The Chairman of the Council,(2)
Members of the University Council,
Members of the Senate and Heads of Departments,
Members of the Student Representative Council,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Comrades and friends,
I stand here before you today, in all humility, to receive the two great honours this university community has deemed proper to bestow on me. To receive an honorary degree from my alma mater, Fort Hare, and to be appointed as Chancellor at the same time, is for me an honour without parallel. I am even more humbled by the fact that the university has elected to honour me, as it does, on the day that we are celebrating the 75th anniversary of its foundation.(4)
This occasion, therefore, offers a real temptation to cast our eyes back over the past, perhaps to discern more clearly the path that lies ahead of us, especially because we are dealing with an institution that abounds with a troubled but immensely rich history.
The wheel of history has turned full cycle in the life of this university, and indeed the life of our people in general. Many years ago I represented former students of this university on the University Council. I was compelled to abandon that seat because of the negative attitude of the then authorities. It is indeed a positive sign of the times that today I return to Fort Hare to serve. This is, therefore, a happy and emotional occasion for me. It is an hour that links the distant past, all its joys and tears, to a bright future we are all striving to build.
In 1915 the United Church of Scotland established a university here. The university was officially opened on the 8th February 1916. On that occasion, the Chairman of the Council hoisted a Union flag, based on the tricolour, and at its centre bearing the flags of the Transvaal, the OFS and the two British colonies of the Cape and Natal, symbolising the union between Afrikaner and Briton, at the expense of the black majority. One wonders what flag would be appropriate to hoist today.
It is instructive to note that the first University Council was composed almost entirely of whites. The sole exception was the pioneer African journalist, John Tengo Jabavu. The name Jabavu will always be inextricably linked with this university because of the contribution of John Tengo and, for decades afterwards, that of his son Don Davidson Tengo Jabavu, or Jili, as he was affectionately known to his peers and his students alike. He was the first African Professor to grace Fort Hare.
Sixty percent of Councillors were members of the United Church of Scotland. Even though the University was established by the United Church of Scotland, it never excluded members of other denominations. This was true to the traditions pioneered by the Scottish missionaries, who made an outstanding contribution to education in this part of the country. The Fort Hare of today should borrow from this tradition of mutuality, expand on it, and apply it creatively to present-day conditions. It should imbue all who pass through it with a spirit of tolerance that is so essential to both the process of change and reconciliation in the country.
It is a testimony of the profound changes which have taken place, and continue to manifest, that today amongst members of the University Council, we find a diversity of eminent South Africans. They include Govan Mbeki, Francis Wilson and Louis Skweyiya. We have indeed covered much ground, from the days of Professor Alexander Kerr, Fort Hare's first Vice-Chancellor, to Dr. Sibusiso Bengu as Vice-Chancellor of Fort Hare.
This forward movement in our university and society at large has not been without pain. Those of us, associated with this process of change, understand fully well the magnitude of these developments. They came about, in the first instance, because of the men and women who attended this institution as students, those who served in it as members of staff, and the millions of our people who have fought to defend its name and its honour, against terrible odds. Many students suffered expulsion for their activism at this university. Many had their studies terminated for daring to assert their dignity.
The banning of free speech in South Africa was foreshadowed in this university in the measures taken against the collective student body and individual students. In the South Africa of the postwar years, conformism in politics was elevated by the rulers to a national ideal. Especially after 1948, the state considered all those critical of it as disloyal, subversive and intrinsically worthless. If Fort Hare is today in the process of being reborn as a university worthy of that name, it owes much to the students who entered its halls, waged struggles and moved on, decade after decade since its founding. We shall never forget them, and we should not permit our country and our people to forget their sacrifice.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Many years ago I lived on this campus as a young student. Like other students from all over the country, from southern Africa and indeed the whole of Africa, I drank from this fountain of knowledge. I recall, with a sense of nostalgia, that I was housed in Beda Hall, and our President, Comrade Nelson Mandela, resided at Wesley House. At that time, Fort Hare was one of the leading seats of learning on the African continent.
We had, at Fort Hare, the inestimable advantage of access to the intellectual traditions of the enlightenment, the richness of its thought, and a college blessed with men and women determined to attain the humane values implicit in that tradition. We also had the good fortune of being in dynamic and continuing intercourse with vigorous local traditions. Yet we were sufficiently distanced from them to be critically discriminating. The political debates, the traditions nurtured by the college, the moral tone of its teaching staff, the earnest and ardent temper of its student body - these were influences that moulded us.
There was the great Alexander Kerr, the first principal of Fort Hare. We must acknowledge that he was a powerful personality who left an indelible impression on the entire history of this university. However, his colonial sensibility was perhaps responsible for the worst faults of that period. But his immense compassion and dedication to scholarship also laid the basis for the achievements of Fort Hare. His individual contribution to what Fort Hare became can never be doubted.
The history of Fort Hare cannot be retold as if it were one event. It was, and is, the culmination of a drama of interpenetrating and, at times, contradictory forces. It was moulded by the peculiarities of the history of this region of southern Africa, and the struggles authored by that history. Each year there gathered a society of brilliantly and diversely gifted persons. The forces which operated in that tiny commonwealth were those of integrity and commitment, obligation and sacrifice. Fort Hare was a place in which the standards of public life were set by minds and souls preoccupied with truly lasting values. These were the search for truth through reasoned argument and debate - the pursuance of good through deeds and not merely words.
The moral imperative under which we tried to conduct our lives was the view that what was good for the country would also be good for the individual. What enabled the student body, which was renewed each year, to make sense of its life, was the motto of our college:
"In your light, let us see light"
In addition to education, this university has also made an immense contribution to building a national and continental leadership. Outstanding African statesmen from countries such as Botswana, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Zambia, Uganda and others walked across the lawns and studied in the halls of this university.
Fort Hare, since its birth, has been the site of epic battles between the forces of democracy and those opposed to it. The world of inherited circumstance in which, and out of which, the young Fort Hareans constructed their sense of identity, was a double one: the outer world of South African white society and the inner world of our own families and friends. These two spheres impinged painfully on each other. It is Brutus,(5) another Fort Harean, who captures the anguish most graphically:
The sounds begin again
the siren in the night
the thunder at the door
the shriek of nerves in pain
then the keening crescendo
of faces split by pain
the wordless, endless wail
only the unfree know
There existed at the heart of our experience between the two worlds, a tension, a stress, a species of structural paradox which was profoundly influential in our development as individuals. Contradictions were not simply a philosophical construct but expressed the lived experience of this emergent intelligentsia who knew and felt the discontinuities between the sensibilities acquired through learning and the life of our people in the country. Those contradictions produced a brand of man and woman for whom the intensity and flavour of living lay not merely in knowing but in doing.
Mr. Chairman of Council,
Had it not been for the valiant refusal of the Students Union to succumb to the dictates of the University of Fort Hare Act - the brainchild of Verwoerd and his colleagues, this university would have been reduced to a simple bush college. These students' struggles were supported by our own people and the people of the world, some of whom we are honoured to have amongst us today. In this context, we shall continue in our endeavour to restore to Fort Hare its place of honour among the universities of Africa, indeed of the world.
That fight cannot be seen apart from our struggle to regain our humanity. We are, therefore, called upon to embark on the long and thorny road of transformation. Transformation requires a more dynamic discourse that insists on capacity and potential; on originality and on a creative existence that makes and remakes its own essence; that stimulates a will to overcome history, time and necessity, rather than encouraging submission. We need to introduce this into our universities as much as to our national fora. South Africa needs to believe in our capacity to overcome our painful history; to begin again and to regard our failures, when they occur, not as finite moments, but as occasions for a new beginning.
To develop this world view, this irrepressible optimism, we must grasp concretely the inhibitive power of the common sense notion of identity. In this regard, we must insist that nothing is preordained. Nothing is given in perpetuity. Only then would the many structural problems associated with efforts at transforming our universities and our country respond more readily to our collective determination. To find the way forward, we have to turn back to what our people tried to build here at Fort Hare. First, there are the intellectual traditions pioneered here and carried to our country and the world by Fort Hareans. The best of these are inextricably bound with the national democratic project. Our social, cultural and political history has, as its leit motif, the affirmation of the liberation of humankind. Associated with this are the traditions handed down from the enlightenment and insistence on humanism, on the idea that the human person is of intrinsic value, and is perfectible. It is these and other related strands of our intellectual heritage that will contribute to the project of national transformation.
As our country is poised for a new beginning, our university must be freed from the shackles of the University of Fort Hare Act. A new Act, which will define the nature and scope of our university within the parameters of democratic values and ethos, is long overdue. That new Act should find its inspiration from the long-standing traditions of struggle associated with Fort Hare. It must be passed by a new and democratic parliament.
Mr. Chairman of the Council,
For me this day is just the beginning of what one hopes will be a longterm and useful association amongst ourselves as members of this community of scholars. It is my most sincere wish that the Vice-Chancellor, members of the Council, members of the Senate, the teaching staff, members of the Students Union and the employees of the university should all work together in the spirit of cooperation and mutual respect. We have it within our grasp to once more make Fort Hare a leading institution in the life of our country. Let us make that a reality by our collective endeavours.
1 From: Addresses given by Dr. O.R. Tambo, Dr. S.M.E. Bengu, Professor C.L.S. Nyembezi at the Installation of the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor. University of Fort Hare, Alice, 1991.
4 The Fort Hare College - established by the United Free Church of Scotland - with financial assistance by the Transkeian Territorial General Council and the Union Government - opened in 1916.
5 Dennis Brutus, poet and leader of the campaign against apartheid sport, graduated from Fort Hare in 1947.