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ACTIVIST, author and academic Neville Alexan- der, who died on Monday, was a towering figure in South Africa’s intellectual landscape.
Amid the noise which has come to characterise our political debate, his was a quiet voice; reasoned, steadfast and independent.
His long career of activism included student politics in the Cape Peninsula Students’ Union and 10 years on Robben Island. His passion for education and literacy brought him to the S A Committee for Higher Education (Sached), which offered black South Africans an alternative to Bantu Education, and to the creation of Khanya College, of the National Language Project and of the Project for the Study of Alternative Education. He had deep roots in Cape Town and a long and close association with UCT – which did not stop him from going head to head with the university authorities on the use of race as a criterion for admission to the university.
Alexander was adamant in his refusal to acknowledge race as a useful political or intellectual category. In one of many articles written for the Cape Times, he noted: “The terribly simple fact is that ‘race’ is not real; it is racial prejudice and race thinking that are real.” Writing about the census, he said: “I refuse to classify myself in racial terms”, urging others to write “South African” in the block marked “race” on the census form. Though apartheid had used race to justify exclusion, race could never be a good proxy for disadvantage. “It is an insult of the first order to believe that I am disadvantaged because of the colour of my skin or the texture of my hair,” he wrote.
He was adamant, too, that the economic basis of social inequality had to be tackled. He denounced the myth of the “rainbow nation” but also that of “equal opportunities”, insisting on the urgent need to find alternatives to the capitalist state.
For him the way forward was through community organisation, the strengthening of civil society, and the return to the people of power which had been “leased” to politicians and bureaucrats.
“Let us stop being mesmerised by the gossip about political leaders and pop stars,” he wrote,” and let us roll up our sleeves and work among the poor in town and country, so that we can rebuild the dreams, the ambitions and the sense of worth that are the hallmarks of a self-confident, democratic nation.”
He was clear-sighted, sometimes stern, always compassionate; and he will be very much missed.