Mission Schools in Africa
By Samuel G. Freedman, NY Times, Dec. 27, 2013
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.
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.”