Neville Alexander, one of South Africa’s most influential Marxist intellectuals and activists, died on Monday at the age of 75. Ashley Fataar looks at his life and legacy
Neville Alexander, who has died of cancer aged 75, devoted his life to the struggle against apartheid and for socialism.
He was a fellow prisoner of Nelson Mandela on Robben Island for a decade. He not only fought alongside the African National Congress (ANC) but also supported the Algerian independence movement. And he remained a consistent and outspoken critic of capitalism in the post-apartheid era.
Neville was first drawn to politics as a student at the University of Cape Town in the early 1950s. He became a leader of the Cape Peninsula Students Union and campaigned against apartheid—South Africa’s racist system that denied black people a vote and other civil liberties between 1948 and 1994.
He later became active in the Non European Unity Movement, a grouping of Trotskyist organisations. During further studies in Germany he came into contact with the Algerian national liberation movements that aimed to expel French colonialists.
On his return to South Africa in June 1961, Neville broke from the Non European Unity Movement over his commitment to guerrilla struggle. He helped form the National Liberation Front, an organisation that intended to wage a guerrilla war against the apartheid regime.
But he was captured in 1963 and spent ten years in Robben Island alongside other political prisoners. During this time he had intense political debates and arguments with Mandela and the ANC over how best to end apartheid and bring down capitalism.
Neville was released in 1974, just in time to witness the explosion of renewed struggle against apartheid that came in the wake of the Soweto rebellion by school students in June 1976. He co-founded the Cape Action League in 1983.
This brought together a number of township based community organisations, the activist core of which were “Coloureds” (people of mixed descent) and Indian people. CAL’s formation was significant since it came at a time when the apartheid regime had granted a few legal concessions to Coloureds and Indians in order to try and divide them from black Africans fighting apartheid.
Neville’s main intellectual contribution was on the question of race and language within South Africa. He dedicated much of the rest of his life to the question. Neville argued fiercely that “race” is a scientific myth that cannot be located in genes or biology.
He also argued against those who viewed South Africa as essentially divided on ethnic lines. This view had disastrous political consequences, he said, because it gave credibility to the apartheid scheme of setting up “bantustans”, or “homelands”, for black people.
Despite his scepticism over ethnicity, Neville was sympathetic to the Black Consciousness Movement and its murdered leader Steve Biko. Politically, this set him and CAL apart from the emerging mass based United Democratic Front which was dominated by the ANC and sought to unite all classes and people on a non-racial basis against apartheid.
Neville was very clear about the class nature of South Africa. He argued in September 1985, “Because of the peculiarities of capitalist development in South Africa, the only way in which national oppression can be abolished is through the abolition of the capitalist structures themselves.
The only class, however, which can bring into being such a socialist system is the black working class.” Black workers were in a position to mobilise all oppressed and exploited classes to end capitalism, he argued.
Neville retained his sense of ideological clarity and his commitment to social and economic justice through to the end of his life. He was a consistent and outspoken critic of the governing ANC.
He noted that negotiations between the ANC and the former white ruling elite—the talks that formed the basis of post-aparthied South Africa—left wealth and power in the hands of those responsible for apartheid. The recent murder of 34 miners by the state at Lonmin’s Marikana mine is just one index of this. South Africa today is one of the most unequal countries on the planet.
I had the pleasure of meeting Neville. He was deeply humane and patient with the people he worked wuth. He took ideas and debate very seriously, always emphasising the connection between theory and practice. Until very recently he still worked in poor townships helping to set up education projects.
In a country now blighted by corruption and “get rich quick” attitudes, Neville’s lifelong commitment to education and political struggle shines out like a beacon.
Ashley Fataar is based in Cape Town and is a leading activist in Keep Left, the Socialist Workers Party’s sister organisation in South Africa
This article was amended on 30 August 2012 because the original said that Neville Alexander had travelled to Algeria and fought alongside the independence movement. We have been unable to verify this information and have consequently removed it.