A complex past located in global realities

The University of Fort Hare has a complex past which will no doubt continue to occupy historians for years to come. Their task is to wade through the messiness of history and human experience and isolate patterns and themes that help convey the sense and story of a time gone by. In the case of Fort Hare, these themes are many, and they help to situate the University in the regional,  national, continental and global realities of the times it has witnessed. Explore our preliminary selection of themes and come to understand why Fort Hare occupies such a hallowed place in the chronicle of higher education and liberation in Southern Africa.


In this early photograph, a student studies on the ruins of the original British fort after which the University of Fort Hare is named. © Cory Library / Rhodes University / Africa Media Online

Landscapes steeped in struggle

The original “Fort Hare”, whose ruins stand within the University grounds, was built in 1847 and named after Colonel John Hare, a prominent official in the region.

Fort Hare’s landscape, and the Amathole Mountains beyond, are said to be alive with the ghosts of 19th Century Xhosa warriors and their foes – the forces of the British Empire. The original “Fort Hare”, whose ruins stand within the University grounds, was built in 1847 and named after Colonel John Hare, a prominent official in the region. It  was one of many Eastern Cape forts that followed a distinctly British strategy: establish a fort and town (or “military village”), and colonial settlement of the agricultural land beyond would proceed. The strategy had been employed in imperial conquests ranging from Ireland to Australia.

The Fort encroached upon the territory of the influential Xhosa Chief Sandile, and was among the countless provocations that made Sandile and his ally Maqoma hostile to the British.

The climactic Eighth Frontier War (1850-1853) was defined by the two chiefs’ tactical astuteness, as their warriors overwhelmed settlements and supply chains, then locked thousands of colonial troops into guerrilla warfare in the mountains. However, the many months of fighting disrupted regular farming and herding, and the Xhosa were eventually starved into submission.

A hundred years later, “Fort Hare” came to signify a very different kind of fort – a castle of the intellect for Africa’s liberation. The irony would, perhaps, have raised a smile among the ghosts of Sandile, Maqoma and their valiant followers.

Members of the Committee of the Inter-State Native College Scheme, including John Knox Bokwe (seated on steps, right) and J.T. Jabavu (back row, 3rd from left), Lovedale College, Alice, 1905. © Cory Library / Rhodes University / Africa Media Online

Why here?

“Situated in the heart of an area of great missionary endeavour.” Professor Z.K. Matthews

Professor Z.K. Matthews, renowned for his leadership of Fort Hare in the 1950s, stresses in his short history of  the University that it “is situated in the heart of an area of great missionary endeavour”. He points out that Fort Hare is only a few miles from the site of the region’s first school for African children, established in 1799 by the London Missionary Society, and only a mile away from Lovedale, the non-racial school established by the Glasgow Missionary Society in 1841.

Matthews’ emphasis on missionary endeavour is confirmed by other scholars. The missions provided a formal European education, and so too a foundation for the rise of a new African middle-class, able to navigate both European and African cultural terrain. It was natural, then, that the strongest thrust toward an open, African university would come from missionaries and mission-educated community leaders – men like John Knox Bokwe and John Tengo Jabavu, both schooled at Lovedale.

Bokwe, Jabavu and others of their stature served on the Inter-State Native College Committee, which in 1905 began to lay the administrative foundations for the South African Native College.

Their work came to fruition in 1916, when the College (built on land donated by Lovedale and later renamed after the area’s historic fort) opened its doors to all races.

The iconic Christian Union Hall (pictured here on an old postcard) is one of the earliest buildings of the University of Fort Hare, and has long been a space of political debate and ideological contestation. © Rama Thumbadoo

In the tapestry of African learning

The University of Fort Hare holds a remarkable place not only in African political history, but in the history of higher education across the continent.

The University of Fort Hare holds a remarkable place not only in African political history, but in the history of higher education across the continent. This history, woven from diverse strands, often starts with Sankoré University in Timbuktu. From the 14th to the 16th Century, Sankoré was a centre for Islamic scholarship in mathematics, science and philosophy, and possessed one of the world’s largest libraries (with up to 700,000 manuscripts).

Africa’s first Western-style university was Fourah Bay College, Sierra Leone, founded by Anglican missionaries in 1827. It focused on training teachers and clergymen, and attracted students from across British West Africa. Over the next century, such institutions would appear in many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, backed by missionaries and other organisations.
Fort Hare was part of this thread, yet somewhat unusual: it was conceived by an existing community of African intellectuals; and was immediately open to all, regardless of race, class or gender (whereas colleges elsewhere in Africa had sometimes been “for the sons of chiefs”).

Africa’s national universities emerged from the 1950s to 1980s, following independence from colonial rule. In Mozambique and Zimbabwe, for example, colonial “ivory towers” were transformed to serve grassroots needs, with massive training programmes for teachers and agronomists. Again, in this period, Fort Hare was unusual – an island of African nationalist sentiment assaulted by the crashing tides of apartheid.

Reverend Isaac Williams Wauchope (1852 – 1917), pictured here with his family, campaigned for the establishment of the University of Fort Hare. © Cory Library / Rhodes University / Africa Media Online

The Gospel of self-affirmation

History often credits “missionary education” entirely to Western missionaries. The University of Fort Hare’s roots belong equally, however, to a line of strong-willed African evangelists.

First among them was Tiyo Soga (1829-1871), the first black South African to be ordained. Educated near Fort Hare, at Chumie Mission and Lovedale, and in Glasgow, Scotland, Soga would translate the Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress into Xhosa.He married a Scotswoman, Janet Burnside, and together the couple stood in lifelong opposition to every form of prejudice.

Soga’s mantle was inherited by Isaac Williams Wauchope (1852-1917) and John Knox Bokwe (1855-1922), both keen campaigners toward establishing the University of Fort Hare. Wauchope and Bokwe also attended Lovedale. They became Renaissance men, melding religious faith, public affairs, teaching, writing and musical composition into their enviably rounded careers. Their life-stories repeatedly defied racial stereotyping: Wauchope took part in a missionary expedition to Malawi, for example; while Bokwe created the town of Ugie’s first school, for black and white children alike.

Fort Hare’s early roots dipped also into the affirming influences of church-based African-American universities, and of African-American leaders like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois (whose sharpness of spirit was captured in his declaration: “If there is anybody in this land [the segregated U.S.] who thoroughly believes that the meek shall inherit the earth, they have not often let their presence be known.”)

Sir Seretse Khama, first president of Botswana, from 1966 to 1980. © Botswana National Archives

A New Dawn for African Leadership

“It is our hope that all our students will show in their life after College that sound learning need not lead men to lose the common touch. The ability to move freely in all classes without any sense of inferiority or superiority is one of the marks of a truly educated man or woman.” Z.K. Matthews , Acting Principal, Fort Hare, 1956

Up until the 1900s, Africa’s national resistance leaders had largely been kings or prophets: King Maqoma and the prophet Nongqawuse in the Eastern Cape; King Moshoeshoe in Lesotho; the prophet Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana (“Mbuya Nehanda”) in Zimbabwe; and so on. From 1916, however, the University of Fort Hare was to produce a new breed of African leader, focused on the powers of democratic consensus and the ballot box, rather than the powers granted by ancestry.

“We recognise no class distinctions among our students,” declared Acting Principal Z.K. Matthews in 1956. “It is our hope that all our students will show in their life after College that sound learning need not lead men to lose the common touch. The ability to move freely in all classes without any sense of inferiority or superiority is one of the marks of a truly educated man or woman.”

Among the “truly educated” men produced by Fort Hare were ANC President-in-Exile Oliver Tambo, Prime Minister Ntsu Mokhehle of Lesotho, and President Yusuf Lule of Uganda. It also produced three first presidents of their respective nations – Seretse Khama of Botswana, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, and Nelson Mandela of democratic South Africa. Regardless of how history ultimately judges each president, it was their Fort Harean freedom from class restrictions that made them supreme negotiators in the liberation of their nations.

Chris Hani (1942 – 1993), Chief of Staff of uMkhonto weSizwe and leader of the South African Communist Party. © Oryx Media Archive / Gallo Images

A Seedbed for Ideologies

“I joined the underground South African Communist Party as I realised that national liberation, though essential, would not bring about total economic liberation.” Chris Hani

The University of Fort Hare’s conduciveness to enquiry and debate saw various ideologies flourish among its students, and seeded the diversity of their later political beliefs. Such was this diversity that, during the 1990-1994 negotiations toward South Africa’s transition to democracy, almost every competing ideology was embodied in a leader who had passed through Fort Hare.

Within the liberation movements, the key debate was between Pan-Africanism, Communism and the ANC’s pragmatic form of African Nationalism. The Pan-Africanist followers of the late Robert Sobukwe (who had received his BA from Fort Hare in 1949), held to Sobukwe’s view that Africa should be liberated by black Africans, and rejected the ANC’s alliance with white, internationalist Communism.

At the opposite end, the iconic uMkhonto weSizwe commander Chris Hani (who had studied modern and classical literature at Fort Hare), was an avowed Communist.

While the ANC’s O.R. Tambo and Nelson Mandela came to espouse a left-of-centre pragmatism, the right-of-centre was occupied by another old Fort Harean, the Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi. Buthelezi was a proponent of free-market enterprise, and of the federalism that underpinned South Africa’s new provincial government system.

Left: Gertrude Nontwana Ntlabathi, graduation, 1928. © Howard Pim Africana Library. Right: Dr Mary Susan Malahlela, the first black woman to qualify as a medical doctor in South Africa. © Linda Mandewo, daughter of Dr Malahlela

Seizing empowerment

“At the inaugural meeting [of black community stakeholders] the question arose of admitting women. Without a dissenting voice, the delegates decided that women should be admitted from the start.”

So wrote Phyllis Ntantala, who attended Fort Hare in the late 1930s, in her account of the founding of the University. Early admission of women was something to be remarked upon; at Oxford, for example, women were only admitted for degrees in 1920.

Fort Hare was at first geared more to matriculation examinations than degrees, but by 1928 it had produced one of South Africa’s earliest black woman graduates, Gertrude Nontwana Ntlabathi, B.A.

Many more remarkable women would follow in her footsteps; among them Mary Susan Malahlela, the first black woman to graduate as a doctor in South Africa. Malahlela started her medical studies at Fort Hare, registering in 1936 as a pre-medical student. Life was not always easy for Fort Hare’s pioneering women. Ntantala recalls being housed “in makeshift cubicles attached to the Jabavu house on the banks of the Tyhume River”, and that – with just nine women registered at the time – one had to be skilled in one’s handling of male advances and friendships.

Today, Fort Hare’s lineage of strong women alumni continues, through a host of woman achievers in politics, business, sport and many other fields.

Ernest Mancoba (1904 – 2002), artist. © Joe Sefale / Picturenet

Radiating intellect and art

“For young black South Africans like myself, it was Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard and Yale, all rolled into one...” Nelson Mandela

Mandela’s words capture the dynamism of Fort Hare’s intellectual legacy, and bring to mind a roll-call of the leading intellectuals and artists who have emerged from the University: Z.K. Matthews in education, Robert Sobukwe in political theory, Dennis Brutus in the poetry of liberation, Godfrey Pitje and Livingstone Mqotsi in anthropology, Can Themba in journalism, Ernest Mancoba in fine art, Tichafa Parirenyatwa in medicine (and in creating Africa’s first formalised traditional healers’ association), Nyameko Barney Pityana in law and liberation theology… the roll-call could go on indefinitely.

Key to Fort Hare’s intellectual vitality was its meshing of African traditions of oral debate with the curiously secular, open-minded ethos that often characterised Scottish missionary education. This ethos was rooted in the 18th Century Scottish Enlightenment, whose philosophers and scientists had demonstrated that humankind, guided by the gift of rational reasoning, holds within itself the power to shape its world for the better.

Beda Hall residence football team, Fort Hare, 1948. © Cory Library / Rhodes University / Africa Media Online

Sport and student life

“We played rugby, cricket, association football, and tennis and went in for almost frenetic competition with other schools,” Z.K. Matthews recalled of his student days at Fort Hare in the early 1920s. “Indeed the competition grew so fierce and feelings ran so high that eventually the cups [for victory] were withdrawn...”

The Fort Harean passion for sport would be evidenced not only on the field, but in the influence of Fort Hare’s alumni on sports politics. Dennis Brutus, for example, led the campaign to suspend apartheid South Africa from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Such was his tenacity that he was imprisoned on Robben Island – and, while he was occupying the cell next to Nelson Mandela’s, news of the successful suspension broke.

Today, Fort Hare is renowned as a centre for grassroots rugby and cricket development, through institutions like its National Heritage Day Rugby Tournament, and the Joint Venture Rural Cricket Academy – which has produced, among other outstanding cricketers, several black Women’s Proteas.

Fort Hare’s playing fields have a panoramic natural backdrop, and many an old Fort Harean’s recollections feature, in the same breath as sport, picnics in the countryside and romantic walks beside the Tyume River. Indeed, self-created, sociable entertainment has always been a prominent part of student life at Fort Hare, with other passionately followed activities including music-making, chess and bridge.

As part of the national #FeesMustFall student movement, University of Fort Hare students protest over the proposed increase of tuition fees, University of Fort Hare, 2015. © Thomas Holder / Eyewitness News

Seige and protest

Fort Hare has seen this spirit of righteous indignation continue across the decades and into our age of social media, with the #FeesMustFall campaign.

Since opening its doors in 1916, Fort Hare was an island of non-racialism within the colonial and later the apartheid landscape. This put it under many forms of siege, both great and small. One source records the hostility in the 1950s between the University community and the conservative townsfolk of Alice, whose “local lads” pelted tomatoes at a visiting American researcher known to be friendly with black radical students.

In the same era, in distant Pretoria, the legislative forces of apartheid were mustering; by 1959 they had decreed that Fort Hare was to fall under direct government control, and to serve Xhosa-speakers exclusively. Acting Principal Z.K. Matthews resigned in protest, and so forfeited his entire pension just three months before it was due. His example was followed by the majority of academic staff.
Fort Hare’s student body had its own longstanding tradition of protests, directed both internally (against, for example, compulsory attendance at religious services) and externally, as when students occupied segregated benches in Alice during the nationwide Defiance Campaign.

The imposing Gasson Centre on the University’s East London Campus houses the Department of Social Sciences and Humanities. © Rod Bally

Boosting Buffalo City

The University of Fort Hare is blessed with three campuses: the original campus in Alice, and campuses in Bhisho and East London, towns that both fall within the Buffalo City Metropolitan Municipality.

Bhisho stands equidistant between Alice and East London. From 1981 to 1994 it was the capital of the Ciskei, a so-called “independent homeland” created under apartheid. In 1992 it witnessed a notorious massacre of anti-apartheid protesters by Ciskeian troops. Today, peacefully transformed, Bhisho is the seat of the Eastern Cape provincial government. Fort Hare’s Bhisho Campus, established in 1990, has become renowned for its public-service related courses, and for programmes geared to building the capacity of provincial government staff members.

The East London campus was established in 1981, as a satellite of Rhodes University. In 2002 it was transferred from Rhodes to Fort Hare, as part of the nationwide rationalisation of tertiary learning institutions implemented under education minister Kader Asmal. While Asmal’s more ambitious rationalisations (such as the merging of universities with technikons) became highly contentious, the transfer of the East London campus was efficient and relatively harmonious. The campus has gone from strength to strength, and is especially noted for its contributions to primary education, public health resources and leadership development.

A Siyakhula Living Lab Project facilitator assists a community participant, Eastern Cape, 2014. © Sophie Smith

Reaching out

“We are proud of our over 90-year long history,” writes Fort Hare Vice-Chancellor Dr Mvuyo Tom in his introduction to the University’s Strategic Plan for 2009-2016. “But we also recognise that society is rightfully placing greater demands on us…”

To meet those demands – above all, demands to alleviate poverty and unemployment – the University has engaged in concerted outreach initiatives over the past two decades. Among the most acclaimed are the UNESCO Oliver Tambo Chair of Human Rights, based at Fort Hare, which has trained women and youth in democratic participation and economic self-sufficiency; the Siyakhula Living Lab (in partnership with Rhodes University, Telkom and others), which connects 17 rural schools to each other and the rest of the world; and the Nguni Cattle Project, which has been returning these indigenous cattle – renowned for their capacity to endure disease, drought and marginal grazing – to community pastures in the Eastern Cape since 2003.

The 2009-2016 Strategic Plan goes on to note that: “Over the past several decades, universities have become increasingly effective at ‘responding’ to formal private sector requirements. They have been far less successful at explicitly serving the agenda of the rural poor.”

Beyond 2016, Fort Hare will continue to serve the poorest of the poor, in both rural and (through its East London campus) urban contexts.