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 and produced graduates from South Africa and as far north as Kenya and Uganda, and Nigeria.
The incorporation of Fort Hare into the National Party’s educational system in 1959/60 was a watershed in the history of the institution and the end to its achievements. The institution was transformed into an ethnic college for Xhosa speakers, locked into apartheid structures and outspoken staff members were expelled and a new administration, conspicuously loyal to the government and intent on imposing its world-view, was installed.
The university lost its unique and pre-eminent position in black higher education and its missionary atmosphere which for all its paternalism, did reflect a wider intellectual world,
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.
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 was instituted in many homelands. 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. 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. 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.