Fort Hare’s place in my indignant heart

By Martin Challenor

The town of Alice, in Eastern Cape, holds a dear place in my heart, especially the University of Fort Hare; albeit a heart that is seething with indignant rage now at what has happened there.

My life has been a mix of being a student, an academic and a media person. I studied for my first degree at the University of Natal (UN), Durban campus, from 1972 to 1974. I benefitted greatly from the teachings of assassinated Dr Rick Turner and other esteemed academics. From there I went into newspapers in Durban, Johannesburg, and Surrey, England.

Kathy and I found ourselves hiding hunted student

In 1984 I went back to the Durban campus to take an Honours degree in Comparative African Government and Administration (CAGA). Ask me why I did this in 1984. Well, I had a cousin who belonged to a religious sect that was convinced the world was coming to an end in 1984, plus I thought George Orwell knew something I did not, so I was taking no chances. Also, I needed new intellectual tools with which to understand South Africa.

Martin And Kathy

The academic staff were inspirational. A lecturer arranged for me to spend 1985 and 1986 lecturing development studies at the University of Fort Hare. A lot of learning took place in my life in those two thrilling years. Most importantly, I met my wife, Kathy, who was born in Alice. Those were architype anti-apartheid struggle days.

Kathy and I found ourselves hiding hunted student leaders at our isolated, stone cottage in Hogsback. Alice fell within independent Ciskei homeland at the time, and the Ciskei security police were horrid to anybody who did not bow down to the Ciskei government. One time Kathy and a colleague smuggled a woman off campus rolled in a carpet in the back of the colleague’s car through the stringent security gates. We were never told who the brave, principled students were who we sheltered. Such were the days. I could have stayed on at Fort Hare but did not as I had only an Honours degree and one of the problems there was the under-qualified academics.

I believed that democratic South Africa would experience an economic miracle

It was back to newspapers for me. Then in 1995 I embarked on Master of Business Administration (MBA) studies through the University of Durban-Westville (UDW). I enrolled as I believed that democratic South Africa would experience an economic miracle for which I wanted to prepare myself. Sorry I got that wrong. At least the lecturers were well worth going out four nights a week to learn from.

UN and UDW were combined to form the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) around 2003. I was by then a proud academic at the Graduate Student of Business. What a place of excellence the graduate school came to be after a torturous start. I loved working there, with great colleagues and great students. I acquired a PhD. There was just one small problem. The top management of UKZN turned out to be nasty, small-minded, narrow-minded racists, and a presage of how African National Congress lackies appointed to vital positions would herald the near collapse of the land.

To be talked down to by an academic mercenary

There were a lot of Johnny-come-latelies to the fight for a better land at UKZN. I was demoted because I was white and I remember the dean, who was from Uganda, taking out his copy of the Constitution and telling me if I did not like being demoted, I could exercise my rights as in the Constitution and challenge demotion. I had reported extensively on the multi-party negotiations in the early 90s that led to the Constitution, and to have this academic mercenary from elsewhere say that to me did not bring UKZN and I closer together.

Good teaching staff were ground down because of racism. Perhaps the racism of the leadership was the reason UKZN has taken no notice of the fact that I was the first – and maybe the only – graduate to hold degrees from UN (1974, 1984), UDW (1997) and UKZN (2010).

2012, I found myself at a high school in Welkom

Moving on; in 2012 I found myself teaching at a high school in Welkom. My first exposure to school kids left me with the realisation that I had to learn more about schools and the kids suffering within them. That led me to taking a Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) through the University of South Africa. The PGCE turned out to be a most useful degree to have, particularly for people seeking to teach overseas, as I came to be. Unisa does not enjoy a good Press, but my experience was good, helped partly by the excellent service offered by a student counsellor in the Kroonstad office of Unisa. Good staff are vital for a university to do well.

CUT turned out to be a most student-friendly university

My next qualification was a Master of Education degree through the Central University of Technology (CUT) in Welkom. CUT turned out to be a most student-friendly university and the academics I dealt with were most impressive.

This track record, I suggest, puts me in a unique position to speak publicly about matters university. And so, I want to condemn with every word available in our language the fraud, theft, murder and other crimes committed of late by up to 30 people at Fort Hare, involving R172 million of taxpayers’ money. I bet none of the accused were brave enough to face up to the Ciskei security police, or any other political police, so were not among the people smuggled out of the campus back in the apartheid days.

Corruption heralds the near collapse of the land

They are no doubt also Johnny-come-latelies to the verbal fight for a better South Africa. Oh, wait, they are not making the land better. They are dirty people and smelly enough to give Africa a bad name. People who steal from a university are saboteurs. These are nasty, small-minded, narrow-minded criminals offering a presage of how corruption heralds the near collapse of the land. They are at the same despicable level as people who burn campus facilities to further their own puerile view of the world.

Back in June 1955, the Freedom Charter offered the sentiment that the doors of learning shall be opened to all.

Well, the 30 criminals ripping off Fort Hare have done their best to shut the doors of learning, as have people who acted against academic staff on grounds of race.

The University of Fort Hare is a majestic African treasure. It must be protected and cherished. I hope the prosecutors acting against the 30 people had excellent university teachers, as I had over the decades. And I hope the prison guards give Africa a bad name.

I do take what is happening at Fort Hare personally, because it has a special place in my heart.

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