Neville Alexander 1936-2012 A prophet rather than a politician
Wilson, The Cape Times
death this week of Neville Alexander South Africa has lost one of
it's greatest, and possibly least appreciated, sons. Political
thinker & activist; teacher & author; academic of renown and
genuine revolutionary Neville Alexander inspired generations of
people into action and yet spent most of his life apparently in the
political wilderness. Yet his work and his ideas will live on.
Cradock in 1936, son of a carpenter and a remarkable mother who was
the daughter of an Ethiopian Galla, or Oromo, slave who had been
rescued from an Arab dhow by the British---poachers turned
game-keepers---in 1888 and then sent with 63 others (many of whom
were young children and all under 18) to school at Lovedale in the
Eastern Cape. Many returned to Ethiopia but Neville's grandmother
stayed on to live in South Africa.
itself is one of the Platteland's more interesting dorps being the
home of strong independent personalities ranging from Olive
Schreiner, thro Canon James Calata legendary leader of the Cape ANC,
Guy Butler and, of course, the Cradock Four so brutally assassinated
by an Apartheid Death Squad in 1985. It was Neville Alexander's home
town and the place where many of his core values were formed by his
parents and by the Nuns of the Holy Rosary Convent whom he loved and
never ceased to appreciate. Whilst he did not remain a Christian, the
best of its values--- notably love, fearlessness and humility--- were
embedded in him for life, especially the responsibility to love thy
neighbour as thyself.
intelligent, the young Alexander was sent to UCT where he studied
German & History. After six years he emerged with both an Honours
& a Masters degree in German. This opened the door to a
Fellowship awarded by the Humboldt Foundation which sent him to the
University of Tubingen where he obtained his Ph.D. in 1961 for a
thesis on the work of the German dramatist and Nobel prize-winner
South Africa in the tense period between Sharpeville & Rivonia he
plunged back into the politics of the Western Cape in which he had
become so involved as a student and where he had met many of the
intellectuals of the Unity Movement, the TLSA [Teachers' League of
South Africa] and the Trotskyist left who were such a force during
the 1940's & 50's. He was Marxist but emphatically not Stalinist
and was always wary of the centralized state power of the Soviet
Union and its utter corruption by Stalin.
banning of the ANC & PAC in 1960, when almost all serious
political opposition was driven underground, he concluded---along
with many others in different political groupings: ANC, PAC even
Liberals---that there had to be a military thrust to the struggle for
liberation. He and a group of like-minded friends, including Fikile
Bam [later Judge-President of the Lands Claim Court] founded a study
group, the Yu Chi Chan Club [Chinese reference to guerrilla
warfare]whose roots lay in the Unity Movement to consider their
options. Fortunately for them, perhaps, they were caught whilst they
were still talking about military activity but had not yet planned
anything specific. They were sentenced to 10 years hard labour. The
men on Robben Island; the women in a mainland gaol.
Island Alexander was young, opinionated and still very argumentative.
He was unimpressed by the analysis and policies of the ANC and said
so loudly. But as with so many of the other remarkable men----Nelson
Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Robert Sobukwe, Govan Mbeki, Fikile Bam among
them--- who emerged from there 10, 15, 20 years later Neville
Alexander too became simultaneously harder and softer. Tougher in the
sense of being more determined, more committed to ending an evil
system whatever the cost; gentler in the sense of learning how to
listen; how to respect other points of view. Listening carefully and
courteously to other points of view before asking penetrating and
thought-provoking questions. He could be in solidarity with comrades
even if he did not always agree with their ideas. He dug deeper and
became more in touch with himself. Nobody who heard him talk in the
documentary film Robben Island, Our University could fail to have
been moved by his sensitivity when reflecting about the effect on
himself and fellow prisoners when once, only once in ten years, they
heard the voice of a child. He and Mandela spent years discussing and
arguing about Marxism, Socialism, Racism and the National Question.
They differed on many things but Neville was always the first to
acknowledge the "pure, human almost fatherly touch that he had,
and which he has."
After he came
off the Island Neville Alexander devoted himself to three
inter-related tasks: education, politics and writing. Banned for
five years he worked as a community organiser in Grassy Park. From
1981 he was Director of SACHED Cape Town, an alternative educational
institution during the apartheid years for students who had either
been expelled from places like Fort Hare or who were avoiding the
then "Bush Colleges" or who were still trapped within the
Bantu or Coloured education schools. Later he founded Praesa, the
Project for the Study of Alternative Education, at UCT which, as
professor, he directed for many years and which focused particularly
on language and literacy and the fundamental need for mother-tongue
education and structures for a proper multi-lingual society.
he was the driving forces behind the launch of the National Forum in
1983 which produced an 'Azanian Manifesto', largely written by him,
calling for a socialist state in South Africa. After 1990 he was one
of the founders of the Workers' Organisation for Socialist Action
(Wosa) which was created to promote working-class interests. The
party contested the founding democratic election of 1994 but made
little headway against the ANC landslide. But he continued to promote
a socialist agenda, believing passionately in its relevance for the
future not only of South Africa but of the world as he made clear in
a major address at the Strini Moodley Memoria Lecture at the
University of KwaZulu Natal.
7 books including (under a pseudonym as he was banned at the time)
One Azania, One nation ; Language Policy & National Unity
in South Africa/Azania(1989); An Ordinary Country: Issues in the
Transition from Apartheid to Democracy in South Africa (2002). At the
time of his death he was working (even in hospital) on two more
are three key ideas running through all Neville Alexander's work:
fundamental necessity for South Africans to move away from Race
consciousness. He was scathing about any attempts to pigeon-hole or
analyse South Africans in terms of apartheid's old so-called "Race"
categories and insisted on the need to think in terms of the far
more real and relevant categories of class, gender and language.
passionately in the importance of children learning to read, write
and think in their own mother tongue. At the same time he fully
understood the need for mastery in an international langue and thus
promoted bi-lingual, indeed multi-lingual, education.
for a socialist world of justice and equality for all.
Alexander shared with Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko a razor sharp
political mind that was able to analyse and clarify issues in an
extraordinary way. Like them he had a personal warmth and charm (and
a winning smile) that enabled him to have friends across a wide
by his family, friends and comrades whom he loved no less deeply and
to whom he was unswervingly
loyal, Neville Alexander had an integrity and consistency which was
unspoilt by fame or position. It is not irrelevant to note that after
1994 he continued to live where he always had; in a working-class
suburb. Not for him a change in life-style.
years? Not really. For Neville Alexander was a prophet rather than a
politician. The uncomfortable questions which he raised and the
answers with which he wrestled will be exercising the minds of South
Africans with increasing urgency both in the immediate and in the
long-term future of this country.