David Jobbins talks to Mbulelo Mzamane about the unique problems faced in the wake of apartheid. As the second-oldest black university in sub-Saharan Africa, Fort Hare, in the remote Eastern Cape, was inevitably at the forefront of the struggle against white domination of Southern Africa.
Many of its graduates went on to form the leadership in the battles against apartheid and colonialism, including Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe. After last year's elections many of its academics were creamed off to join the transformation process either as ministers - Sibusiso Bengu, the education minister was Fort Hare's last vice chancellor - or in the expanded civil service.
Fort Hare had paid the price during the height of the apartheid years. Starved of resources and the victim of constant harassment by the security forces, it began to atrophy, its academic strengths increasingly compromised. The establishment of other black universities quickened the process, as scarce resources for black university education were spread ever more thinly as the government pursued its policy of separate development.
The end of apartheid has brought its own difficulties - principally the huge gap between the expectations of the black majority and the economic realities of what is now effectively a developing country.
With all of the country's 21 universities now open to black students, it is having to stand comparison not only with liberal white universities but also with Afrikaans universities, and compete for students and money in a system with funding difficulties.
Mbulelo Mzamane, Fort Hare's new vice chancellor, faces conflicting pressures to expand the university's academic range while providing adequate facilities for students who are already demanding a 10 per cent reduction in fees because of the poor state of their accommodation.
"We came in for more than our fair share of repression during the apartheid years," Professor Mzamane said. "If you had to tackle black nationalism you had to neutralise, if not obliterate, places like Fort Hare."
The coup which led to the demise of the Siskei government in 1991 opened the door enough for Fort Hare to make radical changes to its governing body, bringing in Archbishop Desmond Tutu and black trade union leaders.
"We were the first of the South African universities to transform in this respect," Professor Mzamane said. But, even with a new political will, the end of apartheid failed to solve the historically-black universities' funding problems.
"We were looking to a post-apartheid dividend. Universities like ours thought they would be beneficiaries but our initial plans were over-grandiose. We discovered there will not be any hand-outs for the historically-black universities from the government, probably because universities the world over are not priorities over housing and health. The university of the future in South Africa will look to diversification of its funding. We were able to forge a five-year strategic document. We have a clear sense of our strengths and weaknesses and where we would like to go."
The three priorities set for Fort Hare are science and information technology, management science and human resource empowerment and, crucially, rural, social and economic development.
Professor Mzamane is keen to emphasise the last. "In the past our location was seen as a disadvantage, but instead of lamenting our isolation I have seen it as our strength. We are positioned to respond very directly to those people, mainly rural, peasant women, because most of the men are migrant workers, who were marginalised by the past and presumably will continue to be in the future unless they are brought into the fold. If we are going to be euphoric about the new South Africa, it is places like Fort Hare where the new South Africa will be forged, or there will be no new South Africa to celebrate.
"This accounts for our emphasis on the creation of rural growth and small, and therefore black, agriculture. We are trying to carve out a niche for ourselves because soon we can no longer be distinguished by the fact we are a black university, because pretty soon every South African university will have predominately black graduates."
Professor Mzamane has set Fort Hare against "mindless duplication" of the academic profile of other universities in South Africa. "We are resisting pressure to be all things to all people - we cannot afford to start new faculties in medicine and engineering."