Dissidents and dissenters: student responses to apartheid at the University of Fort Hare

  • Pamela Johnson University of Fort Hare, South Africa
Keywords: Hegemony, University, State, Dissidents, Dissenters, Conformity, Hegemonie, Universiteit, Staat, Anders denkendes, Afvalliges, Konformisme


As the only university for black students in Southern Africa in the first half of the twentieth century, the University of Fort Hare is the alma mater of prominent African leaders and intellectuals. It is also known for the role played by students in the struggle against the apartheid state that seized control over the university in 1960. However, the common representation of students as unified in resistance belies the fact that the student body was divided, with many reluctant to participate in protests during the apartheid era. These students were named ‘dissenters’ by the activists – termed ‘dissidents’ by the author – as they were considered as obstructing the struggle for freedom. Utilising the Gramscian approach to the exercise of hegemony in the form of the reasons for conformity proposed by Joseph Femia, this paper examines the actions and behaviour of both the dissidents and dissenters, based on documents that comprised the personal files of the apartheid era rectors (1960 to 1990). These files contained letters, memoranda and minutes of meetings, notes and telegrams, as well as confiscated student posters and letters from students directed to the rectors. The findings propose that the behaviour of dissenters was based on either the fear of possible repercussions of opposing the apartheid system or the desire not to sacrifice small gains that had been made. This points to the underlying quest for security in a violent and uncertain society.


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