A tribute to Professor Neville Alexander

There is a saying in my language that declares: “Kuyohamba amaqhawe kusale izibongo” which can loosely be translated into English to mean that when our heroes and heroines have departed, only their names and outstanding contributions will remain.

These words reverberated when I received the news of the passing away of this revolutionary and struggle hero Professor Neville Alexander. Professor Alexander passed away on 27 August 2012 at the age of 75 due to illness.

Where does one begin to describe this man who has been in the forefront ofmultilingualism in the post-apartheid South Africa and one of the major advocates of linguistic diversity and mother tongue education?

As recently as April when the Minister of Higher Education and Training, Dr Blade Nzimande was slammed for suggesting that competency in an African or indigenous language would be a prerequisite for graduating from higher education institutions, it was Professor Alexander who came to his defence.

He told one publication (Daily Maverick) that there is merit to Nzimande’s plan to compel students to learn an African language, but Alexander believed that African languages must be introduced to students long before they enter universities. And eventually it will not be the work of government alone to grant African languages the much-needed cultural capital. “It will take a social movement,”

Language and Professor Alexander are synonymous in South Africa. He set the country’s foundation on language planning when in 1994 was asked by then Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, Dr. Ben Ngubane  to lead the Language Task Group  (LangTaG) which conducted research towards the formulation of the National Language Plan for South Africa.The Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) owes its existence to people like him-he was key among the people who contributed to the founding and establishment of PanSALB. He led the Board from 1996 – 1998. During his lifespan as a language activist he effectively contributed to PanSALB’s Research, Status Language Planning and Language in Education, among others.

In 1986 Professor Alexander helped co-ordinate the National Languages Project in South Africa. How could we forget his 1989 research that he conducted with the University of Cape Town’s Institute for the Study of Public Policy wherein it was concluded that South Africa would remain a multilingual society in spite of the emergence of English as a national means of communication in a post-apartheid society. 

Professor Alexander was instrumental in the drafting of the South African Languages Bill of 2003 which was a better point of departure as it clearly promoted multilingualism. In 2011 when the Bill was reintroduced in Parliament as the Use of Official Languages Bill, Professor Alexander, although retired, never restrained from actively participating in issues of multilingualism. Throughout the public hearings and deliberations that took place in Parliament earlier this year, he was always present. 

Although the Bill was tabled before Parliament on 07 August by the Minister of Arts and Culture, Paul Mashatile, unfortunately Professor Alexander would not see its implementation.

The heartfelt loss will not only be borne by his family but all those who knew and worked with him in promoting multilingualism in South Africa. Professor Alexander was generally a national asset and an internationally renowned language activist.  We will always benefit from his valuable linguistic body of knowledge. He has played his role and now is the time for us to carry the torch. As the saying goes: Kuyohamba amaqhawekusale izibongo.



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