The call to rename the University of Fort Hare is not new in the South African discourse after our 1994 democratic breakthrough. In the early years of our democracy, the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC) and its student movement, the Pan Africanist Student Movement of Azania (Pasma) called for the renaming of the university.
The PAC and Pasma proposed the name be changed to honour one of South Africa’s Struggle icons, activist, revolutionary and intellectual giant, “Prof” Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe — a son of the Eastern Cape and president of the first Fort Hare SRC who later became an African languages expert, lawyer and noteworthy academic.
The PAC lobbied widely to gain support behind the name of this intellectual giant who is now buried in Cradock, but its proposal was rejected and its mission failed. However, the debate to rename the University of Fort Hare and its buildings has risen from the grave and back into the public discourse.
The debate is now led by the South African Geographical Names Council (SAGNC) with the intention of repairing the wounds of colonialism and apartheid and is worth critical engagement.
This debate evokes both the bad and the good sides of history. On one side, this is a history of colonial brutality marked by land dispossession and marginalisation of blacks in general, particularly Africans. On the other side, it is a history of the visionary and empathetic leadership of Chief Tyali of Imingcangathelo who donated the land for the building of the educational institutions of Fort Hare and Lovedale College.
On the same side with Nkosi Tyali is the great warrior, Nkosi Maqoma kaNgqika, who led the Rharhabe-Xhosa people against the colonial onslaught at Imfazwe kaMlanjeni (the war of Mlanjeni), in part on the land on which the university is located.
Doubly ironic is that Fort Hare was, as related on the university’s 2016 official centenary website, “built in 1847 and named after Colonel John Hare, a prominent official in the region” and “encroached upon the territory of the influential Xhosa Chief Sandile, and was among the countless provocations that made Sandile and his ally Maqoma hostile to the British”.
The renaming of the institution is more than just a high school recreational debate but is a historically significant engagement that should involve all university faculties in the country and across the continent — indeed, this debate belongs in the social science faculties of the world as this is a decolonial debate of international proportions that must involve all stakeholders.
As the University strategically transitions itself into a decade of renewal, I, therefore, dare to challenge the current Vice-Chancellor of the University of Fort Hare, Prof Sakhele Buhlungu, to broaden the debate for all to engage, which will also profile the university and put it back where it belongs — an institution of great international excellence beyond the contemporary South African political space.
Just as with any form of standardisation of place names and geographic features, the standardisation of the University of Fort Hare as an institution of higher education and the Fort of Hare that is on the institution’s site, needs a well-informed debate, not emotionally charged howling. This must be accompanied by a well-thought-through process of consultations on the broader objectives of the decolonial agenda, which must include all suggestions as well as the initial proposal of the PAC.
This debate must not miss the opportunity to highlight the roles of traditional leaders who are always neglected for political expediency. This is the right moment for the university, its alumni and the current students to occupy centre stage to spark and lead the debate on the process of rewriting and shaping the decolonial project of higher education.
As per the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) conclusions, the ordinary people and victims of apartheid could not be compensated for the physical, psychological, political and socioeconomic losses that they endured through the brutal policies of colonialism and apartheid. However, name changes can contribute a little to the healing process at the political and psychological levels.
The United Nations initiated the move to recommend geographic renaming, hence countries such as Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia, Nyasaland, etc followed the path of standardisation of place names and geographic features. Surprisingly, it has been a long walk for South Africa which is still wrestling with the process after more than two decades since our democratic breakthrough.
We must ask ourselves, why? Is South Africa different from other colonies of settlement?
The question that arises which we must all discuss is whether the transformation of cultural heritage landscapes is a plausible exercise, or should we remain with the same historical narratives of the colonial-apartheid era just because we are saving money for service delivery such as education, health, transport and infrastructure development?
What is the rationale behind the standardisation of place names? What does the process entail? Which results should we expect at the University of Fort Hare?
Answers to these questions will assist the debate on whether it is sufficient for the general population to accept the standardisation process as a done deal by virtue of having followed all the necessary process guidelines, enabling acts, consultations, and related policy regulations? But what if the masses, the motive forces who are supposed to benefit from this activity feel short-circuited by the process?
Taking the University of Fort Hare as a case study, let us look at the following considerations:
- The University of Fort Hare is a hub and fountain of African intellectual capital and intellectualism;
- The African battalion that fought against the settler regiments was attacked from the Fort Hare artillery batteries;
- There are many alumni and convocation members who became international statespersons and intellectual giants. Has it ever been in our thoughts to change the institution’s name to one of them to promote excellence and success? And
- Learning from the BaSotho strategy who were led to victory by Morena Moshoeshoe through stealing the colonisers’ guns and horses, history repeated itself differently when most of the alumni from the university used Western education, which was meant to assimilate them, to advance the African revolution. History was repeated again by Nelson Mandela of Fort Hare’s Wesley Residence and Oliver Tambo of Bida Residence to win against the apartheid regime and consolidate the African renaissance agenda.
I have studied the process of renaming King Williams Town to Qonce, Port Elizabeth to Gqeberha, Grahamstown to Makanda, Port Elizabeth Airport to Dawid Stuurman Airport and East London Airport to King Phalo Airport and the interesting debates that have unfolded from the processes. I am looking with great interest at the possible renaming of Jamestown to James Calata — why not rename Cradock to James Calata?
Interestingly, the debates on name changes as a decolonial project and transformation agenda have revealed that people are not all against name changing in principle — they do not oppose new ideas and they are not anti-transformation, but they are anti-corruption because they do not trust the drivers of change. The current economic climate deepens the resistance.
The debate has also revealed that there are three basic groups in the South African political spectrum, namely; radical-populists, liberals and conservatives. These groups have a significant contribution to the debates on service delivery. They all agree in principle when coming to transformation, but they disagree on the details of how it should be achieved.
For example, the first grouping — the PAC, the EFF and their supporters (the radical-populists) — argue that transformation must happen; everything black must replace and wipe out everything that is embraced by the white community.
The second grouping, the DA and its supporters (the liberals) say that transformation should happen with consideration of other factors — with financial matters being a priority. The liberal take finds expression among some in the governing party (ANC), especially within the current ruling elite. This is evident in the distribution of wealth, patronage dispersal, factional battles and internal policy debates.
The last grouping is the Freedom Plus and the likes of AfriForum (the conservatives) who dismiss the decolonial and transformative agenda in favour of the status quo, of keeping the settlers’ history and heritage and privilege intact at best, and, at worst, they actively oppose it.
All these name changes are charging the South African populace not to be subservient recipients of the decisions taken by the elite but to be more active participants in the process of cultural heritage transformation in their lifetime.
This is not the special reserve of political activists — we all have a role to play in the protection, promotion and preservation of the rich history and heritage of South Africa. There is a serious need for active citizen activism that can form a united front against elitism in democratic processes.
I bet my bottom dollar that the race for the standardisation of the name of the University of Fort Hare will be a contested terrain that will raise some eyebrows, ruffle some feathers, and will resuscitate some ideological differences and show that the university is a larger-than-life institution that can never be messed with unintelligently. DM