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Tribute to multilingualism proponent

Date Released: Mon, 26 November 2012 15:00 +0200

Dean of Humanities Prof Fred Hendricks presented a deeply personal tribute to the multi-linguist, Prof Neville Alexander at the opening of a colloquium on second language teaching recently.

Prof Neville Alexander (1936-2012) was a proponent of a multilingual South Africa and a former revolutionary who spent ten years on Robben Island as a fellow-prisoner with former president of South Africa, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.

 “Neville was a true son of the Eastern Cape, and that is why it is particularly appropriate for us to pay tribute to him,” says Prof Hendricks at the opening of the colloquium on Tuesday 30 October.

Prof Hendricks first met Alexander in the early 80s, when Hendricks had been released from detention without trial and soon after Alexander had published the landmark One Azania One Nation. They continued to be in touch with each other for 30 years, until his death in August this year.

After his release, Prof Hendricks received a scholarship from the Swedish government to study at Uppsala University but was unable to leave South Africa as his passport had been confiscated. This was when Alexander magnanimously became his unofficial supervisor “assiduously reading my chapters and giving me unstinting encouragement” as well as introducing him to “invaluable contacts” Mlamli Makwetu and Fikile Bam in the Transkei, which is where he did the fieldwork for his thesis. 

“He was generous to a fault and he was particularly generous with his ideas – and in this he was the consummate teacher and intellectual – he was at his happiest when he was sharing ideas with others, especially if those ideas were concerned with a commitment to fundamental social change.”

Prof Alexander was born in Cradock and his maternal grandmother was Ethiopian Oromo slave. “Describing his grandmother, Neville would say that she was freed from slavery, not by the British, but by the education she received from Lovedale College in the Eastern Cape of South Africa,” says Prof Hendricks, noting that one of the presentations at the colloquium -by Prof Ekkehard Wolff- was about the Oromo, the majority group in Ethiopia who have been oppressed by the Hamaric and Tigrean minorities.

After matriculating at the age of 16, Alexander went on to do a Masters degree at UCT and his PhD in German philology at the University of Tubingen, which was when he developed a deep interest in the language question. Later he emphasised how all children should learn more than two languages, as it could be an obstruction to hate, which could lead to genocide, like in Rwanda.

After his return to South Africa in 1961, he took up a teaching post at a Cape Town high school, where in the aftermath of the Sharpeville massacre he formed the Yu Chi Chan Club (YCCC) to discuss the promotion of guerrilla warfare.

He subsequently founded the National Liberation Front to bring together people who were committed, in his words, to the overthrow of the state, irrespective of their political ideology. In 1963, together with other members of the YCCC, including Fikile Bam, he was detained, charged and convicted of conspiracy to commit sabotage. He was imprisoned on Robben Island from 1964-1974.

After being placed under house arrest he wrote One Azania One Nation under a pseudonym, in which he provided a sustained critique of the so-called four nations thesis, or the view that South Africa consists of four distinct national or racial groups as defined by the apartheid regime.

“Neville was an institution builder par excellence.  But he did not simply build structures for their own sake - they had to serve a broader purpose of transformation and in this he had a life-long commitment to alternative more participatory and creative forms of education.”

He was also a major proponent of terminological development in African languages in order to develop African languages for use in spaces other than domestic domains, such as tertiary education. In 2002 he wrote the foreword for the first translation into Zulu of the Communist Manifesto – which he described as empowering, although very belated.

“All of Neville’s politics and his analysis were steeped in class analysis.  Hence it could be said that he predicted the recent Marikana massacre at the Lonmin mine.  In a prescient piece, on the occasion of the fourth Strini Moodley Annual Memorial Lecture, held at the University of KwaZulu-Natal on May 13, 2010 he said: “The final disillusionment will come, of course, when the repressive apparatuses of the state, instead of supporting the exploited classes and other oppressed strata, turn their weapons on the masses to protect the interests of the capitalist class.”

By Anna-Karien Otto

Picture source: SABC