The path to widespread freedom for a diverse range of people runs through multilingualism. That’s one of main lessons from South African scholar and activist Neville Alexander, who passed away August 27.
A fellow-prisoner of Nelson Mandela during his country’s Apartheid years, Alexander did pioneering work in languages through several national institutions. Many in his country credit his blend of scholarship and activism for helping South Africa make the peaceful transition from white rule.
Not as well known in this country as some of his fellow freedom fighters, Alexander constantly pushed for respect for indigenous languages. He unceasingly fought his country racial categories past and present, saying the artificial divisions only suppressed freedom.
The Cape Town Mail & Guardian newspaper summed up his argument this way: “His work on language developed his arguments on the national question. He believed that South Africa would not unite unless indigenous languages became the languages of power.”
He remained influential yet controversial inside and outside his country. He expressed disagreement with capitalist economics that propped up the country’s racist government for so long.