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Language was the tool of Dr Neville Alexander’s fight for freedom, writes Jonathan Jansen, rector and vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State.
“I was nervous as I made my way through Salt River to my first physical meeting with my childhood hero. No youth of my generation on the Cape Flats had not heard of Comrade Neville. He was the fearless teacher at Livingstone High School who took a public stand against apartheid. He was the intellectual who could explain complex things, like the connection between gutter education (as it was called in that region of the country) and international capitalism.
He was the real deal, the uncompromising activist who found strange the racial nationalists like Nelson Mandela as living with an inferior ideological apparatus for making sense of oppression. Now, for the first time, I was to meet the hero of my youth, the man who received much less media attention than the other Robben Islanders.
That mix of fear and joy could be felt in the stomach as I eventually found the run-down house off the main road into Cape Town where he ran an NGO with a fellow Islander. What would I say to this great man? I did not have the profound vocabulary of these clever people. Was I dressed properly, and what would we eat? Silly questions from a nervous fan.
Comrade Neville was waiting, dressed in his fisherman jersey and old brown pants. He opened a packet of fish and chips wrapped in a previous edition of the Cape Argus. We sat on the floor. And then we talked about education. Right there I drew a conclusion which stayed with me to this day: this man was incorruptible, a revolutionary who would remain true to his core values despite the materialistic excesses of former Struggle heroes.
He taught me many things, one of which was that Afrikaans is and can be a language of liberation and a vehicle for reconciliation. I struggled with this as a second-language speaker of the language that caused so much pain. But to hear a radical like Neville make the case for Afrikaans and, more broadly, for mother-tongue education forced you to think beyond your own prejudices. While I always thought his approach to languages was too methodical, even too idealistic, there was no doubt that he recognised the link between language and power through his impressive research unit, the Project for Alternative Education in SA (Praesa).
He took his methodology for language learning into the townships, and altered countless lives in the process as a fluent speaker of Afrikaans, German, Dutch, Xhosa and, of course, English.
He taught me something else, and that is the danger and futility of attaching yourself to a racial or ethnic identity. If you wanted to raise his blood pressure, call Neville “coloured.” And so imagine his shock when Mandela invited “coloured intellectuals” for talks over dinner on Robben Island – a few took the ferry right back over the ocean. Neville understood that the attachment to racial labels was a recipe for national conflict, and that meek arguments about using race for redress were, at best, shortsighted. UCT was to face his formidable intellect on these matters with its stubborn adherence to racial essences in decisions on admissions to their medical school. Neville lived his life as a truly non-racial citizen.
Behind that determined political perspective was a gentle man. His first words when we spoke had nothing to do with ideology or education or social change. “How are Grace and the children?” I used to freeze when someone in a large audience asked him a silly question. Would the hardcore socialist tear apart the inquirer? Never, even with obviously hostile questions. His responses often prefaced with a deceptively simple: “It’s quite simple, really.” And from there he would make the case for radical education.
The government never quite knew how to deal with the man.
Various Ministers of Education, those with less ego and anxiety, would call on Neville to advise them on language or curriculum. None had the guts to take forward his thinking into policy making or to fund his bold innovations in language education; after all, he was not a congress man in a narrow-minded political setup.
I sometimes felt he was more recognised and valued on the international academic circuit, especially in Europe, than in his own country.
I feel devastated at the loss of a mentor and a friend, someone I could call late at night to the home he shared in Grassy Park to vent a frustration or to seek education wisdom.
Most of all, SA has lost a great scholar, a principled activist, a generous humanitarian and a formidable intellect; the last of the true revolutionaries.