With the 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.
Born in 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.
Cradock 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.
Immensely 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 Gerhart Hauptmann.
Returning to 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.
After the 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.
On Robben 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.
In politics 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.
He published 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 books.
There are three key ideas running through all Neville Alexander’s work:
- The 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.
- He believed 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.
- The struggle for a socialist world of justice and equality for all.
Neville 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 political spectrum
Deeply loved 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.
Wilderness 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.
By Francis Wilson.
This article was first published in the Cape Times on Thursday, August 30th, 2012.
Francis Wilson is Emeritus Professor in the School of Economics at the University of Cape Town.