Fort Hare University was one the Donaldson Trust’s first and most important works. Until interference from the apartheid government, the university was regarded as the “the greatest centre of black higher education in Southern and Eastern Africa”.
Fort Hare came into existence in 1916 and is the oldest historically black university in Southern Africa. Graduates have come from as far North as Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria, and all knew they were as good as the best. Some alumni, such as Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo Govan Mbeki, Chris Hani, Robert Sobukwe, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, Dennis Brutus (an acclaimed poet), Can Themba (an accomplished journalist), Yusuf Lule of Uganda, Ntsu Mokehle of Lesotho, Seretse Khama of Botswana, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Herbert Chitepo, novelist Stanlake Samkange and the first black Zimbabwean medical doctor, Ticofa Parirenyatwa, have achieved great success and recognition.
Originally, Fort Hare was a 19th century British fort during the border wars between the British and the Xhosa. Nearby was the Lovedale missionary station built in 1824 by the Glasgow Missionary Society and named after Dr John Love. Until 1841 the missionaries devoted themselves almost entirely to evangelistic work but in 1870 a young reverend by the name of James Stewart arrived at the station having recently explored the Zambezi regions with David Livingstone. The first thing the young reverend did was build a school. The school grew into several schools and then came the South African Native College which became the University of Fort Hare.
The academic excellent of the University of Fort Hare stemmed from the initiatives of the black elite and early twentieth-century white liberals, most of them clergy, and supported by many traditional Southern African leaders.
One if its greatest admirers was the trust’s founder, Colonel James Donaldson who was particularly interested in the university because it was where as a young man from Scotland he had found refuge. He was the product of the John Watson Orphanage in Edinburgh and had come to Africa to join the Cape Mounted Rifles.He hoped to make a career of the army but realized that promotion would come very slowly and so he deserted. It was Rev James Stewart who offered him refuge after a daring escape from the military patrol sent to capture him, in which the young Scot disappeared into the forbidding Ncera Valley.
Fifty years later, James Donaldson, then Lt Colonel James Donaldson DSO, and a self-made man returned to the mission where the university had been built. Inspired by the excellent standard of education, the he ensured that the Donaldson Trust provided scholarships and donations for library equipment. He also provided funds to build the women`s hostel and the Donaldson Wing of the Stewart Hall, the foundation stone of which he laid on the 19th September 1946.
Not surprisingly, two of the trust`s first trustees were drawn from Fort Hare; Dr Alexander Kerr (the first principal) and Professor D. D. T. Jabavu. Their relationship with Fort Hare continued until the end of the 1950`s, when it became apparent that the university was going to be incorporated into the apartheid government`s educational structure. Until 1958, the trust was invited to nominate five people for election as donor representatives on the governing council: Dr Xuma was elected.
Sadly, in August 1959 DR Xuma informed his fellow trustees that the university’s last meeting under the existing constitution would take place in the November of that year. He recommended that the trust suspend further support until government clarified its policy. By the end of 1959, the university was consumed by the apartheid system and the relationship between the university and the trust ended.