A Namibian tribute to Neville Alexander: Revisiting the National Question | by Shaun Whittaker

by Sep 5, 2012All Articles

It is a remarkable historical coincidence that Neville Alexander was laid to rest on the very same day that some Marikana workers – most of whom were also from the Eastern Cape – were buried. This tragic incident of the miners represents a turning point in the nationalist politics of the entire southern African region.

Neville’s significant contribution to the anti-colonial struggle in Namibia is seldom acknowledged. Yet, the reality is that his revolutionary ideas have become even more pertinent to the debates on the national question in contemporary Namibia, the rest of Africa and beyond.

After his banning order was lifted in 1979, Neville immersed himself in research on Namibian history which led to the publishing of three essays entitled: (1) Jakob Marengo and Namibian history; (2) Responses to German rule in Namibia or the enigma of the Khowesin and (3) The Namibian War of Anti-Colonial Resistance (1904-1907). These written pieces initially appeared in a left-wing publication, Namibian Review Publications (June 1983), which was produced by Neville’s comrades, Kenneth and Ottilie Abrahams. An amazing anecdote is that Neville drove hundreds of kilometers to the son of Marengo, an audacious anti-colonial fighter, to establish the proper spelling of their surname.

It is Neville’s essay on the Namibian war of anti-colonial resistance, however, which has the greatest resonance for the national question today. That writing insisted that the anti-colonial resistance against German occupation was a national effort that involved language groups from all over the country. This is an imperative theme for two reasons. Firstly, that a single language or ethnic group cannot claim credibility for the entire anti-colonial resistance, i.e. against both German and South African occupations, and, secondly, that a sectarian political interpretation of the anti-colonial struggle is untenable. Such progressive arguments should form the bases for the resolution of the sensitive topic of German reparations as well as defining the national identity in post-colonial Namibia. The contemporary ruling elites, of course, have proven themselves incapable of leading this nation-building project. As intermediaries of global capitalism, the elites are preoccupied with state-building.

Nevertheless, the early discussions on nation-building, which occurred amongst the South African Left, are not only relevant, as that was the milieu that shaped Neville’s consciousness, but also since Namibia was colonized by South Africa at the time. In April 1951, as example, the Unity Movement of South Africa maintained that “In a nation it is not necessary that the people forming it should have a common language or a common culture, common customs and traditions… All that is required for a people to be a nation is community of interests, love of their country, pride in being citizens of their country.” Although the latter part of the Unity Movement’s approach is too subjective, this demonstrates that the Left rejected the classical Marxist definition of ‘nation’ at that juncture.

However, that classical definition also confirmed unequivocally that “a nation is not a racial or tribal, but a historically constituted community of people.” This clarification is crucial in order not to confuse ‘nation’ and ‘tribe.’ At the same time, the definition did not mention social class, colonialism or imperialism, which represented another limitation. We certainly live in an historical era of imperialist domination, not a rising capitalism. And it is crucial to grapple with the matter of working class leadership of the nation. This is why the national question would remain germane for as long as imperialism exploits us, since this system generates monstrous social inequality and consequently the ability to heighten fault-lines amongst the majority, i.e. the working class. Amilcar Cabral averred that “so long as imperialism is in existence, an independent African state must be a liberation movement in power, or it will not be independent.”

A 1980’s document by the Cape Action League, of which Neville was the leading figure, called ‘A View on the National Question,’ reasoned that, since there has not been a bourgeois democratic revolution in South Africa (or Namibia), racial, ethnic or tribal ideology would remain hegemonic and the perils of social fragmentation would be ever-present. In the absence of the ideology of individual freedom as found in so-called Western countries, the dangers of a Rwanda, Angola or Yugoslavia would linger on in countries like Namibia and South Africa for the foreseeable future. So, it was (and is) in this context that the slogan of ‘One Azania, One Nation” or ‘One Namibia, One Nation’ should be comprehended.

In An Ordinary Country (2002), Neville puts the subject of the national question beyond doubt by declaring that: “…in the post-war African context, the word ‘nation’ is, and should continue to be used in order to denote the population that resides within a given independent state. This is not because the state and the nation are coterminous but because, in the post-colonial African context, the state, generally speaking, creates the conditions in which meaning (identity, and identities) is created. For this reason, I repeat the assertion that ‘community of language’ is not an ‘essential attribute’ of the nation. In other words, the crucial issue is the capacity of the citizens to communicate with one another effortlessly, regardless of the language in which they do so” (emphasis in original) (p.88).

Neville asserted (and devoted much of his life to developing) an essentially Leninist position on the national and language questions. Language is the key to resolving the national problem since it is the most flexible social marker. In the Namibian situation, for instance, serious consideration should be given to the harmonization of indigenous languages such as Tswana and Lozi, Otjiherero and Oshiwambo, etc. The existing harmony between the Nama and Damara dialects confirms that this is a viable option. Further harmonization of other languages/dialects would be a potentially fatal blow to an intensifying and troubling tribalism. In addition, the re-standardization of Afrikaans could counter three separate tribally-based identities in Namibia and would include the beautiful Oranjerivier dialect that is so widely spoken in the country.

In the same way that racial labels were disputed during apartheid and colonialism, the national identity should also be challenged. Indeed, this proposal is not about being nationalist, but emanates from the desire to promote genuine national unity. The Left is hardly oblivious to the dangers of chauvinism and xenophobia, or the need for internationalism, but the national question is a site of struggle that should be taken on primarily to prevent the disunity of the working people. In fact, we should even contest the traditions, customs and cultures of the people by spotlighting the revolutionary elements since these social manifestations are not frozen in time. Besides multilingualism, the Left must promote a progressive multiculturalism as part of nation-building.

So, comrade Neville, these were the kinds of ideas you inspired us with. You were such a warm and exceptional human being. And although we in Namibia deeply mourn your passing away, we find consolation in your towering legacy that will persist for many generations to come.

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