February 8 2016, is a milestone on the calendar: it marks the University of Fort Hare in Alice turning 100 years old.Originally a British fort in the wars between British settlers and the Xhosa of the 19th century, missionary activity under James Stewart led to the creation of a school for missionaries from which at the beginning of the 20th century the university resulted.
It is interesting to reflect on the fact that institutions such as this, and that were cradles to so many trailblazers of the past century, were created to keep black people in check, not to empower them through knowledge and experience.
To consider the honour roll of luminaries who have been associated with Fort Hare over the decades, such as Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela and ZK Matthews, to name but a few, fills one with immense pride.
It also serves as a powerful reminder of what a spectacular failure the apartheid project was in its institutionalised attempt to provide second-rate education. These luminaries — and there are many like them — succeeded despite the best designs of the oppressors.We celebrate Fort Hare’s centenary at a time when the question of access to education is once more at the top of the agenda.
The question we need to answer today is whether there are lessons from Fort Hare’s trajectory that can be applied to today’s challenges, to avoid making the mistakes of the past. What kind of institution is needed today to carry on the great traditions of Fort Hare?
The university’s Vision 2030 will see the rehabilitation of a dilapidated campus, with the building of a world-class library, great laboratories for scientific research and decent residences. However, this vision requires huge capital to restore the legacy of this fine institution.
The upgrading of the neighbouring community of Alice to attract students who, from a lifestyle perspective, would rather be in a university city such as Cape Town, is going to take some doing.Fewer and fewer students will in future want to be confined to a bush college set-up, far away from decent recreational facilities.
This raises the question of how we can undo the bush colleges of old and integrate universities into neighbouring towns as part of stimulating local economic development.But these are largely issues of infrastructure.The focus should be on the real question: has Fort Hare evolved to be a truly universal yet proudly African university that can be trusted with liberating young minds?
Have our universities’ curricula evolved since 1994 in terms of what they teach our young people and how they prepare them for an era of post-colonial reconstruction?For me, the real celebration of an institution such as Fort Hare lies in answering these questions.
My hope is that in executing Vision 2030, Fort Hare can achieve the financial support needed to build a lasting legacy that will truly honour the luminaries who strode the campus in the past.
On a different note, the question of free higher education must become a key deliberation in the educational dialogues Fort Hare is hosting to mark its centenary.As a country, we waste valuable resources on graft and on unnecessary projects, and in the process, we neglect spending that would ensure access to education.This matter is serious as it defines the kind of future we create for our young people.
So many of them may remain outside the higher education system because of poor pass rates and low-quality basic education, or because they take their university pass and waste it by prematurely entering the job market because of the prohibitive cost of education.
The University of Fort Hare’s centenary is an opportunity for the entire higher education sector to take stock of its future so that those who walked this path can have their legacy restored, and future generations can reap the rewards of true economic empowerment.
• Onkgopotse Tabane is a regular columnist for the Sunday Independent.