Is it important at a memorial service to use the sanctity of the occasion – sanctified by death, grieving and remembering – also to continue to speak truth to power? Debatable, perhaps, but not, I venture to quess, for Neville. For he lived to so speak: truth to power. Indeed, only a few months ago he stated, clearly and explicitly, what many of us feel but are sometimes too reticent to say:
All the heady hopes which even those who were not in or of the Congress Alliance had in 1994-95 seem to have turned into ash. There are few thinking South Africans today who would be prepared to say that they are happy with how things have turned out… Ever more frequently, those of us who fought consciously and often at great personal cost for the liberation of South Africa from the shackles of apartheid and capitalism are left asking ourselves whether this is the kind of society we had in mind when, like Faust in Scene 2 of Goethe’s enduring drama, we dreamt of a country where we would be able to exclaim triumphantly: Hier bin ich Mensch, hier darf ich’s sein!
But Neville, characteristically, refused to be either discouraged or defeated: not by the apartheid state and not by the ANC – the midwife of massacre at Marekana, be it noted – and the ostensibly “liberated state” that it now staffs. Indeed, where many others saw defeat, or fate, or even the “common-sense” embedded in the disabling “there is no choice” mantras he saw grounds for optimism:
The working and unemployed masses are voting with their feet. Whatever their lingering loyalties and ever more feeble hopes in the myth that “the ANC will deliver”, however big the gap between political consciousness and material practice, the thousands of township uprisings, countrywide strikes and serial metropolitan protest actions have one simple meaning: we reject your policies and your practices as anti-worker and anti-poor. It is, in my view, a misnomer to refer to these stirrings of self-organisation of the working class as an expression of “collective insubordination”, even though their immediate impulse is usually reactive rather than proactive. They are saying very clearly and very loudly that the appeal to nationalist, blood and soil rhetoric has lost its power and that we are standing on the threshold of a politics that will be shaped by a heightened sense of class struggle.
But one could go on here echoing similar statements, early and late, made by Neville and I will refrain from doing so – for they all add up to one message, typically articulated with great distinction, sophistication and clarity, but in the end setting out one clear message: “The struggle – the struggle for equality, justice and democratic empowerment in South Africa – continues.” Let me confess something further here, however: I learned so much from him – from his example, his conversation, his friendship and his writing (from the No Sizwe days, through his brilliant “An Ordinary Country” to his most recent inspiring lectures and speeches) – that words of appreciation and respect which would be adequate to the present purpose almost fail me.
I will, therefore, merely conclude by saying – it sounds almost trite to say it, but it is true – that, as a non-South African, Neville was an inspiration to many like myself who joined the anti-apartheid cause from outside, not least because he consistently underscored the extent to which transformative efforts geared towards changing South Africa were part of a larger global struggle against inequality and capitalist exploitation wherever it was to be found. He also communicated to us clearly that he welcomed our efforts not as acts of mere charity or as the workings of a liberal “guilty conscience” but as the efforts of comrades, his comrades, in a joint undertaking of paramount importance. We, in turn, were his comrades…and his friends.
John S. Saul. DLF