University of Fort Hare at the crossroads of its contradictory History and Heritage

The centenary celebrations at Fort Hare University were a huge fanfare filled with the drama of protesters and the reunion of erstwhile students. Picture: Siyabulela Duda

In the past few weeks, I have been reflecting on the year that has been since joining the University of Fort Hare (UFH). I particularly look at two issues. Firstly, my experience to date. The year has been highlighted by mixed feelings. Even though I’m still excited at being here, I cannot turn a blind eye to the disappointment at various levels and specific incidents that have left a sour taste in my mouth.

Secondly, I’ve focused on some aspects of the history of Fort Hare and the need to decolonise the university’s public spaces. Rather than the add-on-approach currently adopted, my view is that the latter has its limitations and does not bring in material decolonisation of public spaces as part of the broader decoloniality project. I read and interpret history differently from the dominant monolithic and hegemonic historical master narrative peddled by the governing party and its administration in the presently-framed craft of curating the nation, editing and curating of the past.

Without rewriting the history of the University of Fort Hare, it is important to give a brief overview of some defining moments, at least for me. Before the establishment of the South African Native College, the land where it is located was under Nkosi Tyali, a brother to Maqoma of Ngqika of Rharhabe. He later, purportedly, gave the land to the missionaries for the establishment of the South African Native College.

Within the territory that constitute the University of Fort Hare in Alice, there is a fort named after a British Colonel Hare. The remains of the fort still exist, though the supposedly rehabilitation of the site in 2016 destroyed its authentic and historical significance, as a remainder of colonial wars, land dispossession of the indigenous people of that area and the clashing of two cultures (African and western) on the one hand and the antithesis heritage of the university, on the other. The dichotomy of the latter is based on the colonial history of the institution that relates to its naming and establishment – missionary institution. The establishment of the South African Native Collage had more to do with the missionaries’ enculturation enterprise and ‘civilising’ the indigenous people.

The South African Native College, renamed in 1955 as the University of Fort Hare, was founded in 1916 and its area including the site of the fort called Hare. In 1916, this fort (Fort Hare) was also a place where the registration of the first students took place. The university was established based on western traditions of knowledge production underpinned by Eurocentric epistemology with the religious tradition at the heart of the College origin. While the institution itself exhibited the conflict of two cultures as demonstrated in Robert Sobukwe’s speech of 1949, the Native College contradictory history and heritage- colonial and missionary heritage and some of its alumnus in the struggle against colonisation and apartheid – which are at the crossroads, have become a usable past of the institution.

Another level of the contradiction is the enculturation project itself. Through colonialism, missionary enterprise and Christianity, the missionary schools such as the University of Fort Hare were meant to Anglicanise, Christianise and ‘civilise’ the locals. However, some locals refused to allow the ‘formal anglicanised education’ to make them lose their African-ness – and they challenged the status quo in an unprecedented way. These generations pre-date the establishment of the South African Native College. But within the latter, Robert Sobukwe was seminal. This is epitomised by his 1949 speech as the outgoing president of the Student Representative Council (SRC) and also by his political philosophy based on African nationalism and Pan Africanism, and his critical analysis of the then South African politics as showcased by the articles he published in the newspaper called “Beware” which he formed as a student.

Fort Hare went through different historical periods- missionary trustees, apartheid era (taken over by the apartheid regime in 1959) through to the Bantustan epoch and to the present. It was in 1970 that Fort Hare became ‘self-governing’ and ‘independent’. But, with the National Party in power and the proliferation of Bantustan theory, the University of Fort Hare, I submit, was later reduced to being an ethnic and Bantustan university with the culture of the latter still evident to date.

James Steward, was not only the principal at the eminent Lovedale College but he was also the person behind the idea of establishing a ‘native college’, though he died in 1905 before his dream could be realised. He is buried on Sandile’s Kop near the University in Alice. Through the massive, imposing and positioning of the Steward Memorial Tower (grave) of 24 metres high, unveiled in 1910, he continue overlooking his dream and its evolution.

History matters and historical context is important. Firstly, a couple of weeks ago the University of Fort Hare issued a statement paying homage to D.D.T. Jabavu and ZK Matthews within the historical evolution of Fort Hare. This was a good gesture by the university, but does not move beyond the abstract and artificial transformation project, popular politics, positioning and relevance in the present.

The posture of the university can also be viewed in the context of iconhood, which is also noted in the national heritage landscapes. This colonial construct and attitude has its own tensions and sociology. Naturally, there are individuals who will shine more than others, but, they are a product of a particular society, socialisation and historical period.

The framing posture of the university is trapped in an artificial and abstract transformation discourse apparent in many South African universities than a decoloniality project. The former, adjust and work within the already existing systems, culture and attitudes. It does not fundamentally change the structure, outlook, attitude and the institutional culture as the latter does.

It is with no doubt that Jabavu was instrumental in the establishment of the South African Native College. However, the historical account leading up to its establishment is important for a number of reasons. If things went W.B.M Rubusana’s way, the South African Native College could have been established in Queenstown because of its central location. Jabavu, who was supported by white missionaries, wanted it in Alice- where it is currently located- as Lovedale College was already existing. This might have been the case and the move to consolidate the missionary education institutions in Alice and the nearby areas. But Rubusana’s proposal also had its merit and decentralisation of institutions of higher learning. Therefore, the establishment of Fort Hare in Alice with Jabavu central to it, needs to be located within its historical context.

Secondly, the transition of the university from being managed and led by white trustees under ‘trusteeship’ and ‘guidance’ of Black institution to the appointment of the first black principal, ZK Matthews, first in acting capacity in 1956 until his resignation in 1959 after realised from prison late in 1958 as was accused in the Treason Trial; did not naturally happen and out of history. His appointment, amongst other factors, must be seen within the politics and a call to Africanise the University of Fort Hare, and transition from trustees to black management and leadership. The Robert Managaliso Sobukwe’s speech of 1949 as an outgoing SRC president, is fundamental and key in order to fully comprehend the situation at Fort Hare at the time. There might have been others who also put pressure, but, this speech is of paramount importance.

Sobukwe in his speech did not lament the change of management from Dr. Kerr to Dr. Dent but instead focused on policy issues and strategic direction which were based on his idea of Africanisation of the Native College both in form and content. In his speech he unequivocally stated: ‘It has always been my feeling that if the intention of the trustees of this College is to make it an African College or University, as I have been informed it is, then the department of African Studies must be more highly and more rapidly developed. Fort Hare must become the centre of African Studies to which students in African Studies should come from all over Africa. We should also have a department of Economics and of Sociology…Again I would like to know exactly what the College understands by ‘Trusteeship’. I understand by ‘Trusteeship’ the preparation of the African for eventual management and leadership of the College. But nothing in the policy of the College points in this direction. After the College has been in existence for 30 years, the ratio of European to African staff is 4 to 1. And we are told that in the ten (10) years’ time we might become an independent University. Are we to understand that an African University predominantly guided by European thought and strongly influenced by European staff? … Fort Hare must be, to the African, what Stellenbosch is to the Afrikaner. It must be the barometer of African thought… Fort Hare must express and lead African thought” (extract from Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe speeches, 1993: 12-13).

Sobukwe was ahead of his time as he advocated for de-colonization of the university and the Afrocentric content before others. His form and content of de-colonization approach at Fort Hare takes into account issues of control, management and leadership, staff composition, independence of the university, and the role it should play in the production of African thought. This speech signifies not just his intellect, but more importantly, his quest for an African university, and him as a man of vision and unwavering love for his people.

This repositioning of Fort Hare by Sobukwe resonates with the current issue of transformation in higher education. The Sobukwe’s intellectual enterprise is as relevant today as was in 1949. The colonial and apartheid ideologies directed and positioned the South African universities in a more Eurocentric worldview. Sobukwe wanted to disrupt this discourse. In disrupting the western and ‘enlightenment’ knowledge system project, Afrocentric and African philosophic thought were theoretical points of departure for him. This theoretical grounding provided a deeper understanding and appreciation of African knowledge in dismantling the hierarchies of knowledge production. The disruption of the colonial consciousness and enculturation project by Sobukwe at Fort Hare involved a curated history of the impact of colonial knowledge, consciousness and legacy drown from the Anglophone university tradition.

The entanglements of the Anglophone knowledge traditions and Sobukwe’s Africanisation of Fort Hare was a political project that was underpinned by politics of identity and recognition against the text of whiteness, white nationalism and supremacy.

Post-1994, there is a need to historicise the decoloniality project in South Africa. At the moment this is lacking. The decoloniality project can be traced in the 1800s. The historircisation of decoloniality project is possible by bringing in the works of individuals such as Tiyo Soga especially from 1865, William Wallington Gqoba. In the 20th century, Sobukwe’s speech of 1949 is fundamental. The decoloniality project and the history of decolonisation of universities in South Arica is incomplete without these points.

It is also through the eyes of this artificial and abstract transformation agenda than decoloniality that the debate about the name change of the university ought to be understood and viewed. What is in the name? Whether the university is named after Colonel John Hare who was one of the colonels that killed the indigenous people, dispossessed their land and later became the colonial administrator, or after the fort that was named after him as some claim; must be changed.

In 2007, when the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) structures in the Eastern Cape mounted a strong bid for the renaming of both the East London Airport and the University of Fort Hare after its founding president, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, the leadership of the University under Dr. Tom through its spokesperson, Bara, opposed the move for renaming of the University of Fort Hare after Robert Sobukwe. His argument was underpinned by considerations of the branding and marketing of the institution. Branding and brand development are manmade, and can change depending on the circumstances. The University of Fort Hare brand, however, has colonial undertones and legacy that contest its recent history.

Similarly, now under the Vice Chancellor – Professor. Buhlungu, the name change issue has not been aggressively taken forward. There are some in the leadership of the university who suggest that Fort Hare should be named after Nkosi Tyali, as he allegedly donated the land where the university is built to the missionaries. This frame of thinking might appear valid and with historical importance. However, it is more complex than it might appear and has its own tension.

What is in the name? On the one hand, the name has a colonial legacy of Fort Hare and the British General Hare. Its name resonates with the killings, dehumanisation, enslavement and land dispossession of the indigenous communities in the region. Its colonial inheritance illustrates the contradictions of the civilising enterprise where education was not a ticket to a just and free society. Rather the faces of the ‘civilised’ locals were as they were rejected and excluded from a white society. The name of the university might be an established brand, but, it has a particular tag and cries of the local communities.

On the other hand, the name has a glorious recent history of liberation, anti-colonial and anti-apartheid struggles as it produced individuals that later fought for the liberation of their countries from white minority rule and some have gone on to become heads of states. This is the history and heritage of the university that is commonly known and associated with the name. However, using this heritage as canal to holistically understand its naming and its evolution should not eclipse the colonial naming, meaning and significance of its name. Politics of naming assists to have a historical and political context of the name itself.

Further, the aforementioned lenses are failing to decolonise the university public spaces. The University of Fort Hare public space complexes need to be decolonised, given a new meaning and interpretation; not through the add-on-approach as is the case. There are a number of public spaces that I can use to qualify my argument, but, for now I will only focus on the public space dubbed the ‘freedom square’.

The ‘freedom square’ has around it the Livingston, Davidson and Steward Buildings in the epicentre of the university; and flanked by Tambo and Sobukwe Walk respectively. In front of these three Victorian architectural buildings, there are interpretation boards depicting their brief history including the individuals they are named after. Through the add-on-approach evident at Fort Hare, on the side of the ‘freedom square’ on Tambo Walk is inserted a bench resembling the old benches that were there, with an interpretation board which has the image of Chris Hani and others, sitting on it while other are hanging around the area. There’s a label titled ‘Black Flags and Bright lights: Freedom Square’. This precinct is framed by colonial aesthetic and architectural gaze, within the colonial cultural geography that is observable at Fort Hare.

The naming of this precinct as the ‘freedom square’ and the new adjustments along the colonial gaze of that public space exemplify the complexities of living between the past and the present. The additions through the add-on-approach de-racialise the space without redefining it in a meaningful way and give a new sense. This is the resemblance of the contradictory heritage of the institution which is at the crossroads and the failure of its abstract and artificial transformation project.

The add-on-approach (adding few new pointers on the old) adopted by the university is a problem on its own. It is important to consider the form and shape of redefining the university’s public space. The former reproduce the old colonial gazes in a refashioned manner with no significant new meaning as it fails to entail a complete alteration in both form and substance.

The University of Fort Hare’s public spaces ought to move beyond the add-on-phenomenon. This phenomenon mirrors the dilemma, challenges and politics of public space design and layout, representation and presentation, dialectics of abstract and artificial transformation project, and the tensions that manifest at these public spaces in transition and at the crossroads.

Dr Luvuyo Mthimkhulu Dondolo is a historian, heritage studies specialist, museologist, the former Rockefeller Scholarship holder at Emory University (US) and the former Fulbright Scholar at Cheyney University (US). He is the Director and Head of the Centre for Transdisciplinary Studies at the University of Fort Hare. He is writing in his personal capacity.