I knew only one genuine revolutionary in my life, and he died this week. The news floored me, and for an hour I roamed around the office in a daze.
” He was the standard for a revolutionary” “It is not true,” I kept telling myself, for this great man, simply by being present in our country, kept alive my dreams and hopes of what a real revolutionary was and could be. “Neville just died,” said a mutual friend on Monday morning, and an era ended right there. Dr Neville Edward Alexander seldom spoke of the hard years on Robben Island, so I was delighted to collect this (edited) snippet from former archbishop and fellow islander Njongonkulu Ndungane on Facebook this week: “One of the episodes I remember vividly was the arrival of Alexander’s group on Robben Island. [Their] reputation preceded them. Warders leapt forward with great alacrity saying: ‘Waar is daardie Neville Alexander?’ Out came this diminutive, skinny person. The warders’ response? ‘Jy lieg [You lie].’ “They then took a well-built member of his team by the scruff of the neck and sent him packing to the isolation cells. Consequently, we had a whole month sitting at the feet of the master.” There is a more durable story here about a man who was different in every way from what his standing as a scholar and his reputation as an activist suggested. He was fearless in the struggle and fearsome in the articulation of his ideals for a socialist Azania. Yet this same comrade who worked with everyone “from communists to whale lovers”, as a close friend of his put it, in his non-partisan, tireless struggle for education.
On the one hand, he fought against racism on the part of the Afrikaner nationalists and their prejudicial attempts at ethnic ownership of the Afrikaans language; yet Alexander was one of the most persistent activists who argued for Afrikaans as an effective medium for mother-tongue learning and a potential vehicle for reconciliation. What made comrade Alexander so obviously different from the nouveau riche – as he sometimes referred to the new elite and their unearned wealth – was his simple lifestyle when he could so easily have cashed in on his prized PhD from Tübingen, Germany, and his enviable credentials as a struggle hero. But he did not, determined to remain below the radar when fellow prisoners basked in the limelight of media attention, some elevated to god like status even by those who once imprisoned them.
Alexander was different, and for a long time he did not drive a car or own a cellphone. He lived until his death in a shared home in a depressed area of the Cape Flats called Lotus River, where even light rains could cause water to overflow “the avenues”. He dressed simply and lived modestly. Even his famous book carried an unflashy title, An Ordinary Country. At our first meeting he invited me to sit on the floor and enjoy lunch, which was fish and chips wrapped inside the pages of a newspaper, in a modest house doubling as a non-governmental organisation. His most telling critique of South African society was the four-nation thesis and the dangers of “fighting race with race”. Perhaps because he lived in two race-obsessed countries, Germany and South Africa, he knew, better than most, how our obsession with racial categories in the distribution of resources would surely come back to haunt us. You could, in fact, issue no greater insult to this great humanitarian than to call him “coloured”.
He was a thorn in the flesh of his colleagues at the University of Cape Town with their antiquated attachment to race and ethnicity as the basis for making decisions on admissions to medical school. Every few months Alexander would call me and a few friends to discuss the deep crisis in school education. We would talk for hours about the social upheaval that would befall this country if the injustice of unequal education continued. But then he acted on his concerns, taking teams of language specialists into the townships of Cape Town and demonstrating how mother-tongue instruction and multilingualism could improve the educational outcomes of children and bring young people out of poverty. He was a thinker and a doer. He was an activist who did not wait for the government to wake up to the enormity of the education crisis. When I hear uncouth youth leaders and older politicians throwing around words like revolutionary and counter-revolutionary, I know those are political games. After all, I knew the standard for a revolutionary: Dr Neville Edward Alexander.