Book review: Thoughts on the New South Africa, by Neville Alexander

I used to believe that if you did not know history and how our societies came to be as they are, the world must be infuriating and scary. But from observing ease of those afflicted by the contagious South African moveonism, partly owing to the poor education system, partly from memory’s natural degeneracy between generations, partly from the convenience of forgetting, partly from the various ideologically driven projects to induce forgetting and misremembering, I’ve had to reconsider. Those with that knowledge and understanding are a minority amid a multitude of people who start each new day as though the previous had not been. These few are the only sane people in a room of amnestic madmen. As such, I’m now convinced that it’s only for them, these few who understand the past, its effects on today and what must be done to create a better future, that this world full of forgetting is a maddening place.

Neville Alexander’s collection of essays, Thoughts on the New South Africa, published posthumously in February, six months after his death, bristles with annoyance and a heavy undertone of frustration, understandably so, given that he was among the few I’ve described.

Adding to Alexander’s frustration, I glean, is that his thinking was, no, is far ahead of our time—and, compelled by the sense of community and humility that drew him into an active role in the country’s liberation movement, he could not reasonably withdraw into the insular existence that many in his position might find tempting and mollifying.

Yet despite, or perhaps because of, how infuriating it might have been to see things as clearly as he did (when others did not), Alexander was hopeful and optimistic about what could be. He collected his thoughts into a book because, he said, he hoped it would cause the reader to rethink what’s been happening in the country since 1990 and be inspired to become actively involved in creating the kind of country that the liberation movement (in its true, multifaceted sense and not solely the ANC, as is common parlance) had once aspired towards. The new South Africa, as it is, is certainly not that country. Far from it.

From his texts, a pattern of redoubtable logic emerges: his mind filters the rhythms and patterns of global and local history, identifies the shared harmonies driving events in this country, and applies them to devise practical ways to steer the country towards an egalitarian and just society. This, unfortunately, makes him a radical. I say unfortunately because radical has become, or, rather, has been shaped by the capitalist hegemony to become synonymous with unrealistic (and thus easily dismissed). Alexander certainly was not unrealistic, nor can be he be easily dismissed.

His thoughts on education and language policy, which occupy most of part two of the book, for example, might get some eyes rolling sarcastically. He is one of a few advocates for developing African languages beyond their current use as an optional medium of instruction in early primary school to a medium of instruction at university level. Even at primary school, he points out, African languages as a medium of instruction come with an escape-to-English clause, so the country’s commitment to multilingualism is lip service only.

“My position is brutally frank and honest, even provocative: we have to change the inherited linguistic habitus in terms of which English is the only feasible candidate for language of high status — a view which, among other things, implies that it is the language of science, mathematics, technology and business,” he writes.

“It would be hard to find any South African intellectual who on grounds of sentimentality and politics would not immediately answer the question [is it necessary to develop African languages as a language of higher education, given that we have English and Afrikaans as two ‘developed’ languages that serve the function adequately?] in the affirmative. With a few exceptions, however, most of these ladies and gentlemen would immediately relegate their affirmation to the category of mere rhetoric on grounds of ‘pragmatism’ and cost-benefit considerations.”

But, Alexander contends, English and Afrikaans are demonstrably not serving their function as languages of tertiary education adequately since most students, lacking proficiency and the intuitive grasp of idiom in these languages, do not pass let alone excel. In addition, he points out, this argument conveniently forgets that scholarly and academic achievements in an equitable society are to be communicated broadly, so using only English and Afrikaans in higher education institutions insulates these to a small, well-off minority.

Alexander complicates his argument further by problematising language’s role in class and power relationships—an argument I’d do a woeful job of summarising in a few paragraphs, so I’ll only mention one head-nodding moment I had while reading this particular exposition.

He notes that elsewhere in history and the world, and as was the case with Afrikaans in South Africa, a class or political project to develop a language to one deemed worthy of use in higher education preceded that language’s ‘ascension’. This should tell us that no language has inherent dominance or complexity that makes it preferable over the other as a medium of instruction for topics in higher education. That we are not developing African languages tells us more about the domicile of power in this country (and its historical origins) than the languages themselves or their usefulness and necessity in our society.

In one of the book’s more poignant moments, Alexander reflects on how after the formal end of apartheid, the role models in our society changed “suddenly, as though by some sleight of hand” from those fighting for liberation, justice and equality to “the entrepreneurial, individualistic whiz-kids of the neoliberal epoch. In short, we, especially our young people, were encouraged to become rich without being ashamed or guilty. We were led to believe that in the confines of the capitalist system, where — necessarily — a small minority of very rich people dominate society in all its dimensions and serve as the never-to-be equalled role models for the countless numbers of the poor and the very poor, all of us, if we would only make use of all the wonderful new ‘opportunities’, could become like the ‘best of them’.”

It’s poignant because this discussion follows Alexander’s recollections of the people who influenced his own political development from the time he, at 17, joined the Teachers’ League of South Africa, an affiliate of the Non-European Unity Movement. These are people such as educator and lawyer Livingstone (Livie) Mqotsi, who was banned from teaching for leading the Cape African Teachers’ Association’s campaign against Bantu education, and Minnie Gool, who inspired a young Alexander and other youths to involvement in political and community activism. These were people whose lives, like Steve Biko, who Alexander never met but was nonetheless influenced by, were necessarily bound and defined by a singular quest for uhuru that is inexorably accompanied by (non-romantic) ubuntu, for the former without the latter, Alexander writes, would be a mirage of liberation. Presently, the new South Africa has neither that kind of liberation nor are the people still fighting for it seen as role models.

In the third part of the book, Alexander deals with the thorny issues of race, affirmative action and social cohesion. Here, because of race’s paradoxes and unrealities and racialised thinking’s undesirability, he advances class as the optimal measure of disadvantage and thus the logical site of redress and redistribution. Driving this analysis, as with the rest of the text, is Alexander’s unyielding (yet thoroughly intellectually backed) commitment to equality, freedom, justice and unity. Ultimately he returns to the contention that the current model of individual glory and unequal reward is not sustainable and that contrary to the narrative hegemonic capitalism has managed to make ubiquitous, another way is possible. This, perhaps, if anywhere, is where I found the analysis somewhat lacking complexity and innovativeness—a fact Alexander readily acknowledges:

“It has been more difficult and challenging for me to return to the source, to reflect on the first principles that motivate us in our struggle for a humane world order, one where every child and every adult has more than an outside chance of fulfilling his or her human potential. Today we have to formulate these principles in a new language…I have probably not succeeded in finding those words, but I hope that my attempt will inspire others to take up the challenge.”

What I have done here is take snippets of impossible-to-describe brilliance and, instead of attempting to describe them, tried to illustrate why Thoughts on the New South Africa is a necessary and valuable minority report on the state of South Africa presently and a stark warning of what might come to pass if we, the people of this country, continue the abdication of the struggle of our forebears. It’s particularly compulsory reading for anybody seeking to expand their view of South African history beyond that of a quivering reverence to the ANC’s role in the liberation movement and the terms by which the negotiated settlement changed the definition of liberation to a fairly innocuous concept that affirms the status quo.

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One thought on “Book review: Thoughts on the New South Africa, by Neville Alexander

  1. […] was published earlier this year. It’s an insightful glimpse into his political ideas and Osiame Molefe calls it “a necessary and valuable minority report on the state of South Africa presently and a stark […]

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