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Fort Hare is not what it is used be

The celebration of University of Fort Hare’s 100th anniversary has, indeed, revealed historical revisionism to portray the university as a hot bed of revolutionaries.

This is a predictable political revision as the desire is to create the profession that former students were trained and destined for revolutionary roles in society.

But one ZK Matthews does not make an army of revolutionaries.

We need to highlight the fact that the university degenerated into a conservative institution characterised by complicity and collusion in producing largely apolitical graduates.

In fact, most were trained to be integrated into a history they should have fought against.

The promotion of Fort Hare as this bastion of radical African politics is nothing but a romantic look at an institution that betrayed its historical mission.

The university was at the forefront of softening the minds of black youth to look forward to being members of the elite that would work within the apartheid system.

The university has produced more dissenters than principled men and women who were selfless and self-sacrificing servants of the people of the African continent.

When it was taken over by the apartheid regime in 1959, the purpose was for it to produce Bantu Education graduates who would fit into the agenda of creating a black middle that would serve as a buffer between the oppressed and oppressed.

The results of this apartheid strategy are to be witnessed today where black graduates have integrated into previous apartheid and whites-only institutions without playing any meaningful role to transform them in any significant way.

But the promotion of Fort Hare as a politically radical institution is not new.

The last 22 years of democracy and freedom have witnessed intellectual and leadership energy focused on a rose-coloured look at the legacy of colonialism and apartheid. The perspective is to be proactive and self-serving.

The prevalent conservative view glosses over and thus ignores the lack of any meaningful and constructive role that products of the institution have played in lifting the African struggle for self-determination to the highest level.

Most of its graduates are legendary men who have played a pivotal in making sure that genuine African freedom is undermined by simply joining the unjust economic system they have failed to beat.

But the preeminent men who studied there and have gone to be architects of the Africa we know and live in today should not be judged by Matthews’ vision but the practical realisation thereof.

It is an open secret that 100 years after its founding, Fort Hare is neither one of the top class university’s in the country nor a centre of learning in the continent and the world.

It has not produced a calibre of African leadership that has reversed colonialism and apartheid nor delivered economic justice and equality.

The fact that it houses important historical documents of the struggle should not be used to hide the fact that many of its graduates lack political consciousness and commitment.

Housing relevant history and spreading indigenous knowledge to all are two different things.

After it produced a man of the calibre of ZK Matthews – who drafted the strategic thinking behind the Congress of the People – one would have expected the much vaunted Fort Hare to produce more men and women who would be implementing the ideals and principles in the Freedom Charter today.

But there is an absence of men who think like Matthews or Robert Sobukwe, for instance, among its products of the last 60 years.

If truth be told, men like Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Julius Nyerere, Sir Seretse Khama and Robert Mugabe have not delivered the Africa we all desire.

How do we account for the absence of men like Matthews, particularly, when Fort Hare is portrayed as this nucleus of the African revolution through education?

This is the question that should be raised rather than glorify a dead past.

We cannot witness and experience the emergence of the self-serving black middle without linking it to the products of Fort Hare.

This is the institution that, among others, has shaped the content and character, aspirations and anxieties and political attitude of men and women who should be leading our society.

It is as a result of Fort Hare and other similar institutions that today we are confronted by a leadership crisis.

The apartheid designed curriculum of Fort Hare, which has not been radically transformed, was aimed at getting many graduates of “bush colleges” to benefit from the unjust economic status quo.

Many were content to get a small yet juicy piece of the pie. Most of those who had access to this privilege lacked the guts and political courage to question the system.

Thus to retain their privileged position and gain peace of mind, they turned their back on political activism – except for very few – to indulge in the pleasures of a middle-class lifestyle.

It is the products of Fort Hare and other similar institutions that have served as midwives to legitimising an unjust economic system that has failed to eradicate prejudice and inequality, among other challenges.

It is an open secret that university graduates no longer go to school to serve “their people”. Fort Hare now produces graduates who pursue their own individual interests to gain access to opportunity and power.

It is about gaining status, position, money and everything that it can buy.

On the other hand, we cannot take anything away from men of the calibre of Matthews and Sobukwe, among others. They were a rare breed. They did what they had to do.

Rather, we must leave the past in the past to focus on the products of Fort Hare in the last 50 years. After all, a tree will only be known by its fruits.

It cannot be said with certainty and pride that today’s graduates come from a deeply bred tradition of committed political consciousness and learning institutions that promote an equal and just society.

Without a direct link between what Matthews and Sobukwe represented, among others, and what today’s products of the university are doing to serve the people, there is no need to over-glorify institutions like Fort Hare.

What I know is that there is no vibrant political tradition of political resistance that has been passed on from studying at Fort Hare today.

Much as it did so in the past, the institution still has to prove to greater society that it has reclaimed its position and role to nurture a new generation for collective and critical consciousness.


  • Sandile Memela

    Sandile Memela is a journalist, writer, cultural critic, columnist and civil servant. He lives in Midrand.