Neville Alexander - an important voice

2012-08-29 08:54

Rustum Kozain

Neville Edward Alexander
, 22 October 1936 - 27 August 2012

Many activists, educators, and former students have been saddened to learn of Neville Alexander's passing. Even if not well known to the average South African, his voice - on politics, culture and language - was important and necessary. Alexander held views which address present South Africa with the compassion and courage known by those who heard him speak and read his writing. He was concerned with ways by which we might recover from our "profoundly sick society".

Alexander was born in Cradock. His father, David James Alexander, was a carpenter and his mother, Dimbiti Bisho, was a school teacher. From his father the young Neville inherited a strong sense of white oppression in South Africa, while this was leavened by his mother's Christian values and respect for everyone.

At university in Cape Town he majored in German and History and was drawn into radical politics via the Non-European Unity Movement (later the New Unity Movement). After his Masters degree in German, he won a scholarship to study at Tübingen University in Germany. Always open to new ideas, he met students from former colonies and developed his anti-colonial politics, while also growing aware of the Stalinist tendencies in the South African Communist Party.

Self-education sessions

By 1961, Alexander had completed a PhD in German studies and returned to Cape Town, teaching at Livingstone High School and founding two organisations. The first was the Yu Chi Chan Club, which sought to promote guerrilla warfare, and the second the National Liberation Front, which aimed to unite various anti-apartheid organisations. These activities led to his arrest and he was imprisoned on Robben Island in 1964.

Alexander remembered his time in jail as brutalising, but also as enriching. The self-education sessions among the prisoners - including Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu - became known as the University of Robben Island. Here Alexander realised that you did not need professors or formal education to become an intellectual.

Following his release in 1974, he continued his political intellectual work and soon Steve Biko of the Black Consciousness Movement was interested in meeting him. In fact, it was after a potential meeting between the two in 1977, cancelled for security reasons, that Biko himself was arrested.

After the lifting of Alexander's house arrest, he started teaching at the University of Cape Town and in 1980 became director of the South African Committee on Higher Education (SACHED), an organisation committed to alternative, anti-apartheid education. It is in education, and especially Language Planning policy, that Alexander became well-known in educational circles in South Africa. He was a founding member and director of the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa (PRAESA) at UCT, and was involved in the Language Planning Task Group which advised government on language policy in education.

Alexander's views on language in South Africa were deeply political. He firmly believed in the need to place all languages in South Africa on a substantively equal level. With a still de facto dominance by English and Afrikaans, the majority of South Africans remain without the dignity which full recognition of African languages would accord.

Huge loss to SA

But it is, finally, in terms of his general politics that Alexander stood out and for which his passing is a huge loss to South Africa. In a 2011 article, Robin Hood, Robben Island and the Post Apartheid State, Alexander recognises that South Africa is a "profoundly sick society" and that its values are a far cry from those that informed the anti-apartheid struggle. He calls on intellectuals - academics, activists, writers - to speak up and address and challenge the problems in our society "fearlessly and candidly, no matter how awkward it may be".

"It is no longer acceptable," he says, "to countenance in stoic but nonetheless complicit silence the brazen looting of state resources." The corruption and looting is ultimately stealing from the poor, an inversion of the Robin Hood story. Together with this he wants us to challenge the general "ultra individualism and self-centredness" that infect our society. And while he realised the difficulty of the task, he was committed to finding a path away from the ills that do make post-apartheid South Africa comparable to apartheid South Africa.

Hamba Kahle, comrade.

- Rustum Kozain is a writer from Cape Town. His second volume of poetry, Groundwork, was published in July this year by Kwela and Snailpress.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

  • guido.grundrisse - 2012-08-29 18:31

    I would just like to point out that the biographical account I give draws heavily from the profile at SAHistory, linked at the top of the article under Neville Alexander's name. Obviously I left a lot of detail out and encourage readers to read the profile at SAHistory:

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