My grade four teacher at the Arthur Nyobo Primary School in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, constantly told us about Fort Hare, that when we left “big school” we should go to the university.
Of course, this was just more superfluous information in our young minds, which were laden with more important matters, such as being at the front of the fresh milk queue at break or getting another Pyott’s biscuit. Our teacher never relented, though. In my last primary school report, Ms Bonga wrote: “A hard worker. Let him go straight to Fort Hare.” I kept that report because I wanted to go there.
The university is indeed historic and celebrates its centenary this year. Ironically, it was built on the grounds of a British fort from where marauding British soldiers maimed and killed amaXhosa warriors. Subsequently it became a plain for hunting formal education for the vanquished.
Many great men and women went to the small town of Alice to be educated there. Few other African institutions can claim to have nurtured five African presidents – Seretse Khama, Kenneth Kaunda, Nelson Mandela, Julius Nyerere and Robert Mugabe are Fort Hare alumni.
Fort Hare tells a story of black education over the years. We have a handful of others: Turfloop – or the University of the North (now University of Limpopo) – was a bedrock of struggle for political freedom and also had great students such as Onkgopotse Tiro, (who was later to be killed by a parcel bomb in Botswana in 1974) and countless others who fought for the liberation of this country. Despite being referred to as “bush” campuses, many quality leaders came from them. But their glorious past will not be enough to transform such institutions.
As the #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall campaigns have shown, we cannot rest on our laurels. In the past year, students taught have us that we need to confront that history to change society for the better. Many campuses still show some of the results of a divided past in a number of ways, including scholarship. One can safely say that the issue of redress was never completed in former black universities.
But many of these campuses are strategically built in or near rural areas and we can use this to our advantage, and in a way that was never intended by the apartheid government. These areas should benefit from having higher education institutions in their midst.
Several are in rural areas of struggle, particularly in the Eastern Cape, Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal. Universities in these areas should voluntarily work with schools to improve teaching. It would also enable universities to get to grips with the challenges these schools are exposed to and to undertake relevant research that seeks solutions.
When it comes to failing schools, it may also help to experiment with the concept of teachers being researchers of their own practice.
Many of these schools need serious intervention and a university is well positioned to do this.
There is much need for universities in rural areas to work closely with their neighbours. Usually rural people are far from some amenities but effective knowledge can help them avert disaster. But adult education, health education and other programmes that impart skills need to be well co-ordinated by universities. It is crucial that all universities should break with their elitist position and work closely with people and organisations beyond their gates. People should see universities as part of their lives.
Much work was done by Nokholeji (as the old folk fondly refer to Fort Hare) with people from surrounding villages, but more is expected from this and other historically black institutions.
The teaching staff in former black universities face many challenges, including the extra mile they need to traverse because many students are from disadvantaged backgrounds, including having attended schools that may not have prepared them for university learning. Furthermore, many of these students don’t have the required resources they need at university. They come from indigent families who hope that their children will break the cycle of poverty.
But these historically black institutions continue to be in financial crisis, as we have seen recently at the Walter Sisulu University, the University of Limpopo and Fort Hare. The situation has become so dire at some of them that student funds were used to pay staff salaries.
It is also no secret that the historically black campuses need to improve the quality of teaching and research.
One problem is they struggle to retain the best teaching staff. Research should not be limited to the former white universities, leaving the former black campuses to specialise solely in undergraduate teaching. They need to shed the apartheid legacy and find their place among the best. We need to see them feature on the list of top universities with high research output.
It may take some time before they reach the standard of the historically white “big five” but with commitment they can.
By virtue of its history, Fort Hare remains a leader in higher education among the former black institutions, but we all hope that one day it will defy the odds and be counted among the greatest research institutions.
We hope these former black institutions will carry the dream of strengthening their agenda as leading African institutions of knowledge. They should carry the light for all to see the true liberation of all Africans. Mangaliso Sobukwe, who was the student representative council president at Fort Hare in 1949, was unequivocal about it: “Let me plead with you, lovers of my Africa, to carry with you into the world the vision of a new Africa, an Africa reborn, an Africa rejuvenated, an Africa re-created.”
How apt it is today for Fort Hare to heed the call and lead in the quest for a true African education that also teaches African philosophies. Society needs relevant education now and for our children’s children.
I never went to Fort Hare, but my reverence for it remains.
Professor Vuyisile Msila is the head of Unisa’s Institute for African Renaissance Studies. The views expressed here are his own.