South Africa

Remembering Neville Alexander

By Khadija Patel 28 August 2012

Neville Alexander died on Monday after a crippling, albeit brief battle with lung cancer. But even as messages of tribute pour in from around the country, the real contribution of Alexander to the country cannot be quantified simply. KHADIJA PATEL spoke with people who knew him to find out how they thought he would be remembered.

On Monday, Professor Neville Alexander, a public intellectual, a prominent educationist and a hero of the struggle for liberation passed away. He was 75 years old. And even as his friends battle tears to speak of their own pain in letting him go, they are keen as well to remind the country that Alexander was an extraordinary South African, an exemplary human. 

In a statement released by the presidency, President Zuma’s office said Alexander would be “remembered for his pioneering work on language policy, including his most recent work, focusing on the tension between multilingualism and the hegemony of the English language in the public sphere.” 

“We are saddened by this tragic loss of a South African who had contributed selflessly to the struggle for liberation and to building a better society and a better South Africa. At a professional level, Dr. Alexander, as an accomplished linguist, contributed immensely to language development in our country. The country has lost a person of high intellectual and academic standing. We extend our deepest condolences to Dr Alexander’s family, relatives and friends,” Zuma said in the statement.

In its tribute to Alexander, the University of Cape Town said in a statement that Alexander was an “acclaimed linguist, academic and anti-Apartheid struggle veteran.” He was all that, yes, but it is a tribute to Alexander that those labels simply do not do him justice. For a man of his stature, these labels, well-meaning and fitting as they certainly are, also fall short of describing what exactly Alexander stood for – and what exactly South Africa has just lost. 

There are few heroes of the liberation struggle who still live in the townships, not just in touch with their roots but still living in the places that delivered them to political leadership. But Alexander, through sheer will and stubbornness of principle, remained a resident at the Lotus Village township in Cape Town up until his death. 

“He lived what he preached,” noted Salim Valley, a senior researcher at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Education Rights and Transformation. For Alexander the struggle was not just words – it was a philosophy that touched every area of his life.

“He contributed to so many different respects of the struggle over many decades,” Valley said.  

As well as being a long-time colleague of Alexander, Valley was also one of his close friends. As he spoke to the Daily Maverick over the telephone on Monday, he was audibly distressed. “I first met Neville when I was 21 years old. Since then I’ve spoken to him every week up until these last two weeks (during which he was ill),” Valley said.

“He was very proud. He was dynamic. He started the Robben Island University during his imprisonment.”

“He was an extraordinary thinker; one of the best thinkers of contemporary times,” black consciousness writer Andile Mngxitama said. “In some ways, his intellectual prowess is demonstrated in his influence of (Steve) Biko’s approach to black consciousness.”

“I think that he was an intellectual, an eloquent speaker and thinker, and a leading member of the left in this country,” Omar Badsha, CEO of SA History Online, said of Alexander’s legacy. 

And though Valley says Alexander’s contribution to South African society is multi-faceted and not easily listed, he admits that the greatest contribution was to education. “In the 80s we were very involved in education struggles. There was a slogan at the time, something like: ‘liberation first, education after’. Neville disagreed strongly with this. He believed schools should be places of struggle,” Valley said. 

“He played an enormous role in education,” Badsha added. “The idea that liberation was not just political change, but also cultural change, and the need for change for the systems underpinning it was crucial to the ideas Neville proposed. 

“Language and culture was central to his understanding of how to achieve a more complete liberation.”

And though Alexander may well be remembered by history for his views on multilingualism and his contribution to language planning in South Africa, his views on language, as well as the urgent need for a more multilingual nation is bred in the education system, underscored his thinking about how best to achieve a more just country.

“He was very keen on multilingualism, but it was not his only contribution to education,” Valley said. 

And his devotion to education did not wane in the latter years of his life.

 “Three weeks ago, he was talking about the state of education in the country,” Valley said. 

 Alexander was a proponent of a post-racial society. He warned against the consequences of the unquestioned racialisation of society and its pervasiveness in everyday life. Many, however, disagreed with him, arguing that race could simply not be divorced from a society such as post-Apartheid South Africa.

“He and I did not agree on the race question,” Mngxitama said. “But you couldn’t fight with Neville.

“He created the opportunity for robust engagement without the possibility of estrangement,” Mngxitama added with a wry chuckle. 

Alexander was a simple man. A fierce intellectual, certainly but his gentleness and simplicity were disarming.

“He was humble – despite the breadth of his intellect,” Valley said. 

And as the country tries to pick itself up from a torrid few weeks, the enormity of the loss of Alexander is especially significant. South Africa’s challenges are made greater by the loss of intellectuals like him.  

“Although we’ve known the diagnosis for weeks, it’s come as a shock,” Valley said. 

“It is a great loss. He was an excellent human being,” Mngxitama added.

Badsha agreed, “He will be missed.”  DM

Read more:

  • Neville Alexander – a linguistic revolutionary in Daily Maverick 

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