The Next Page / Teaching English, learning ubuntu

Pitt professor Brenda F. Berrian found Nelson Mandela's spirit at a school that expelled him


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During the time between former South African President Nelson Mandela's death Dec. 5 and his funeral 10 days later, American and foreign journalists often mentioned that he had attended the University of Fort Hare.

In 1938, a young Mandela began his freshman year at the oldest black tertiary institution in southern Africa. Toward the end of his second year, Alexander Kerr, the founding principal, expelled Mandela after he participated in a student strike and refused to accept his nomination and election to the Student Representative Council.

Already exhibiting a stubborn streak and a leaning toward political activism, Mandela left for Johannesburg, where he completed his bachelor's degree by correspondence through the University of South Africa. After passing his exams at UNISA, he returned to graduate from Fort Hare in 1943.

Founded in 1916 by Scottish missionaries on the site of a former British fort in the town of Alice, the institution, as described by Mandela in his autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom," was "a beacon for African students from all over southern, central and eastern Africa. For young black South Africans like myself, it was Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard and Yale, all rolled into one."

Black South African scholars such as D.D.T. Jabavu and Z.K. Matthews were to teach many illustrious future leaders of African countries until 1960, when the Afrikaner nationalist government, which enforced the system of racial segregation known as apartheid, mandated that the institution become an ethnic college for only Xhosa speakers.

The University of Fort Hare is situated in the fertile Tyhume River valley, below the Amatola mountains in the central part of the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. The school was a center of the anti-apartheid sentiment that culminated in the end of officially sanctioned segregation and led, in 1994, to Mandela's election as president.

In September 1995, I found myself drawing near to this picturesque region and into the heart of the campus that had played a role in shaping his activism. I had arrived in South Africa to consider an offer to teach at the University of Fort Hare as a visiting professor in the Department of English.

After landing in Johannesburg, I had to fly to East London on South Africa's southeast coast and reckon with going to Alice, the town with one traffic light that housed Fort Hare. Alice was not near a major city. It was 90 miles from East London and 45 miles from King William's Town. I, a city woman, had to laugh when a roaming cow stopped in the middle of the road in front of my rental car, turned its head to look at me, swished its tail and let out a big "moooo!"

The isolated countryside was not only dotted with cows, but with crops and goats. Alice was so rural that there weren't any movie theaters, chain grocery stores or shopping malls. Agoraphobic spasms threatened to kick in, and I nearly gave up on the idea of living in Alice. Then I remembered that I wanted to participate in the growth of what Mandela, the first democratically elected black president of a free South Africa, called "the Rainbow Nation."

A beautiful, serene campus greeted me: wide, paved streets, trapezoidal stone structures, white buildings with red-tiled rooftops. The famous theology building, with its steeple-like top, where a person can lean on the windowless ledge and view the entire campus. A museum with some of the best black South African art. A large library that housed the archives of the African National Congress, the political opposition group that Mandela joined in 1944 and led to power.

The energy of the black students filled the walkways and halls. I watched clusters of students walking around. I overheard the chatter of languages, the tell-tale "clicks" of Xhosa speakers and the British-accented voices, laughter. The staff was a rainbow of people, all different colors, and not because they were trying to make a political statement.

In Alice and nearby areas, including the countryside near the predominantly white town of Fort Beaufort, 13 miles away, the Xhosa people lived in two-room brick homes or huts without electricity or indoor plumbing. It used to be that all races lived together in Alice, but the apartheid government had restricted it to Xhosa only.

Although outspoken staff members were expelled from Fort Hare, the college became a stronghold of the student-based Black Consciousness Movement -- an anti-apartheid group -- during the 1970s. At present, the university, with campuses in Alice, Bisho and East London, consists of more than 8,500 students from South Africa and neighboring African countries with a teaching and research staff of 260.

At Fort Hare, I engaged in serious conversations with black South African students and with Africans from other countries.

My apartment, in an old house across from the main entrance to campus, became known as the "Do Drop Inn." I cooked meals of chicken, rice and salad and always made extra because someone inevitably would stop by. I kept a lot of biscuits (cookies), tea (for afternoon tea) and naartjies (tangerines) I'd get from the local farms. Two of my colleagues -- Zulu male teachers from the Department of English -- once paid me a surprise visit, singing and high-stepping a traditional Zulu dance in front of the door.

I assumed the role of "big sister" to three young women: a Zulu from Pietermaritzburg who taught English; a Cape Malay from Cape Town who taught Afrikaans; and a Coloured (person of mixed ancestry) from Cape Town who taught social work and worked part time as a dorm matron. The four of us exchanged recipes, and one helped me to become a better left-handed stick-shift driver. I also shared experiences about living under segregation in the Deep South and coping with the civil rights movement.

Most of my colleagues in the Department of English were men. Some would drop by my office to chat. The chairman of the department was from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He and his wife went out of their way to make me feel welcome. A white former priest, married with children, invited me to his home in King William's Town. An Indian male offered to teach me yoga. A British couple, who were at the university on a program similar to the Peace Corps, were friendly. The white department secretary took me to a formerly all-white-male club. I found that living in a small rural town resulted in either quick, superficial friendships or long-term ones.

The vice chancellor, who was a black South African creative writer and professor of English, invited me several times to his home when dignitaries came to town. Usually, Mrs. Tau (my next-door neighbor, director of the university library and the Kingdom of Lesotho's former ambassador to the United States) would be there, too.

One evening, I was seated on a sofa next to an elderly Xhosa man and his wife. Although his face looked familiar, I couldn't place it. Very friendly, he first asked me about my background. He next reminisced about his youth and his imprisonment on Robben Island (the notorious prison where Mandela and other ANC activists had been detained on political charges). His wife entered into the conversation, remembering her loneliness during her husband's 24 years in prison.

Then it clicked -- I realized I was sitting next to Govan and Epainette Mbeki, the parents of then-Deputy President Thabo Mbeki and very close friends of Mandela.

The couple were so unassuming and natural. In fact, Mr. Mbeki tried in vain to encourage me to eat a Xhosa delicacy: a sheep's head. "My dear," he said, "it is so sweet and delicious, especially when you suck out the eyes." Getting queasy, I politely told him that I preferred to eat chicken or fish. But he certainly had a good time eating a sheep's head!

In my opinion, he deserved some enjoyment in life after spending almost a quarter of a century in prison alongside Mandela, Walter Sisulu and other ANC activists. Mr. Mbeki, a graduate of Fort Hare in 1937 and the university's honorary chancellor, died in 2001. He reminded me of my admiration for the South African people's fortitude and belief in their liberation.

Mandela reflected on this liberation in his May 10, 1994, inaugural address. He said, "We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity -- a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world."

While president from 1994 until 1999, Mandela, who shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with former President F.W. de Klerk, worked to dismantle the legacy of apartheid. Because he knew education to be "the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world," he mandated the desegregation of the country's universities, including Fort Hare, which continues to boast an even more diverse student body.

The university renamed its School of Law in honor of Mandela and in 1991 named his law partner and Fort Hare classmate, Oliver Tambo, university chancellor. In 1952, they were the first two blacks to open a law office in South Africa. Today, the law school encourages its students to follow Mandela's value system about egalitarianism, humanism and social justice.

With such honors, the University of Fort Hare -- and other universities, government agencies and public accommodations that mirror the nation's multiracial demographics -- echoes the spirit of Mandela.

I know that spirit resonates with me. I stayed in Alice for five months, and through their actions and words, Govan Mbeki, the students and staff at Fort Hare taught me the meaning of ubuntu. The term, as translated by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, means, "I am because I belong." Or "I participate. I share." I can only imagine how growing up with the spirit of ubuntu at Fort Hare and in South African culture strengthened Mandela for his long walk into history.


Brenda F. Berrian (brendaberrian@aol.com) is professor of Africana Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. She has recently completed her memoir "Moving in Circles: Life Journeys of an Africana Diasporic Woman," with more details about her experiences at the University of Fort Hare.

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