This past month the Ohlange Institute was declared a national heritage site by the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA). In announcing their decision to award the school heritage status, SAHRA spoke of the institute’s association with the life of John Dube, the founding president of the South African Native National Congress (now the African National Congress), and that of late President Nelson Mandela.
Initially called the Zulu Christian Industrial School, the institute was founded by John Dube in 1900, and was the first education institution for Africans, established by Africans. It opened with 63 male students, half of whom lived on the school grounds, and within a few weeks had enrolled close to a 100 pupils. In 1901, the school was renamed the Ohlange Institute, with the word ‘Ohlange’ translated as “where all nations come together”.
From October 1903 Ohlange was also home to Ilanga lase Natal, the first isiZulu newspaper, which Dube helped to found. In 1917 the school started a girls’ dormitory and initiated a teacher training course aimed primarily at women. The institute also offered courses in the Humanities and Social Sciences in order to prepare learners for the Junior Certificate examination, which was accepted as an entrance qualification for both the University of South Africa and Fort Hare.
Sadly though, the introduction of the Bantu Education Act in 1953 had dire consequences for Ohlange, resulting in its sharp decline. It was only after Nelson Mandela cast his historic ballot at the school in the 1994 elections that it began to receive the attention it deserves. In 2009, the Historic Schools Restoration Project was started in an effort to revitalise a number of neglected schools, including the Ohlange Institute.
With over 1200 learners and 60-plus staff, the Ohlange Institute (now Ohlange High School) is once again an institution to be proud of and, perhaps in years to come, it will include in its alumni the leaders of our country, as it did in years gone by.