The education of children living in South Africa took a giant leap forward on October 1, 1829: after nearly three decades since the idea was first proposed, South African College opened to its first group of students in Cape Town, South Africa. The institution, consisting of young men from elementary school to college-age, would eventually split into the University of Cape Town and the South African College Schools. Higher education in the colony was born.
Forming an educational system in the diverse territory first became a priority for Commissioner General Jacob de Mist in 1791. Working with the Dutch colonial government to appropriate significant funds to help shore up the classrooms, de Mist managed to secure approval for a stipend to give locals better access to quality teachers. When the Dutch handed Cape Colony over to the British in 1795, the idea took on a whole new life.
Decades later, Lord Charles Henry Somerset, British governor of Cape Colony beginning in 1814, opted to take those funds and shift them toward a grander purpose. Believing the region would benefit from a system by which students could move towards a degree, he pushed for the establishment of South African College. When his successor, Sir Galbraith Lowry Cole, took office, the planning had advanced to the point where opening a new educational institution was inevitable. Cole, surveying the setup, quickly agreed to allow an inauguration ceremony to take place at Groote Kerk — a Dutch Reformed church — on October 1, 1829.
Classes began soon after, with a handful of rooms in an orphanage on Long Street serving as the official location. Immediately seen as the best opportunity for young boys and adolescents in Cape Town to learn, enrollment ballooned quickly and forced a relocation for the 1841 school year. Moving to the Gardens district southwest of the city center — buildings now part of the Hiddingh Campus of the University of Cape Town — led to a further explosion in attendance. In 1874, after less than five decades in existence, officials decided there were too many boys running alongside grown men and opted to split the institution into separate junior and senior entities.
The result, South African College Schools for younger students and the South African College for advanced scholars, left both institutions racing to keep up with the number of prospective students. By the turn of the 20th century, both were churning out graduates, with College students regularly passing examinations administered by the University of the Cape of Good Hope in order to receive their diplomas. In 1918, South African College finally received accreditation from the national board and was renamed the University of Cape Town (UCT).
Settling onto its own campus in the late 1920s, UCT became a center for anti-apartheid sentiment during the 1960s. As the student population became more diverse during the 1980s, clashes between protestors and government officials were more common. With the problems occurring at a white university, it was all the more apparent that younger generations would no longer tolerate the discrimination and strong-armed tactics. Once the apartheid system was removed in the early 1990s, the school strengthened its reputation as one of the finest research institutions on the continent.
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