Save Fort Hare and stop with the theatrics

Many years ago, great men and women descended on Alice, a small town in the Eastern Cape, to get an education at Fort Hare. 

You cannot talk of Fort Hare and not mention some of the founding fathers of Africa who studied at that institution, which celebrated its centenary four years ago. Among them Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, Seretse Khama, Robert Mugabe, Joshua Nkomo and Julius Nyerere. 

But in recent years what was once the pride of not only South Africa but of the continent has found itself facing immense problems. Today Fort Hare University is under administration.

In December, this newspaper carried a story about the report of independent assessors appointed by Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande to investigate governance issues at Fort Hare. This is after former higher education minister Naledi Pandor, last year dissolved the council and appointed the former vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, Professor Loyiso Nongxa, as an administrator to run its functions. 

The report revealed that, among other matters, Fort Hare faced serious financial constraints, employees were using it as a cash cow, there were no proper rules and policies, student residences were in an appalling condition and lecture halls were overcrowded. 

In recent years Fort Hare, like most universities in the country, has had numerous student protests. But some protests at this institution turned ugly, with reports of students slaughtering cows belonging to the agriculture wing of the university. The events of the past few weeks have again shone the spotlight on Fort Hare. Three weeks ago, Yolanda Nogemane allegedly stabbed to death her boyfriend, Yonela Boli, in a residence on the Alice campus. Nogemane was granted R1 000 bail this week. The two were masters students. 

On Saturday, Olwethu Tshefu, who was Boli’s friend and witnessed his stabbing, was himself stabbed to death. A 22-year-old man has since been arrested.

It is Tshefu’s death that led Eastern Cape Premier Oscar Mabuyane to criticise vice-chancellor Professor Sakhela Buhlungu for not taking seriously the violence at Fort Hare. 

A front-page headline in the Daily Dispatch this week read: “Mabuyane slams Fort Hare VC over crisis killings”.

According to the story, Mabuyane said Buhlungu is silent and “resting on his laurels” regarding the murders. The premier said he had sent a message to the vice-chancellor asking what his plans were to deal with the crisis and Buhlungu had failed to respond three days later.

Now the issue of violence in higher education institutions is a serious matter. And it is not only a matter affecting Fort Hare, but campuses across the country. 

This is definitely not a matter that will be solved by finger pointing, nor is it a matter for opportunistic politicians to use to polish their image.

Mabuyane is a leader in the province in which Fort Hare is situated. He does not need permission from anyone to come up with practical plans that can be used to assist Fort Hare to deal with violence on campus.

It is not in the interest of the students studying at Fort Hare to read in a newspaper that a premier chastised a vice-chancellor for allegedly not acting to prevent violence on his campus.

What students and their parents would have preferred to read is that in his state of the province address on Tuesday, Mabuyane announced plans to help higher education institutions in the Eastern Cape prevent violence on campus.

I am not a Fort Hare spokesperson nor do I speak for Buhlungu. I am sure the man is more than capable of telling Mabuyane why he went for days without responding to his messages.

What is most important is that these two leaders sit down and discuss concrete plans and ideas of how they can work together to save Fort Hare.

The university with its rich history is not only the pride of the Eastern Cape but of the continent. It needs to regain its glorious status in academia and not only be in the news for unfortunate reasons. 

That is what is important. The finger-pointing is just a sideshow. 

Politicians need to stop using people’s experiences for theatre. It does not serve anyone. Instead they look and sound pathetic when they do so.

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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