Grahamstown is a very odd place. The middle of Africa is hardly the place that you would expect to find deep academia, but as I rolled out of the Karoo after weeks of back country and bucolic country towns it was most unexpected to arrive in this little Oxford or Cambridge, or any other blue ribbon university town anywhere in the developed world, right here in South Africa.
Grahamstown is the seat of Rhodes University, one of South Africa’s most respected academic institutions, established in 1904 with a grant from the Rhodes Trust, and one of four Universities in the Cape. It is probably not as august as Stellenbosch University, located in the Western Cape, but it is nonetheless a highly respected institution and certainly one of the most important facilities of its type in the region.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Grahamstown is its architecture. Herbert Baker, Victorian architects very much favored by Cecil John Rhodes, after whom the university was named, is responsible for some of the more notable designs evident, but clearly the skyline of Grahamstown was many years, centuries in fact, in the making. Interestingly, the city has some fifty odd churches, the earliest of which owe their existence to the early missionary period when the city was a launching pad for christian outreach into the interior, but many other charismatic and evangelical churches are also evident.
The city was established in 1812 as a military garrison during the long frontier wars between British colonial forces and the Xhosa tribes as European settlement gradually pressed eastwards, eventually overwhelming and dispossessing the Xhosa people. The population swelled eight years later with the arrival of what became known as the 1820 Settlers, impoverished British colonists encouraged to settle the frontier region to bolster European strength.
These days European strength is evident both in the architecture and the populations, which from the point of view of the student body is seasonal, but predominately white, and of course the academic establishment, supported by members of the legal profession thanks to the status of Grahamstown as the seat of the region high court.
All of this tends to lend the city a rather highbrow flavor, mixed with a racy student pub scene and the annual Grahamstown National Arts Festival which is one of South Africa’s premier festivals celebrating the more cerebral cultural attributes of the region.
Besides this there is not a great deal here to interest tourists, but the city is certainly worth a visit for its own sake, and is without doubt a very interesting window into Cape history and culture – and of course youth culture, of which there is a great deal in evidence.