REFLECTING ON THE ROLE OF UNIVERSITIES IN THE YEAR OF OR TAMBO

The celebration of the centenary of our countrys great center of knowledge, the University of Fort Hare, is a historic event all South Africans should be proud of. It is our common history that can unite us, and our shared past that give us a sense of collective destiny.

 

Fort Hare University has not just been part of South Africahistory of struggle but rather the true embodiment of the decolonisation of our country and our minds. 
It was set up in the midst of colonialism at the beginning of the 20th century as an ideological  project to win and colonise our minds. It was set up on the ruins of a colonial military establishment from which the British waged their wars of dispossession against the indigenous people.

 Instead of serving its master, this institution has served the people. Instead of producing subservient servants of the master, this institution became an incubation hub for the generation of a revolutionary intelligentsia,  many of whom would play a leading role in liberation movements  in our country and across the continent.

 

Today, we pay homage to these leaders whose glorious history was recounted with admiration by all of us during the centenary celebrations. 

 We remember the people of this province who used Fort Hare as a trench in our struggle for our freedom. 

 We will never forget those students who passed through the hostels and lecture halls of this institution to help shape the history of our country. 

 It is from here that Bantu Education was defeated. 

 It is here that the Bantustan system crumbled and fell.

 To be a centenarian is a sign of strength and a function of resilience.  We grow wiser with experience.

 The question begs to be asked – what have we learnt in the hundred years of Fort Hare?

 

Firstly, that universities can outlive us. They are not just about the present but the future which is yet to become a concrete reality. This challenges us to never allow our universities to collapse under the weight of the present. We must defend them as centres of excellence because their role, contribution and value to society is beyond the Now.

 Secondly, universities are the conscience of the nation. They should speak truth to power, and pursue their independence, through their excellence,  with vigour. But not with violence and destruction 

 

Finally, the universities must emulate Karl Marx in their commitment to knowledge that is not just for interpreting the world, but also for changing it. In transcending time, standing up as our conscience, universities must transform our country, society, and us as individuals. They must empower us, enlighten us, save us from the burden of ignorance, and teach us to never  feel comfortable with dogma, intolerance,  and extremism.

 In this regard, universities are not standing outside society, pontificating about wisdom and virtue, but are in the midst of things  – in our daily struggles, our sufferings, and dreams as a people. They should therefore stand by us in our collective search and quest for a better South Africa.

 We should measure their success not by their distance from society, but through their transformative impact.

 

Conversely, as a society, we should allow our universities to play this role by protecting them, and providing them with requisite resources.  No university must be a bush” university in our country. No deserving student must fail to access our higher education sector because of lack of financial resources.

 Universities must occupy their well deserved place in society through the relevance of knowledge that they produce, and the calibre and quality of graduates they contribute to our nation.

 As the legislative sector, we must continue to protect the independence of our universities and ensure that they are adequately resourced. 

 

 The end of these centenary celebrations is the beginning of another century for Fort Hare.  In the same way that this university has profoundly changed since 1916 when it was founded, the same must be expected in the next hundred years ahead. Fort Hare can endure  and emerge stronger  if it remains relevant and responsive  to societys challenges.  

 

The end of these celebrations is also 4 months since the beginning of the celebration of another centenary – that of Oliver Reginald Tambo,  one of the illustrious alumni of this University. 

 

I had the privilege of serving under OR Tambo during my years in exile and after our return in 1990. I can attest that in OR,  Fort Hare produced one of the best cadres  our country has ever known, without a shadow of a doubt the best ANC leader who served under the most difficult times.

 

If you wanted sharp intellect, he had this in his analytical ability that distinguished him from many of us. If you wanted oratory skills, this he demonstrated in the moving speeches he delivered to call us to action. If you wanted selfless dedication to our people, OR was the best example.  Many of us were touched by him. In strategies and tactics, he excelled. He kept us strong in the most difficult times. He gave us courage when many of us could have succumbed to fear. Under his leadership,  we stood firm and resilient instead of surrendering and giving up.

 Both Fort Hare and OR were born in the years following the founding of South Africa in 1910. Fort Hare is an institution,  Tambo was human like all of us. However,  like Fort Hare, he produced his own graduates,  schooled in the politics of the struggle for liberation. He produced leaders like Fort Hare did, some of whom are at the helm of our country today. 

 

Fort Hare is his Alma Mater and should join the country in celebrating the centenary of this great South African. You are home to the archives of the liberation movement which contain piles of paper which were generated by his life and the movement he led. You can use these archives to celebrate and learn from his life.
He was once your student. His footprints are somewhere in your lecture halls.  His name can be found in your students residences. He is part of your rich history. He is your icon and part of your iconography. 

 

His life should interest your students and the entire academic community.  There is so much that our youth can be taught about him. So much has been written about him, yet not enough is fully known about him. You can help us research further and deeper to learn about this great South African. 

 

 OR Tambo is yours – you must claim him. Fort Hare must be in the lead in the celebration of his centenary.

 We should play our part to ensure that his name unites all of us to work together for a better South Africa.

 

South Africa is at the cross road over the direction and speed needed to transform our country. The Land Question is still a question begging for an answer.  Our people can no longer wait for the promise of a better life. They want to see a better South Africa in their lifetime. 

 Our economy is yet to undergo  the transformation that OR Tambo  envisaged.  Race and gender remain the basis of the ownership patterns underpinning our economy. 

 

In many parts of the country our people are in the streets – over the lack of jobs,  Fees Must Fall, land, hunger and many other issues that were the very reason the struggle was waged against white settler colonialism.  

 We are constantly being reminded that A Luta Continua  – the struggle is far from over. But this struggle must unite rather than divide us. Together,  inspired by OR, we must find our way to a better South Africa. 

 

OR Tambo was the President of the ANC,  our ruling party. He left us a united party. We owe it to our people to continue working together,  united in action.

 He was a cadre par excellence.  We can best emulate him by leading from the front as we combat corruption as a scourge threatening to reverse the gains of our freedom. We must be servants of our people like he was, not leaders with a big chin and cheek.

 

 We will never stop celebrating the University of Fort Hare for its contribution to our nation and continent.  We are richer today in our intellect as a nation, because Fort Hare gave us the Tambos and many other leaders whose lives we must continue to celebrate. 

 

This is an extract from a speech given by the National Chairperson of the African National Congress Cde Baleka Mbete at the Closing Ceremony of the UFH Centenary Year
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