Iconic university celebrates 100 years amid challenges

Former South African president Nelson Mandela wrote in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom that for young black South Africans like himself, the University of Fort Hare was “Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard and Yale, all rolled into one”.

This year, the historic university turned 100 years old. Preparations for the centenary celebrations were planned well in advance and were overseen by an 11-member inter-ministerial committee.

But violent student protests in the days preceding the official ceremony on 20 May put a damper on what should have been a proud moment, highlighting ongoing challenges facing the institution – and the higher education sector in South Africa.

Established by Scottish missionaries in the small Eastern Cape town of Alice in 1916, Fort Hare University nurtured an impressive generation of educated black African elites and served as a cradle of early African nationalism. The university became self-governing in 1970, and today serves as a fitting home to the archives of the South African liberation movements.

African alumni

The University of Fort Hare is the alma mater of a formidable list of influential African leaders and intellectuals who went on to change the political fortunes not just of their own countries, but their continent.

In addition to Mandela, former South African students include former African National Congress president Oliver Tambo, Pan Africanist Robert Sobukwe and Inkatha Freedom Party president Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

African alumni who became state presidents include Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda, Botswana’s Seretse Khama, Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, Uganda’s Yusuf Lule and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.

The latter attended last month’s official ceremony held on the Alice campus in his capacity as an alumnus and gave one of the keynote speeches alongside South African President Jacob Zuma and African Union Commission Chair Dr Nkosasana Dlamini-Zuma.

Outside the hall where the speeches were being made amid tight police security, students continued protest action over unpaid accommodation and travel allowances.

Democratic Alliance Student Organisation leader Yusuf Cassim said in a statement the university had admitted that funding for students had “dried up”, and accused the university management of gross mismanagement and corruption.

Concerns over unrest

In the wake of protests that erupted two days before the official Friday event, congratulations for Fort Hare’s centenary were increasingly qualified by concerns around escalating student unrest. These concerns were compounded by months of sporadic protest at South African universities over fees and other issues such as transformation and institutional decolonisation.

A statement issued the day before the celebrations by the national government’s portfolio committee on education called for the legacy of Fort Hare to be honoured by addressing challenges through critical debate rather than violent protest.

“The centenary year of Fort Hare should not be undermined and overshadowed by a few. Where there are legitimate challenges facing students, the legacy of Fort Hare should be honoured by addressing the challenges through critical debate and the pursuit of academic excellence,” it said.

In his keynote speech at Friday’s ceremony, Jacob Zuma moved from praising Fort Hare for its “pre-eminent role in the educational landscape for black people in the first half of the 20th century” and for being “an instrument of liberation”, to issuing a warning aimed at student protestors:

“Students must reflect and think deeply about whose interests they are serving when they go all out to destroy their future and the future of their country,” he said. “Burning schools‚ libraries and university buildings means burning the future. History will judge those who burn university buildings and schools very harshly.”

He said the government had a responsibility to ensure that freedom and democracy were defended and protected from those with “sinister agendas‚ who wish to sow mayhem and undermine our hard-won freedom and democracy”.

The source of student unhappiness

According to head of the Fort Hare Institute of Social and Economic Research, Professor Leslie Bank, student unhappiness has more justification than is generally acknowledged.

“Since late 2015 when national cabinet got involved in the centenary there has been investment in refurbishing buildings and generally upgrading the Alice campus. Evidence of this produced/contributed to a spat of angry student protest this month ahead of the centenary celebrations.

“Students have seen new investment in Alice but still find that their issues are not being addressed – food, bursaries, residences. This led to widespread violence and embarrassment for the university,” he told University World News.

Writing in the local Dispatch newspaper last October about conditions for students based in East London, where Fort Hare has a campus, Bank said: “The reality is that despite claims to the contrary, the universities have squandered many opportunities to uplift the conditions of students. Funds allocated by national departments and bodies for large infrastructure projects… slip through organisational fingers, sometimes seemingly into certain pockets!”

Turning his critique to the municipal government, Bank wrote: “The needs and challenges of students within the inner city region are also never seriously discussed by the Buffalo City [East London and surrounds] Metro council. The fact is that these young people have been left to become victims of ongoing urban degeneration, crime and violence.”

Bank said research had shown that most of the children whose parents went to Fort Hare and Walter Sisulu University in East London were “keen that their offspring avoid these institutions and go further afield”.

“If one does go elsewhere it is easy to see why.” Student nodes in other cities showed how little had been done for students locally. “Yet they pay much the same fees,” he wrote.

Academic progress

Despite these conditions, Bank told University World News that the University of Fort Hare continued to be one of the best performing historically black universities in South Africa, apart from the University of the Western Cape.

Indeed, improvements in research productivity have been notable.

According to an article by Centre for Higher Education Trust head Professor Nico Cloete, published in the South African Journal of Science at the end of last year, the average annual growth rate of doctoral graduates at Fort Hare between 2008 and 2012 was the highest in the country at 40.6%.

According to an article written by Bank for the Mail & Guardian, this increase translated into 45 PhDs being awarded in 2013.

In the same article Bank noted that Fort Hare's staff had improved their academic output from an average of 0.5 refereed papers per academic per year to 1.5 in 2012, an achievement that, as he pointed out, compares favourably with some historically white universities. In addition, the university now had “a wider range and variation in its teaching programmes”, he wrote.

According to Bank, the rise in research output has been underpinned by support programmes for academics and students and an attractive research incentive scheme.

However, most research was produced by a relatively highly trained cohort of staff and graduate students, mainly from elsewhere in Africa. “More than 70% of Fort Hare's postgraduates are non-South Africans from Southern Africa,” he wrote.

Questions sent to Fort Hare Vice-chancellor Professor Mvuyo Tom concerning financial and other challenges facing the university were referred to his media spokesperson but ultimately went unanswered.

However, Tom was quoted by the state broadcaster as saying that one of the targets of the institution is “to move from being a historically disadvantaged institution to a world-class institution of higher learning”.