Many forces have interacted in the Eastern Cape. Incoming Afrikaners and British met with Xhosa-speakers in the eighteenth century, and the long process of conflict, followed by the subordination and expropriation of the indigenous people, took place over more that one hundred years. An important British base at this time, named after a military officer , and a small town of Alice grew near its environs. The process of colonization and expropriation was paradoxical. Brutal military conquest, and integration of the population into the colonial economy, was accompanied by the spread of Christianity.
The missionaries who carried the new ideas were themselves part of colonial expansion, but brought with them a creed which was taken by Africans and forged into a tool for grappling with the challenges of the colonial world. The South African Native College, later the University of Fort Hare, was, ironically, founded in 1916 on the site of the earlier British military stronghold. The college originated from the sometimes uneasy alliance between the new class of educated African Christians, supported by a number of traditional Southern African leaders, and early twentieth-century white liberals, many of them clergy.
The religious tradition at the heart of Fort Hare‟s origin, shared by blacks and whites alike, heralded "plain living and high thinking‟, and a form of education that was undeniably Eurocentric. However it did not make the assumption, central to the Bantu Education implemented in South Africa from the 1950's, that black Africans required or deserved a different, inferior education. Thus, the University of Fort Hare produced graduates from South Africa and as far north as Kenya and Uganda, who knew they were as good as the best. Many went on to prominent careers in fields as diverse as politics, medicine, literature and art. Some politically active alumni like Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Robert Sobukwe and Mangosuthu Buthelezi in South Africa, Robert Mugabe and Herbert Chitepo in Zimbabwe, and Elius Mathu and Charles Njonjo in Kenya, have impacted their nations. In the arts Fort Hare has released from South Africa, poet Dennis Brutus, Drum journalist Can Themba, sculptor and painter Ernest Mancoba and Xhosa author and scholar Archibald Campbell Jordan. The first black Zimbabwean medical doctor, Ticofa Samuel Parirenyatwa, and the historian, novelist and politician Stanlake Samkange were also among the many non-South Africans who spent formative years at Fort Hare.
Though Fort Hare operated in an environment of racial segregation even before apartheid, the college contained the seeds of a more tolerant South Africa. It was as racially inclusive as it could be at the time, with black, coloured and Indian students studying as one. It had men and women students from the beginning; its mainly white staff included black academics like ZK Matthews and DDT Jabavu and student's home languages ranged through Xhosa, Sotho, Zulu, Afrikaans and many others. The takeover of the college in 1959-60 by the National Party government put an end to these achievements. Fort Hare was transformed into an ethnic college for Xhosa speakers. Outspoken staff members were expelled and a new administration, conspicuously loyal to the government and intent on imposing its world-view, was installed. The campus grew over the next three decades, and student numbers increased, but government interventions reduced Fort Hare to the level of “Bush Colleges‟ that were instituted in many homelands. In a parody of true academic maturity, Fort Hare became in 1970, self-governing and "independent‟. With the creation of Ciskei in 1980, Fort Hare became the university of a microstate, recognized only by its fellow Bantustans and by South Africa's minority government, a marked decline from its previous status as the greatest centre of black higher education in Southern and Eastern Africa.
The values and traditions of Fort Hare were embattled after 1960. The apartheid state made a determined attack upon the institution and did immense damage. However, some continuities of its unique and proud historical traditions of non- racism, critical debate and aspiration towards educational excellence were never eliminated and these are now being nurtured and developed
The tradition of excellence survived, firstly, amongst the students and also among a small but growing number of progressive academics. Many rejected the attempt to turn Fort Hare into an ethnic institution, and from various directions – political, religious and cultural – people kept alive a spirit of opposition. In the 1960's various African National Congress and Pan Africanist Congress aligned organizations emerged and were quickly suppressed. Subsequently, Fort Hare became a stronghold of the Black Consciousness oriented South African Students‟ Organisation. Later still, there were constant protests by students, brutally suppressed, against the Ciskei homeland regime.
The tradition survived through the affection and loyalty of people towards Fort Hare, and, when the opportunity arose after 1990 when the apartheid-era administration was expelled, many opted to work here. Supporters included Sibusiso Bengu, the first black Vice-chancellor of the new dispensation, later Minister of Education and subsequently the University Chancellor; Makhenkesi Stofile, the Minister of Sport and Recreation; and Sipho Pityana, Registrar in the early 1990's. It survived in the creation of a new Pan-Africanism and internationalism, with students from Zimbabwe to Eritrea, and staff from all over Africa and the world flocking to its doors. Many came because they knew of Fort Hare's historical reputation and wanted to contribute to its newfound opportunities towards renaissance. It survives in the remarkable archival records at Fort Hare, made up of the papers of the ANC and other liberation movements in exile. The archives of the university itself record an extraordinary and sustained educational achievement, forming a corporate memory now made accessible to scholars from all over the world.
This tradition survived notably in the university's determination, under dynamic new leadership since 1999, to pull back from the brink of institutional collapse, to refute any misconceived national attempt at higher education rationalization that would cause it to fade away or disallow its distinctive voice to be heard.
To contemporary Fort Harians, it is important to acknowledge, record and question its history, and to extract the most liberating, enriching and valuable elements from its history as building blocks towards a radically modernized institution. In the process the institution is building on the foundational strengths of its historical inheritance, geographical locations, stakeholder constituencies and committed workforce, and does not rely on a nostalgic invocation of previous glory.
The university is redefining its role as the producer and disseminator of new knowledge, particularly focusing on its central place in the reshaping of post apartheid South Africa, and repositioning itself as the empowerment agent in the political, economic, cultural and social revolution that is unfolding in the subcontinent and beyond. Its curriculum and research agenda is being tuned to resonate with the contextual social renaissance, both by stimulating it and by responding to it. At the same time it is utterly conscious of the need to engage and partner with the surrounding communities and region in a serving capacity and to extend into society at large through interesting new interconnections.
Following a decision by the Ministry of Education, the university has, since January 2004, been incorporating and integrating a new campus in the city of East London, formerly of Rhodes University, into UFH. This significant development in a new larger operating environment presents significant challenges as well as strategic opportunities for the calculated expansion of UFH into new markets, enabling it to play a stimulating and catalytic role in the development of the Buffalo City region. Hence it is strategically planning to grow and develop programmes in a much wider student market and is re-profiling Fort Hare across the three campuses in Alice, Bhisho and East London. As the backbone to a new academic system, five new Faculties were established in 2005-6. Over the next period significant expansion in the portfolio of academic and strategic programmes are foreseen.
The University of Fort Hare is indeed more determined than ever to build on its distinctive and illustrious past.