A Tribute to Neville Alexander
Neville Alexander dies a great revolutionary. There is much that will still be said and found out about him as the tributes pour in.
Perhaps I need to say we often found ourselves on different sides of the revolutionary coin. I once in the 1990s innocently wandered into a meeting at SACHED (SA Committee on Higher Education), where he taught. The assorted “leftists” there eyed me suspiciously but all seemed to assume I must be a sleeper in the UDF and left me to listen. After some ten minutes of hearing strategies on how to break the schools boycott (and the student movement), I accused them all of sectarianism and a lack of democracy, stood up and left them to work out why WECSCO (Western Cape Students Congress), a COSAS affiliate, was winning so much ground for the Congress.
Neville smiled. I often challenged him, and he listened and disagreed.
Neville was born in Cradock in 1936. His political background was in the non-collaborationist tradition of the Unity Movement (NEUM) and Teachers League (TLSA). He attended UCT and Tubingen University in Germany. He was a teacher at Livingstone High in Cape Town from 1961, through his history classes encouraging learners to explore things for themselves. This tradition of critical learning alongside the importance of education, were things he always encouraged.
Wanting more engagement, he formed the National Liberation Front and then the Yu Chi Chan Club in 1963. All being rank amateurs, he and its members were quickly arrested and sent to Robben Island where he spent 10 years. The strong sense of cameraderie on the Island , the informal seminars and detailed attention to learning and education, as well as the non-sectarian approach , made a deep impression.
He was banned and house arrested on his release. In 1979 he published One Azania One Nation: The National Question in South Africa under the pseudonym of No Sizwe. He continued his writings including An Ordinary Country: Issues in the Transition from Apartheid to Democracy in South Africa, published in 2003. Neville combined being a passionate intellectual with political and social engagement, a lesson for us all.
During the UDF period, Neville took the Workers Organisation for Socialist Action (WOSA), which he had formed, into the National Forum. This was a loose socialist and black consciousness alliance which eschewed the action-oriented approach of the United Democratic Front , rejecting UDF as collaborationist. NUSAS was attacked as being the ‘sons and daughters’ of the bourgeoisie’, sent to infiltrate the liberation struggle. The National Forum disintegrated due to sectarianism and a lack of action, taking a weak second place to the UDF in the struggles of the 80s and 90s. The national liberation movement was dismissed by Neville as simply a wing of the bourgeois classes.
More recently, I was on a Commission with Neville at UCT, looking at admissions policy. He was to the last a firm ant-racist: the mere mention of the word “race” was for him to reinforce an unscientific anti-biological concept. I argued that our history, and that of Western colonialism, have reinforced the reality of race . We need to acknowledge race to fight it, or to measure progress away from race. While the Commission is still sitting to conclude its recommendations, Neville agreed on a compromise: we do need to move away from race, not from redress, and we do need a university to take bold steps. Maybe this Commission will eventually be another tribute to his work.
Neville’s other great educational c.ontribution has been in the sphere of language. Working for PRAESA (Project for Alternative Education) at UCT, he was not only a professor, but an activist for the importance of mother-tongue teaching.
In 2004, Dr. Neville Alexander received the Order of the Disa from Western Cape Premier Ebrahim Rasool for his long commitment to socio-political issues and education. He received numerous prizes for his work especially in the area of language. In 2003 he formed the African Academy of Languages (ACALAN), to work within the African Union, and served on its interim board.
His biographer, Crain Soudien, tells how Neville always rejected what he saw as the trappings of elitism, from fine clothes to fine cars. He remained a simple man of the people.
We can disagree with his opposition to the national liberation movement and his simplistic characterisations of the “four nation” theory when he wrote as NoSizwe, a debate he held even with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. His biographer tells how even there stubborness on both sides often led comrades to re-build bridges by insisting on face-to-face discussion.
Neville passed away on 27 August in Cape Town, where he lived.
There is no doubt we have lost a great educationist, a great activist, a great South African