Fort Hare still has key role to play, says first woman SRC president

07 February 2016 - 02:00 By Nomsa Mazwai

Fort Hare's first woman SRC president Nomsa Mazwai says the university still has a key role...

When I first arrived at the University of Fort Hare, I remember having a sense of pride in who I was. I was walking on Robert Sobukwe walkway and having lunch on Freedom Square.

I felt a deep sense of connection with the history of liberation on the continent. I would sit in the older auditoriums wondering: "Did Julius Nyerere sit here?"

My first year was a lonely one. Far from home, friends and familiarity, I indulged in the books in the university library. When I first arrived at the university it was dilapidated and a mere whisper of its former self.

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I spent my first few months devouring the African Writers Series, which the university had in its entirety. Reading these books, I escaped into a fictional world, waiting until I got used to my new existence.

I began making friends, my first being a very talkative and bubbly Yaya. We used to joke together and our conversations went deep into the night.

We were very different. She came from a semi-rural background and I from Johannesburg. That didn't stop her from acting street, though!

On one fateful night she discovered that she was one of four girlfriends ... She came back to the room that night with three large bags of luggage.

She and the other three girlfriends had packed up his room and had left the philanderer with only a pair of underpants, a pot and a ball of steel wool. Yaya was hilarious.

When I attended my first class, about 20% of the students pitched and the lecturer walked in about 30 minutes late and then refused to teach a small class. Having squandered my first opportunity at a university education, I was unwilling to let this one slip through my fingers.

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I would say that is the day my desire to change the academic status quo at the university was born. These were the moments that led to my becoming the first female president of the student representative council at the university.

I had the privilege of working in the ANC liberation archives. I worked there under Sadie Forman. Yoli Soul was the university librarian who had suggested that I work there.

I spent many afternoons tucked neatly in the back of the library basement where the archives were stored, reading letters and manuscripts and at times watching video footage of our heroes gone by.

The library was a place of solace for me.

In the classroom, what I enjoyed most were the study groups. It was in these groups that I came to know that some students struggled to access information purely because of language and linguistic nuances.

I really enjoyed my economics study group; in fact, I credit it with having taught me Xhosa. I could not speak a word of the language before going to Fort Hare.

I enjoyed economics so much that I loved to explain it to my peers. I found myself discussing complex economic ideas in Xhosa. One of my most memorable group sessions was when I explained elasticity.

The others just could not understand the concept, until I explained it in Xhosa using cigarettes as an example. A fluorescent explosion engulfed the room, for my peers and for myself, as this moment would help form my ideas on access to education - an area I would dedicate most of my time to.

During the day I spent my hours on the campus vegetating at the poolside with my friends between classes. We would share music, smoke cigarettes, tell jokes and, more often than not, cram information for tests.

As the Fort Hare main campus was situated in the sleepy town of Alice, we never went out. There were no venues. There was of course the infamous Disco club, but I never set foot there willingly.

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On the one occasion my friend went to the club, a man was beaten up and humiliated. After the fight appeared to be over and it was clear this guy had lost, all continued as usual until he reappeared at the door of the club.

Completely inebriated, he stood in the doorway with a gun in his hand, swaying. As he swayed to the left, everyone in shooting range would wail and duck down. As he swayed to the right, it was like a Mexican wave of terror.

I laughed as my friend relayed the story, and was content with the hostel parties that were constantly held on campus.

Fort Hare did not have the greatest student life. Many students struggled financially. But being at that university exposed me to so much about life, so much about people.

My hope for the next 100 years is that we celebrate the wealth that we own in Fort Hare and use it to chart a new way forward, not only for the institution but for the country and the continent.

I don't know if I sat where Nyerere sat, but I walked with him, Sobukwe and Mandela. I understand who I am in this world and the role I must play.

At Fort Hare, as SRC president, I made a difference.

My hope and prayer for the university in its 100th year is that it produces more students who have self-pride and honour and understand they have a role to play in society.

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