The University of Fort Hare, possibly South Africa’s most famous educational institution, has had something of a checkered past. Opened in 1916 as the South African Native College by Christian missionaries, the school offered a European-style education for students from across sub-Saharan Africa. While the missionaries were part of colonial expansion, which came with its own set of prejudices, they did not take the view that black Africans deserved an inferior education, and learners of all ethnicities and genders studied side by side. Also while the staff were predominantly white, there were black academics working at Fort Hare, with ZK Matthews and DDT Jabavu both employed as professors at the university. The relatively liberal status of the university, and the quality of the education, meant that the institution attracted learners from far and wide. The list of alumni from Fort Hare reads like the who’s who of politics, with no less than five students going on to become leaders of African countries, including former presidents Nelson Mandela and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, as well as current president President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Many of the ANC’s and SACP’s top leaders also spent time at Fort Hare, including Govan Mbeki, Oliver Tambo and Chris Hani.
But with the introduction of the Bantu Education Act in 1953, and the extension of this act to include universities in 1959, things changed for the worse. The government set about to create ‘bush’ universities, and the University of Fort Hare found itself limited to accepting only Xhosa students, with outspoken members of staff being quickly expelled – effectively ending an era of largely non-racialism at the university.
Over the next few decades Fort Hare was the site of numerous student protests, as organisations like SASO stood up against the oppression of apartheid, and the Ciskei homeland regime, which the university became a part of when the Bantustan was established in 1981. In the 1990s the university started the process of repairing the damage caused during the apartheid years, and now just over 100 years after it was first opened, the lecture rooms are once again full of Africans of all races, sitting side by side, eager to take in what the university has to offer.
In February this year, as part of the centenary celebrations of Fort Hare, the South African Post Office produced a special issue of stamps in honour of the university. The stamps include an image of ZK Matthews, after whom Nicholson Road in Durban is now named, and the grave of Dr James Stuart, one of the founders of the university.