A THES special report on the eve of a meeting of Africa's education ministers
Fort Hare, the crucible of southern Africa's liberation struggle where Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Chris Hani studied, was under threat of oblivion barely two years ago.
In 2000, the South African government responded to falling enrolments and ineffectual management by threatening the unthinkable - the disappearance of Fort Hare as an independent institution. A working party recommended merger with Rhodes University, a former liberal white university in Grahamstown.
Now, in a remarkable change in fortunes, Fort Hare, based in the town of Alice, is to break out of its remote rural home in one of South Africa's poorest provinces to develop a role regenerating one of the country's major seaports and industrial cities.
It will take on Rhodes's East London campus 110km away. Fort Hare is enthusiastic about involvement in East London, but it is resisting a second recommendation by the working party - to take on the health sciences faculty of the University of Transkei in even more remote Umtata.
The opportunities offered by the planned "incorporation" are eagerly anticipated by Fort Hare vice-chancellor Derrick Swartz, who spearheaded a two-year drive to restore confidence in the institution and secure its viability.
Although classed with the traditionally black universities set up to demonstrate a spurious commitment to higher education for the black majority under apartheid, Fort Hare dates back to 1916. Its centre for cultural studies houses the archives of the African National Congress, the Unity Movement of South Africa, the Anzanian People's Organisation, Black Consciousness Movement and the Pan-African Congress. But its location has limited its ability to develop a comprehensive academic programme.
Emphasis is heavily on the arts, with some science and - particularly - agriculture. In common with other formerly black institutions, Fort Hare suffered a decline in student numbers, to just 2,500. Numbers now have risen dramatically to 7,200.
Professor Swartz said the East London plan would give the university access to a major metropolitan market. "For the first time, we will have access to a major port city and its adjacent big townships. Many of the programmes at Alice were quite clearly not suitable for a rural setting - an MBA or commercial subjects. We will be moving the urban-centric programmes (from Alice to East London)," Professor Swartz said.
Aside from its port, East London's prosperity is also entwined with the fortunes of its biggest employer, the DaimlerChrysler car company. Fluctuations in the global motor engineering industry mean this could be precarious for the university.
Professor Swartz accepted there were hurdles to overcome - many linked to the country's struggling school system.
"There are very serious legacy problems for the whole sector, but particularly for those institutions such as Fort Hare that have traditionally focused on giving the disadvantaged a shot at higher education.
"We get students who are significantly underprepared for the challenges of higher education. The interventions we have to make place a great deal of institutional stress on our resources and skills. Even for those who make the grade in terms of entry requirements, a lot of enrichment programmes are needed.
"Unlike other universities, we have not targeted the middle class. We have remained true to our commitment to provide the rural poor and working class with access to our institution."