To find education's path forward understand past

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OLIVER Tambo wrote in 1991: “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.”  Following the Fees Must Fall campaign last year, a new focus on the accessibility of education will come into sharp focus this year. The question of access to free education that 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 this year will also see the centenary of one of the most historic institutions in our education and political landscape, the University of Fort Hare. This university leaves in its trail one of the most profound contributions to the leadership of South Africa and Africa. In its alumni wall of fame sits Nelson Mandela side by side with Mangosuthu Buthelezi, Robert Mugabe and Robert Sobukwe. The position of many of Fort Hare’s alumni has been staggering in its influence in the geo-politics of the last century.


The institution can justly be proud of producing some of Africa’s most prominent voices against oppression. It is crucial to understand that this illustrious contribution to the shaping of 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 the University of the Western Cape, were initially created as enclaves of the so-called Bantu education, and blossomed out of that narrative by crafting a history of resistance and untold excellence.

That is why we have leaders who could not finish their studies in institutions like Forth Hare because they were expelled for being activists against oppression – Tambo and Buthelezi being notable examples. Today while the institution may pride itself on having had such students who went on to be great leaders of their nations, the reality is there was a time in its history when the same institutions militated against what they stood for. This is the paradox of the history we will mark this year when we take a considered look at what an institution of this historic significance has achieved both because of a deliberate programme as change agent and what it achieved in spite of the intentions of its colonial and subsequently apartheid architects.


In planning the commemorations, we have taken great care in highlighting not just those who are well known figures but those whose association with Forth Hare is either understated or never highlighted at all.There are men and women across the world who are now influential, but who cut their academic and often political teeth in the shadows of Fort Hare.All year as we celebrate we will be sharing the historical account of Fort Hare, decade by decade, dating back to the days of a mere native college that Fort Hare was established to be, through the years seeing the association with the University of South Africa and the subsequent autonomy until the appointment of Professor Sibusiso Bhengu as its first black vice-chancellor.


So much has happened that underpins our history and it is highly significant to see what the Fort Hare alumni have become. To think that the great Sobukwe, who was such a towering figure in Pan Africanist politics, and the revered Mandela, 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 of bringing down not just the ill-conceived administration at 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 and its history also resonates with the history of other historically black institutions where questions of its legitimacy were often raised as the backbone of activism throughout the years.On the higher education front, Fort Hare can be justly proud to boast association with prominent academics such as professors Barney Pityana, Loyiso Nongxa, Mandla Makhanya, Mahlo Mokgalong, and Thoko Mayekiso. With the challenges that continue to plague education today we hope that the reflection of the journey we have traversed as a 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 for advancement in higher learning. This would be the best tribute we can pay to those who walked such an illustrious journey to create an education institution of reference that Fort Hare has become over the last 100 years.


By Dr Mvuyo Tom, Vice Chancellor University of Fort Hare

This article originally appeared in the Daily Dispatch on 5 January 2016.