South African Universities – a historical perspective

Universities in South Africa 1873 to 1918 and the Royal Society of South Africa
By Jane Carruthers FRSSAf

In this time of turmoil in our universities, an overview of the early history of the emergence of the South African system might prove of interest. Universities are not institutions that arose, fully formed, with appropriate staff, modern faculties and facilities, and an adequate budget, but as with all our national organisations, their distant past is as deeply embedded in local politics and economics as is their present. Moreover, the emergence of the first university in South Africa is entangled with that of the Philosophical Society of South Africa, the ancestor of the Royal Society of South Africa.

The current formal university structure in South Africa began with the establishment of the University of the Cape of Good Hope in 1873. Receiving its Royal Charter in 1877, it was modelled on the University of London. Neither of these universities in London or Cape Town had campuses or resident students. Instead, they were examining bodies that guaranteed quality by setting examinations and conferring degrees on students who passed the required examination no matter where they acquired the appropriate knowledge. The post-school teaching that was required in south Africa was conducted at various colleges and schools in locations around the country that included Cape Town, Graaff-Reinet, Stellenbosch and later Bloemfontein, Burgersdorp, Kimberley, Johannesburg, Grahamstown, Alice, Pietermaritzburg and other centres. Within these colleges there was no standard configuration of professors or lecturers and the variety of courses taught varied with budgets and the level of student interest in particular fields of study.

The University of London had been founded in 1836 on the basis of a growing belief in Britain that examinations (written tests) were the optimum means of selecting the best person for a post in an increasingly competitive world, particularly in the civil service. Until that time, patronage rather than demonstrated qualification had governed recruitment and neither quality nor expertise played much part. But soon examinations became an established system within the schools and they were extended to what we would now refer to as higher education. Because of the intense rivalry between the various colleges at older universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, the University of London was founded to oversee the examination process as a new and neutral body.

Until the University of the Cape of Good Hope was established there was no higher education in southern Africa and even proper basic schooling was generally lacking. If they could afford it, people sent their children to study abroad. Higher education was not a priority in the republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State or even in the colony of Natal, but it perturbed the educated community in the Cape, particularly after that colony had received a measure of independence from Britain with responsible government in 1872. The South African College in Cape Town, the leading academy founded in 1829 was, many hoped, destined to become a full teaching university, with even a medical faculty. However, there were men of influence who were less enthusiastic about such a move and after considerable acrimonious negotiation, and the appointment of a Commission of Inquiry – recorded in detail by Maurice Boucher in his book Spes in Arduis – the establishment of the University of the Cape of Good Hope was agreed to by the Cape parliament through Act 16 of 1873.

The fledging body began life in rented premises in the consistory of the Dutch Reformed Church in Cape Town and it remained in dingy offices until the early 1900s. In the first year, there were 49 entrants for the matriculation examination (which, in time, became a school leaving test and preliminary to university study), 11 sought certificates in law or surveying and there were 10 who hoped to obtain graduate qualifications. The first balance sheet of the university shows transactions amounting to £3288.15.0. The government grant was £2015.15.0, income from candidates’ fees for registration and examination came to £373.0.0, while expenditure on fees to examiners totalled £575.0.0, salaries £588.13.4 and bursaries £150.0.0. The first student scholarships came from a donation by Sophia Jamison and other bequests followed. The first black South Africans to matriculate through the university were Simon Peter Sihlali in 1880 (Graaff-Reinet) and John Tengo Jabavu in 1883 (Lovedale). Women were admitted from 1887.

Graduates chose the members of Council and selected the titular head of the university and the chancellor, unless he decided to resign, held his appointment for life. The first election took place in 1876 when Convocation reached the required number of one hundred. William Porter (1805-1880), who had piloted the university bill through the House of Assembly and who had by then retired to his home in Belfast, Northern Ireland, became the first Chancellor and the second was Sir Bartle Frere (1880-1884).

Sir Langham Dale (1826-1898) Educational leader in the Cape Colony

Sir Langham Dale (1826-1898) Educational leader in the Cape Colony

The most visible Vice-Chancellor was Sir Langham Dale (1826-1898), who held office from 1873 to 1877, again from 1879 to 1882 and from 1884 to 1889. He was elected Chancellor in 1890. It could be said that he shaped the institution more than anyone else. Born in England in 1826 and educated at Queen’s College Oxford, Dale was appointed Professor of English and Classics at the South African College. In 1859, the year he received an Honorary LL.D. from the University of Glasgow, he became Superintendent of Education in the Cape Colony and in 1867 President of the Board of Public Examiners. He served as Chairman of the Commission of Enquiry into establishing a university in the Cape.

The Philosophical Society of South Africa, founded in 1877, was a firm supporter of this local university. Sir Bartle Frere was the Society’s first President and Sir Langham Dale its first Vice-President. Sir Thomas Muir, Vice-Chancellor from 1897 to 1901 was President in 1895. At its founding in June and July 1877, the Philosophical Society set itself to prioritise original research in and about South Africa. Item 2 of the Rules read:  ‘Its object shall be to promote Original Research and record its results, especially as concerned with the Natural History, Physical Condition, History, Geography, Statistics, Industrial Resources, Languages and Traditions of South Africa’. The fact that many of the Society’s members assisted the new university in various ways demonstrates its commitment to research and learning in the sub-continent.

According to Boucher, the university frequently made press headlines. Langham Dale did not support the use of the Dutch language in the schools nor, of course, in the university. At times there was criticism of the quality of the examiners. This included the discovery that the qualifications of the examiner of French were spurious. But there was also dissatisfaction about the stranglehold that the university had on the school curriculum because of its examinations, the loss of exam papers that went to Wellington, New Zealand, not to Wellington, Western Cape, exams were delayed as papers, printed in England, were quarantined aboard the mail-ship in Cape Town harbour.

However, the major problem that faced the university in its early years was its relationship with the teaching colleges and even today, it is the relationship between institutions of higher learning that bedevil it. Private, or external, students could write the examinations, but it was the colleges that provided most of the teaching and entered the greatest number of candidates. They employed professors, who varied in quality, and were only employed in fields of study that attracted students, and thus fees. In 1873 the only recognised colleges (viz. receiving grants for professorships from the Cape government) were the South African College in Cape Town and that at Graaff-Reinet. It was clear that these two were insufficient for the whole colony and other colleges soon became rivals for this subsidy. There was turmoil as the century drew to a close as colleges entered or retired from the fray by flourishing or floundering, the line between school and college (university) education became more firmly drawn and the political situation between the British colonies and the Boer republics grew increasingly tense after the discovery of diamonds and gold.

Far from ameliorating the situation in higher education with the conclusion of the South African (Anglo-Boer) War in 1902, the establishment of four British colonies in South Africa worsened the position The relative positions of power within the civil service of the four colonies within any future united or federated country were at stake, the question of language and forms of education were matters of debate, the different histories and political institutions in the colonial components created ideological dissent. The economic dominance of the Transvaal was an added factor. Personal, as well as party political, and unpatriotic agendas, rather than beneficial policy, were ruthlessly pursued.

Alfred Beit whose large bequest influenced the structure of universities in South Africa

Alfred Beit whose large bequest influenced the structure of universities in South Africa

While it was clear that union would eventually come about, the issue of where the capital and national institutions (universities, botanical gardens, museums etc.) would be located was a matter of vicious politicking and conflict. Indeed, this proved to be one of the most fraught and politically entangled with which the colonies in South Africa had had to grapple after 1902. Money, of course, played its part and the large bequest that Alfred Beit, the German-born mining magnate and financier, had left in 1906 for a university in Johannesburg was fought over indecorously by men in high office of whom one might have expected more.

No colony wanted to allow another to have the national teaching university that was being mooted after 1902. There was no single outstanding, unassailable candidate anyway, for all the university colleges attached to the University of the Cape of Good Hope were extremely small and the mention of a research university had people up in arms. Henry Selby Hele-Shaw, a renowned research engineer and innovator in engineering education and, as a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, one of the first three provisional Councillors of the Royal Society of South Africa in 1905, found himself in the political turmoil of South African higher education in that decade. He left South Africa after three years, disillusioned.

It was only the fact that Beit had put a ten-year limit on his bequest that eventually spurred government to action and people into some form of compromise. In 1916 the situation was partly resolved – it simmers yet – by legislation that transformed the University of the Cape of Good Hope into a federal university named the University of South Africa (Unisa) and relocated to Pretoria. Also, in due course, legislation created separate autonomous universities for Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Johannesburg, Pretoria and the others that have followed since. In 1959 Unisa, by legislation, became the guardian of the university colleges for African, ‘Coloured’ and ‘Indian’ students, and subsequently also became independent. As is well known, further legislative upheaval occurred in 1979 with the conversion of Colleges of Advanced Technical Education into Technikons for tertiary level vocational education and since 1993 they have been allowed to award graduate degrees and are now called universities of technology. Furthermore there have been the complex higher education ‘mergers’ of 2004 and the separation of basic and higher education into two cabinet ministries in 2009.

The process of higher education in South Africa has never been perfect, nor apolitical or peaceful. Its contours have always had highly unsatisfactory elements. Reading the references below, and others in similar vein, is a reminder that education is a social, political and economic battleground.


Selected references:

Boucher, M., Spes in Arduis: A History of the University of South Africa (Pretoria: University of South Africa, 1973).

Brookes, E.H., A History of the University of Natal (Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press, 1966).

Currey, R.F., Rhodes University, 1904-1970: A Chronicle (Grahamstown: Rhodes University, 1970).

Kerr, A., Fort Hare 1915-48: The Evolution of an African College (Pietermaritzburg: Shuter and Shooter, 1968).

Murray B.K., Wits: The Early Years. A History of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and its Precursors, 1896-1939 (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1982).

Phillips, H., The University of Cape Town 1918-1948: The Formative Years (Cape Town, UCT Press, 1993).