Fort Hare University celebrated its centenary this year. One would have expected the celebration to have been commemorated with a bang than a damp squib it was. It was a damp squib because the most remarkable, memorable, insightful and visionary speeches that were ever delivered at that university and the person who delivered them, Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe, were ignored and a golden opportunity was thus missed. Ten years after he delivered those magnificent speeches, Sobukwe, founded the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) of Azania.
One of the speeches was delivered on 21 October 1949 at a completers’ social, where Sobukwe got a standing ovation from the students. Mrs. Frieda Matthews, wife of Professor Zachariah Keodirelang Matthews, is quoted as having said that the speech was quoted for years by students. This speech should have been read to the public in the electronic media and published in the press on the day of Fort Hare’s centenary celebration.
In that 1949 speech Sobukwe addressed the issues that plague our universities and society today. He said, “After the College has been in existence for 30 years, the ratio of European to African is 4 to 1. And we are told that in ten years’ time we might become an independent University. Are we to understand that an African University predominantly guided by European thought and strongly influenced by European staff?………..I said last year Fort Hare must be to the African what Stellenbosch is to the Afrikaner. It must be the barometer of African thought.”
In his Black Skin, White Masks published in 1952, Frantz Fanon writes that, “A black man speaks with a European language. He becomes proportionally whiter in direct ratio to his mastery of the French language; or indeed, any western language, nowadays most particularly English. So, almost immediately, the black man is presented with a problem: how to posit a ‘black self’ in a language and discourse in which blackness itself is at best a figure of absence, or worse a total reversion? The problem, however, is not limited simply to the use of language. When a black man arrives in France it is not only the language that changes him. He is changed also because it is from France that he received his knowledge of Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Voltaire, but also because France gave him his physicians, department head, his innumerable little functionaries. At issue is thus not just language but also the civilisation of the white man.”
Is this not what Sobukwe implied when he rejected Fort Hare being guided predominantly by European thought and strongly influenced by European staff and calling on Fort Hare to be the barometer of African thought?
Sobukwe continued to say, “We want to build a new Africa, and only we can build it.” Fanon says what matters is not to know the world but to change it. Towards the conclusion of his 1949 speech, Sobukwe says, “Let me plead with you, lovers of my Africa, to carry with you into the world the vision of a new Africa, an Africa reborn, an Africa rejuvenated, an Africa recreated, young Africa”.
This African rebirth or renaissance Sobukwe envisioned cannot be an Africa that still enforces archaic European epistemology. We cannot continue to teach our children about Pythagoras Theorem when Pythagoras was taught mathematics by the ancient Africans of Egypt or that Archimedes “invented” the endless screw that Egyptians had been using for centuries before he was born for the extraction of percolated water as Dr Cheikh Anta Diop wrote in Great African Thinkers. We cannot keep referring to African philosophy as Greek philosophy as George GM James demonstrated in his book Stolen Legacy which should be compulsory reading in schools and universities together with all of Diop’s books.
In her 1994 book Yurugu: An African-Centered Critique of European Cultural Thought and Behaviour, Professor Marimba Ani writes that Africans must wean themselves from the epistemological assumptions that strangle them. This vindicates Sobukwe as a visionary and an intellectual par excellence. Not only did he deliver brilliant speeches but he was also excelling academically. His intellectual honesty and moral integrity made toadies and collaborationists flinch in his presence. The universities are presently in turmoil because brilliant ideas such as those of Sobukwe were overlooked.
Fort Hare should have grabbed the rare opportunity it was presented to showcase one of its brilliant alumni and put into practice his thoughts on education by, for example, introducing Egyptology instead of the government introducing Mandarin. The fact that Sobukwe later in life established one of the vibrant movements that rivaled the ANC should not negatively influence universities and academia against a brilliant scholar, with four university degrees, and a fine orator.
By Sam Ditshego
The writer is a fellow at the Pan Africanist Research Institute (PARI).