Fort Hare fights for survival

January 12, 2001

The university that acted as a crucible for the liberation struggle across southern Africa, producing alumni such as Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe, is fighting for its survival.

A dramatic drop in Fort Hare's student numbers - from 5,208 in 1995 to 2,869 in 1999 - has hit its income. Its problems are compounded by a failure to put into place measures to re-scale operations in line with dwindling revenue.

Last year the unthinkable was suggested - that Fort Hare should merge with Rhodes University and another traditionally disadvantaged institution, the University of the Transkei.

To marginalise the university as a specialist institution, concentrating on agricultural sciences, would be a difficult political pill for the African National Congress government to swallow. But decisive action by Kader Asmal, the minister for education, was predicted.

Fort Hare has other ideas. A new plan - a blueprint for survival - conceded that it stood at a crossroads, following the departure of its vice-chancellor and an audit that came close to recommending closure.

But current vice-chancellor Derrick Swartz is brimming with optimism. "A total psychological transformation has taken place," he said on a recent trip to London.

The university accepted that "business as usual" was not an option. Professor Swartz is aiming for a clean break with the past - a totally new university council was constituted in June 1999.

Fort Hare was established as a missionary teaching college in 1916. It became a training ground for intellectuals throughout southern Africa and also rose to fame as an intellectual home to Africans from Tanzania, Eritrea, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Namibia.

The university has 239 full-time staff in eight faculties. It has a range of institutes and centres including the Xhosa dictionary project and the Oliver Tambo Human Rights Centre.

The new Fort Hare will have only five academic divisions.

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