In Memoriam: Professor Neville Alexander

by Russel Wildeman, 27 August 2012


It is with sadness that I would like to note the passing of Professor Neville Alexander. A native from the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa, he moved to the Western Cape and spent the best of his political, professional, social and academic life in that interesting province. He was one of the high profile activists jailed on Robben Island.  I have to state upfront that Neville and I were not friends and the occasional contact we had was around my research on education budgets.

It may sound like a tired saying but here is another great South African who is no longer among us. Neville was an intellectual and activist of the highest order and I will remember him principally for four interventions. One was his insistence during the 1980s that the popular resistance movements should resist from organising communities on a “sectarian” basis. By this he meant that issues taken up in Gugulethu (a so-called African area) must not be removed from issues taken up in Mitchells Plain (a so-called Coloured area). He was of the view that such campaigns consolidated the hold of apartheid identities and make it impossible for a broader non-racial consensus to be built.

His other intervention was to challenge the post-apartheid reification of ethnic and racial identity. He was opposed to employment equity defined in terms of “race” and he urged the government to adopt other measures such as socio-economic disadvantage. He took this position to the extreme and at times it appeared too rigid and not in keeping with the times. But this was part of his relentless deconstruction of “race” and ethnicity.

His third intervention was his plea for the standardisation of “African” languages and the need to create commercial value for these languages. I don’t think he believed in the 11 official languages policy but he was passionate in his plea for the amalgamation of groups of African languages, for their standardisation and for explicit efforts to give these languages commercial currency. He was of the view that the exclusive use of English was problematic and excludes millions of South Africans to enter work and other areas of life meaningfully.

Finally, I remember him as a historian who helped many of us to better understand how social class came to define so much of what is referred to as modern Western Cape. The work he did with Mary Simons (UCT) was such an eye opener, whether it dealt with the deep scars of slavery, or how Cape Town’s “English” commercial class was just as racist as Afrikaans white Cape Town, the various capitalists that fought it out for political supremacy in that province, etc.  If there is one book that I recommend, then read the “Social and Economic History of the Western Cape.”

Needless to say, so much of what he predicted became true. In 1994, a heavily unionised (COSATU nogal) Coloured working class voted in large numbers for the then National Party. All National Party ideologues had to do was to remind Coloureds of what would happen if Africans came into power.  If you adopt Neville’s position, you would say that this racial scaremongering was possible because the mass democratic movements did not think through their sectarian campaigns. Then there was the infamous “over-concentration” of Coloureds in the Western Cape comment, which he made off as vulgar, racist and in keeping with the commodification of labour thesis now propounded by the new elite.  He also took on the Vice Chancellor of UCT for his affirmative action (AA) policies regarding blacks in general and Africans in particular. He went as far as to suggest that if a black student does not meet the academic requirements, he/she should not be given a free pass and that universities should take upon themselves to ready such students for academic life. This was not the view of a reactionary but of someone who challenged the post-1994 consensus of (racialised) AA and employment equity (EE).

A few weeks ago, he asked Salim Vally (the prominent Palestinian activist and a great friend of Neville) to ask me to look at the High Court case involving Equal Education and the Department of Basic Education. He thought that because a large part of that case rests on an understanding of public finance and the fiscal dimensions of inter-governmental relationships, my opinion should be sought on the matter. I obliged and delivered a verdict that is slightly different from the premises of the equal education case.  He and a host of others were/are of the view that taking an education case through the High Court and the Constitutional Court is expensive and so they are looking at the possibility of bringing forward cases at lower levels and building progressively on such emerging jurisprudence. I was looking forward to debating with him and others the merits of the equal education case and whether cornering the State with all sorts of litigation is the best way forward.

Of course, I did not always agree with some of his positions. For example, by guarding against any affirmation of apartheid identities in the extreme way he did, he has excluded, in my view, the possibility of exploring “difference” in ways other than that defined by the old racial system. In other words, once one adopts such extreme positions, you close off the possibility that there are liberating dynamics in communities that may help us to become more human, more “tolerant” etc. I fear that taken to its extreme, one turns away from looking carefully at communities because doing so would compromise one’s perspective and that can’t be good in my humble view. Furthermore, because of his distaste for any form of racial and ethnic identification, he sought refuge in a “scientific” discourse around race. But in doing so, he did not engage with the fact that there are so many “sciences”, so many ways of doing science and that not so long ago, science and racism were not uncomfortable bedfellows (think Saartjie Baartman, the Shoah and imperialism).

Nonetheless, we have to take forward his legacy and his commitment to social and economic justice. He was after all a committed socialist.

Hamba Kahle Comrade Neville

Russell Wildeman

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