By Samuel G. Freedam
Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe, second from left, attended a graduation ceremony at the University of Fort Hare in 2003. Associated Press/Alan Eaton
Of the hundreds of pages in Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” barely a dozen recount his college education at the University of Fort Hare, established by white Christian missionaries. He spent less than two of his 95 years there. Most obituaries made only a brief mention of that period.
Mandela left Fort Hare partway through his studies during a conflict with its leader, a Scottish evangelist named Alexander Kerr, about a student boycott of college elections. “At that moment, I saw Dr. Kerr less as a benefactor than as a not-altogether-benign dictator,” Mandela wrote in his memoirs. As for himself, a 22-year-old at that point in late 1940, “I was in an unpleasant state of limbo.”
The mixed emotions that Mandela expressed were far from his alone. The entire enterprise of mission schools in Africa stood at an ambiguous, contested crossroads. It was part of colonialism, yet it educated students who opposed colonialism. It avoided political involvement, yet inspired the quest for racial equality through its religious ideals.
In the aftermath of Mandela’s death, in the fullness of time, mission education has earned a more positive re-evaluation. Mandela himself did ultimately receive his bachelor’s degree from Fort Hare by taking courses off site, and in 2006 was photographed beaming as he wore his college blazer.
Whatever flaws they had — condescension, timidity, elitism — schools like Fort Hare produced not only Mandela but an array of Southern Africa’s black leaders. Fort Hare educated Oliver Tambo of the African National Congress, Chris Hani of the nation’s Communist Party, Mangosuthu Buthelezi of the Inkatha Freedom Party and Robert Sobukwe of the Pan Africanist Congress. (A less celebrated alumnus is Robert Mugabe, the dictatorial president of Zimbabwe.)
Lovedale, another missionary school, taught Thabo Mbeki, who would become post-apartheid South Africa’s second president. Steve Biko, later the leader of the Black Consciousness movement, went to a Catholic boarding school, St. Francis. Albert J. Luthuli, the Nobel laureate, both studied and taught at Adams College, which had been founded by American missionaries.
The accomplishments of mission schools were both intentional and not. Their founders and faculties clearly parted ways with colonial leaders by believing in the educability of black Africans and their capacity to be saved through Christ. Yet those beliefs were a long way from liberation theology.
“I’m not making missionaries heroes,” said Richard H. Elphick, a historian at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and the author of “The Equality of Believers,” a book about Protestant missionaries in South Africa. “Missionaries and other white Christians were alarmed by the idea that the equality of all people before God means they should be equal in public life. But the equality of believers is an idea they dropped into South Africa. And it was constantly reinforced in the schools. And that made it a dangerous idea.”
Olufemi Taiwo offered a similarly nuanced endorsement, and he did so from two perspectives: as the product of a mission education in his native Nigeria and as a Cornell University professor with expertise in African studies.
“Under colonialism, there’s a tension between the missions and the colonial authorities,” said Dr. Taiwo, author of the 2010 book “How Colonialism Preempted Modernity in Africa.” “There was a missionary idea that black people could be modern. And most churches cannot come out and say some people are not human. So you might have a patronizing attitude, but if you don’t think Africans can benefit from education, why would you set up schools?”
Certainly, the model of mission education was not unique to Africa. White American missionaries played a similarly complicated role as emblems of both modernity and noblesse oblige in China before the Communist revolution.
Many mission colleges in South Africa modeled their practical courses in industry and agriculture — a curriculum known as differentiated education or adapted education — on those of black schools in the United States such as Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute.
In whatever form it took, mission education was virtually the only formal sort available to black Africans for much of the colonial era. The first mission school in Nigeria opened in 1859, 50 years before the first government school, according to Dr. Taiwo. In the mid-1920s, mission schools in South Africa were educating far more Africans (about 215,000 compared with about 7,000) than were state schools, by Dr. Elphick’s calculations.
“For young black South Africans like myself,” Mandela wrote about Fort Hare in his autobiography, “it was Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard and Yale, all rolled into one.” Before his rancorous departure, he studied Latin and physics, joined the drama society, ran cross country and lived in a hostel for Methodists like himself.
Just as important for the person Mandela would become, Fort Hare put him in a multiracial community, said Daniel Massey, author of “Under Protest,” a history of political activism at the college. Mandela’s classmates included Indian and “colored” students, and even some white children of faculty members. The black students were drawn from across tribal and linguistic lines.
For all those reasons — academic, religious, cultural — mission schools like Fort Hare were anathema to Afrikaner nationalists. Speaking in 1938, the political leader Daniel Malan warned about the growing number of “civilized and educated nonwhites who wish to share our way of life and to strive in every respect for equality with us.”
In the dozen years after winning a majority in South Africa’s 1948 elections, Afrikaner nationalists exerted state control over mission schools, imposing apartheid’s segregation by racial category and tribal identity and pushing for education in African languages rather than in English. Fort Hare, over the protests of its students, was subsumed under the government policy of “Bantu education.”
Like so much else in South Africa, that changed with Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and the transition to majority rule. In October 1991, Mandela’s political ally, law partner and college classmate Oliver Tambo was named chancellor of Fort Hare. In his installation speech, even as he acknowledged the strife during his student years, Tambo intoned the college motto: “In your light, let us see light.”
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