To find education’s path forward understand past

The history of Fort Hare cannot be retold as if it were one event. It was, and is, the culmination of a drama of interpenetrating and, at times, contradictory forces.

“It was moulded by the peculiarities of the history of this region of southern Africa, and the struggles authored by that history,” Oliver Tambo said in 1991.

Following the #FeesMustFall campaign of 2015 a new focus on the accessibility of education will come into sharp focus in 2016. The question of access to free education which has been a debate since the dawn of democracy, will be on the lips of all those who wish to see education being made a priority as part of tackling the challenges facing our country.

Ironically, 2016 will also see one of the most historic institutions on our educational and political landscape celebrate – this year the University of Fort Hare marks its centenary.

Established in 1916, it leaves in its trail one of the most profound contributions to the leadership of South Africa and Africa.

Its wall of fame features the name of Nelson Mandela along with alumni such as Mangosuthu Buthelezi, Robert Mugabe and Robert Sobukwe and many other notables. The positions achieved of many of Fort Hare’s alumni has been staggering in terms of influence in the geopolitics of the last century.

The institution can justly be proud of producing some of Africa’s most prominent voices against oppression.

Powerful women such as Phyllis Ntantala and Gertrude Ntlabati are proudly associated with the institution.

It is crucial to understand that the institution’s illustrious contribution to shaping thought and action in the liberation struggle against both colonialism and apartheid was more by default than design. Education institutions of a similar stature such as the former University of the North and University of the Western Cape, were initially created as enclaves of so-called Bantu education and blossomed out of that narrative by crafting a history of resistance and untold excellence.

Some students were expelled for being activists against oppression and could not finish their studies at institutions such as Fort Hare, OR Tambo and Buthelezi being notable examples.

Today while the institution may pride itself on having had students who went on to become great leaders of their nations, the reality is that there was a time when the very same institutions militated against what they stood for.

This is the paradox of the history that we will mark this year when we take a considered look at what an intuition of this historic significance has achieved, both because of a deliberate programme to be a change agent and what it achieved despite the intentions of colonial and subsequently apartheid architects. The issue of developing leadership may become merely anecdotal if not unpacked in full.

In planning our commemorations, we have taken great care to highlight not only well known figures but those whose association with Fort Hare is either understated or has never been highlighted at all. There are men and women across the world who are now influential who cut their academic and often political teeth in the shadow of Fort Hare.

It is impossible to tell 100 years of history in a few articles, hence an all year celebration where we will be sharing the historical account of Fort Hare with the public, decade by decade, dating back to the days of the mere “native college” that Fort Hare was established to be.

Through the years – from the association with the University of South Africa and subsequent autonomy, through to the appointment of Professor Sibusiso Bhengu as the first black vice-chancellor – so much has happened that underpins our history. It is highly significant to see what has become of the Fort Hare alumni.

To think that the great Sobukwe, such a towering figure in Pan Africanist politics and the revered Mandela, a world icon and the first president of a democratic South Africa, both crossed swords with the Fort Hare authorities is simply staggering as a historical mission accomplished.

It is crucial to underscore that Fort Hare like the rest of the apartheid education machinery was established to subdue the progress of the African, not to enhance it. But the resistance, especially that led by student activists through various generations, resulted in an enormous contribution in bringing down, not just the ill-conceived administration of the time but the apartheid state in its entirety.

Fort Hare’s historical trajectory over the last 100 years is therefore intertwined with the struggle for liberation in South Africa. Its history also resonates with the history of other historically black institutions where questions of their legitimacy were often raised as the backbone of activism throughout the years.

On the higher education front, Fort Hare is justly proud to boast of its association with prominent academics such as professors Barney Pityana, Loyiso Nongxa, Mandla Makhanya, Mahlo Mokgalong and Thoko Mayekiso, all of whom have accorded themselves well in the higher education sector, shaping the kind of education that leaders who walked this road previously would have desired for future generations.

With the challenges that continue to plague education today we hope a reflection of the journey we have traversed as an higher education institution will help enrich the dialogue about the solution necessary to take the provision of education to a higher level.

In a year where free education will be topical, the understanding of the historical roots of institutions such as Fort Hare may just create the kind of consciousness about education that is needed to encourage both those who need to make the resources available for education to be effective and our young people who had given up hope of advancement in higher learning.

This will be the best tribute we can make to those who have walked such an illustrious journey to create the education institution of reference that Fort Hare has become over the last 100 years.

Dr Mvuyo Tom is vice-chancellor of UFH. See more on the centenary celebrations on or follow Fort Hare on twitter @ufh1916. Join the conversation on #UFH100yrs and #UFHfeb8