Knox Bokwe, Isaac Williams Wauchope and others to raise funds for the proposed university. Classes began on 22 February 1916 with 20 students. Fort Hare’s missionary administration was determined to offer the same qualifications as those at “white” universities, based on the British education model. But while students in the first decades graduated with degrees in education, commerce, the arts, and later, science, the politics of the day prevented them from entering professions reserved for white South Africans. This was a sign of things to come.
Repression and resistance
In the 1948 general elections, the National Party came to power with a racially divisive, conservative agenda. African nationalism and pan-Africanism gained strength in the face of this assault. Activism on campus took root as student movements established links with national political organisations like the African National Congress (ANC) to resist the apartheid state. But attempts within the walls of Fort Hare to keep the regime at bay were defeated in 1959, when the state determined it would take over the independently minded institution. In response, student activism escalated, but resistance was forced underground as the state clamped down on all opposition, banning the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress.
From 1960 to 1990, Fort Hare suffered under an Afrikaner administration which supported racial and ethnic separation. The curriculum was re-organised in line with the dictates of “Bantu Education”. The University was forced to admit only black Xhosa-speakers as Alice fell under the Bantustan of the Ciskei, which was declared self-governing in 1972, and nominally independent in 1981. A satellite campus was established in nearby Zwelitsha to train civil servants in the Ciskei “homeland” according to apartheid values.
But as Nelson Mandela’s release from prison on 11 February 1990 reverberated through the country, Fort Hare took its first step towards democratic reincarnation. Staff, students and workers voted for Fort Hare’s first black vice-chancellor, Prof Sibusiso Bengu. Institutional rebirth began as Fort Hare was once again opened to students and staff of all races, and workers were allowed to unionise. Curriculum transformation was initiated as returning exiles joined the University. In 1990, a new campus was opened in Bhisho, and in 2004 the East London campus of Rhodes University was incorporated into Fort Hare as part of the government’s restructuring of higher education. From an apartheid-ravaged campus in Alice, Fort Hare has become a multi-campus institution with its eyes cast firmly towards the future. As Fort Hare enters its second century, it prepares to confront the fundamental questions facing higher education in South Africa, drawing on lessons from its first century of existence.
Tied to the politics of the day: university leadership at Fort Hare
“My career at Fort Hare [as a student] ended just nine months after it began. I was expelled from the university following the student strike in 1973, joining the ranks of Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Thenjiwe Mthintso and others who were forced from the university as a result of their activism... I left campus after less than a year, never dreaming in my wildest imagination that I would one day return as leader of the most significant higher education institute in the history of southern Africa. But here I am today at the helm of Fort Hare, in the same position once held by the notorious De Wet and his successor, JA Lamprecht.”
– Dr Mvuyo Tom, Vice-Chancellor of Fort Hare (2008–2016),
in his afterword in Daniel Massey’s Under Protest, May 2009.
Dr Tom was appointed Fort Hare’s fourth democratic vice-chancellor in 2008, three and a half decades after experiencing the wrath of the University’s apartheid administration. These words are a poignant reminder of the startling, sometimes ironic twists of fate that have attended the history of Fort Hare and its leadership over the years. This leadership in its various phases has always been intimately tied to the politics of the day, whether in service or defiance of that politics.
Fort Hare’s vice-chancellors, rectors and principals have been responsible for the day-to-day leadership of the institution. Referred to as principals under the missionary administration, as rectors during the apartheid years and as vice-chancellors in the democratic dispensation, their approach has suffused the institution with the character of their leadership and the ideology of the milieus they represent.
Fort Hare’s democratic leadership has come from a class of academically talented struggle veterans with a strong mandate for change. Their work has been guided by a series of strategic plans geared towards transformation, curriculum reform and financial stability. They have also operated in a radically shifting higher education landscape, as the national government has worked to restructure the institutions of tertiary learning. This generation was preceded by a dispensation loyal to the apartheid project, which included the two men Dr Tom names, Johannes de Wet and John Lamprecht. These rectors and their predecessors ruled Fort Hare with an iron-fisted, apartheid-sponsored tyranny from 1960, when the state assumed control of Fort Hare. Before this, during the first four decades of Fort Hare’s existence, its administration was missionary-ruled. The paternal principals in this period saw it as their duty to guide students towards their full potential through a firm mix of discipline, Christianity and European-style university education. Their provision of education to black South Africans in the first half of the 20th century elicited strong opposition from white South Africa at the time.
Before this, during the first four decades of Fort Hare’s existence, its administration was missionary-ruled. The paternal principals in this period saw it as their duty to guide students towards their full potential through a firm mix of discipline, Christianity and European-style university education. Their provision of education to black South Africans in the first half of the 20th century elicited strong opposition from white South Africa at the time.
When struggle stalwart and Fort Hare alumnus Govan Mbeki became chancellor of Fort Hare in 1993, the University Council expressed their confidence that his name would bring “enormous stature and luster to the University”. As the ceremonial head of a university, this is always the symbolic role of a chancellor, whose public standing is expected to confer on the university a prestige aligned with the spirit of that institution. But what has been considered prestigious and symbolically valuable has been very different in each era of Fort Hare’s history. In the democratic era, for example, Fort Hare’s chancellors have generally been titans of the struggle against apartheid whose moral and intellectual leadership guided South Africa towards democracy. In addition to Govan Mbeki, democratic chancellors have included the ANC’s former president-in-exile Oliver Tambo and Rev Makhenkesi Arnold Stofile.
Students at Fort Hare have always played a catalytic role in spearheading resistance and driving change. In the pre-apartheid and apartheid years, student protest was a weapon against an oppressive political system, while in the democratic era, persistent socio-economic inequality and constricted access to education have been rallying cries for students.
Mirroring national politics
The first students at Fort Hare were the sons and daughters of a small black elite of professionals and chiefs. However, Fort Hare received little state funding, so although students enjoyed the privilege of a university education, they had to endure poor quality food and accommodation facilities. These and other concerns continued to fuel protest at Fort Hare throughout the 20th century, and were often a reflection of more deeply embedded struggles against missionary and apartheid control. Student resistance ran the whole gamut, from polite protest to total university shutdown, frequently mirroring national political developments beyond the boundaries of Fort Hare.
A groundswell of resistance
By the 1940s, with the rise of African nationalism and pan-Africanism, students began to challenge the paternalism of the white missionary administration. Although liberal staff supported the idea of political equality, they discouraged student involvement in politics. But a groundswell of resistance to the missionary leadership, and later the apartheid government, took root as student political activism on campus escalated. An increasingly organised student body took shape as branches of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL), the Society of Young Africa (SOYA) and other organisations were established at Fort Hare. When the state banned the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) in 1960, other ANC- and PAC-aligned organisations began to operate clandestinely on campus. Later, the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO) and student groupings affiliated to the Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO) established branches at Fort Hare. Student leaders like Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Robert Sobukwe, Chris Hani and Barney Pityana, who would all go on to national and international prominence, emerged over the decades.
Expulsion: a rite of passage
In an effort to control students, the missionary administration banned the ANCYL from campus in 1949, while the apartheid administration banned the Students’ Representative Council (SRC) in 1960 and SASO in 1979. But student leaders were undeterred and political activism continued in an underground form in both eras. Between 1960 and 1990, hundreds of students were dismissed for their political agitation, as expulsion from Fort Hare became a de facto rite of passage for generation after generation of student leaders. Others left campus voluntarily to go into exile and join the armed struggle or seek opportunities far from segregated South Africa.
The SRC: changing tides
The SRC itself reflected these changing tides, and the push and pull between students and the University’s administration. Despite tensions between the University and students in the 1950s, in 1958, the SRC and the administration formed a united front in opposition to the Extension of University Education Bill, which ultimately saw the apartheid state seize control of the institution. Throughout the 1960s, students refused to elect an SRC for fear it would be co-opted by apartheid authorities. But by 1971, students led by Jeff Baqwa initiated a campaign for the reintroduction of the SRC, recognising the opportunities a formal SRC presented. University authorities condemned the idea. The findings of a commission of enquiry into student unrest at the time declared: “There is no room for an SRC at Fort Hare, and, for that matter, anything resembling an SRC.” And so, as Fort Hare entered an epoch of Xhosa-only education as a Bantustan university under the apartheid-imposed Ciskei regime, student protest experienced a new, bitter and despised era. It was only in 1985, as the death knell of apartheid was beginning to sound, that the administration bowed to student pressure and an SRC was elected at Fort Hare for the first time in a quarter of a century.
With the release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of political parties in 1990, democratic possibility initiated a period of national euphoria – and deadly political violence. At Fort Hare, students joined forces with workers and staff to oust the apartheid administration and within a few weeks the process of democratic transformation had begun. SRC elections today are contested by independent candidates and a range of organisations, including the student leagues of national parties like the ANC, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the Democratic Alliance (DA), the South African Communist Party (SACP), the Congress of the People (COPE) and the PAC. Democratic-era student leadership at Fort Hare has seen many firsts. In 2006, Fort Hare elected its first female SRC president, Nomsa Mazwai. In 2015, the DA’s Student Organisation (DASO) won Fort Hare’s SRC elections, which had traditionally been dominated by ANC-aligned organisations.
A new era of student politics
Student politics today centres primarily on issues of the rising cost of university education, the inadequacy of financial aid and increasing socio-economic inequality. In 2015 and 2016, the Fees Must Fall movement gave voice to these deepening concerns. Students at Fort Hare and across South Africa mobilised around the call for free higher education. Students also formed a broad alliance with workers and sympathetic staff at South Africa’s tertiary institutions. They called for more concerted transformational efforts to benefit students and workers, and issues such as the outsourcing of labour and the need to decolonise the curriculum came to the fore as a new era of student politics was ushered in.