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On the occasion of the 2nd anniversary of the passing away of Neville Alexander on 27 August 2012, it is proper to deliberate on the political strategy of nation building as this was the leitmotif of the ideological interests of that socialist activist.

The concept of ‘nation’ persists as politically legitimate due to it being perceived as a democratic construct and due to its historical role as an enlightening project against the ongoing schisms in this sub-region. Indeed, the key intent of the slogan of ‘One Azania One Nation’ – popularized by Alexander’s book that he conceptualized on Robben Island as a consequence of the two-year debate with Nelson Mandela on the national question - was not only to refute the noxious apartheid dogma, but also the multi-racial paradigm of the African National Congress (ANC). In other words, that saying was about defying all forms of racial fundamentalism, i.e. racism, ethnocentrism and tribalism. And, in the absence of a mature national identity, that was undeniably politically apt. In the final analysis, the working class constitute the majority of the nation and it is quite simply vital to ensure their unity. It ought to be remarked also that the erroneous impression that nationalism necessarily precedes xenophobia misconstrues the situation that it is actually racial fundamentalism that gives rise to this scourge in this region. If anything, the case for nation building inspires broadmindedness.

Similarly, it is essential to rectify the deceptive opinion that Alexander’s viewpoint on the national question surfaced from the Robben Island debates when his position really stems from the revolutionary socialist current of the Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels itself. Alexander’s favourite quote from the Manifesto, as seen in his early Cape Action League (CAL) writings, was the following:

‘The workingmen (sic) have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got. Since the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to be the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself the nation, it is, so far, itself national, though not in the bourgeois sense of the word [emphasis in original">’. [1]

This outlook on the national question has a long history of espousal by Marxists like Lenin and Trotsky and even contemporary militants like Daniel Bensaid, but also from early revolutionary socialists in southern Africa such as Olive Schreiner, Isaac Tabata and Benjamin Kies. In other words, it represents the main current of Marxism. So, this was not Alexander’s vision only, but that of the Manifesto. This, indeed, is where the Workers’ Party of South Africa (WPSA) and the Unity Movement sourced their perspective from – and ultimately where Alexander, who admitted that Tabata (a member of the WPSA) was his mentor, acquired it from. Furthermore, it ought to be kept in mind, for instance, that it was due to the WPSA that the Manifesto was translated into Afrikaans in the 1930’s already. So, the prison dialogues sharpened and expanded Alexander’s observations, but were not the chief foundation of this perspective on the national question. And, for the historical record, it is also crucial to state unequivocally that the socialist intellectual did not regard himself as only a Trotskyist, but fittingly as a revolutionary socialist.

The Manifesto asserts unambiguously that although the working class does not have a country, in the sense of not owning it, the political struggle commences within national boundaries – which signifies another element of nation building. Nevertheless, the anti-capitalist struggle should straightaway be transcended beyond such boundaries upon victory in a country. A real-existing internationalism can only be based on those struggles that originate within national boundaries.

It is of course truly remarkable that Alexander, due to his post-graduate history studies on Robben Island in the early 1970s, was able to get hold of the German version of the Manifesto as the prison wardens did not comprehend that language. [2] Without delay, that intellectual set about translating the Manifesto into English and distributed the valuable document widely amongst other prisoners.

About 30 years later, in the foreword to the isiZulu version of the Manifesto which was translated by Brian Ramadiro, a member of the Workers’ Organisation for Socialist Action (WOSA), Alexander - as Chairperson of WOSA - maintained that:

‘We are committed to the position that it is only through the socialist renaissance that the peoples of the African continent will rise up out of the trench of despair in which imperialism and neo-colonialism have kept them stagnating and decomposing.’ [3]

And, if truth be told, one of the urgent tasks of socialists today is to follow the superb example of Ramadiro by translating the Manifesto into all African languages as there is indisputably a huge need for a socialist awakening amongst all working people. This could not only provide a rallying point around which the working classes could be mobilized, but might simultaneously be a project for the promotion of multilingualism and cultural liberation.

Alexander, as the author of another manifesto, i.e. the Azanian Manifesto, underlined the non-racial disposition of the post-apartheid social formation: ‘Our immediate goal, therefore, is the creation of a non-racial Azanian democracy’. One of the principal, but not as much debated, topics in Alexander’s writings on nation building and non-racialism concerned the role of ‘white’ people and the interlinked subject of ‘colonialism of a special kind’. In one of Alexander’s lesser-known papers entitled ‘Negotiating a settlement or intensifying the struggle?’- written during the CAL years, he averred that:

‘Indeed, it is perhaps of extreme importance to understand that the Anglo-Afrikaner South African ruling class was the first neo-colonial regime on the African continent. The Afrikaans-speaking whites of South Africa and the majority of English-speaking whites are as indigenous to South Africa (and Africa) today as are the ‘white’ Americans of North and South America or of Australia and New Zealand to their particular countries.’ [4]

This reasoning is consistent with Alexander’s stance on nation building, but also operates as an imperative critique of the discredited theory of ‘colonialism of a special type’ which was tongue-tied on capitalism and class differentiation. The conceptualization of ‘racial capitalism’ underscores that the primary target is capitalism – after all that is the noun in the formulation. Yet ‘racial capitalism’ also points out the inextricable nexus of ‘race’ and class in South Africa/Azania. In other words, the battle was hardly merely against apartheid because it constitutes a permanent struggle, i.e. an irrevocable fight against both racism and capitalism. Non-racialism, for that matter, is only truly feasible in a situation of a mass anti-racism movement and the resolving of the social question.

In criticizing Alexander’s works, some academic Marxists have revealed again the real divide between academia and activism. A review of ‘An Ordinary Country’ by an academic Marxist focused predominantly on Alexander’s support for nation building ‘regardless of the class character of the political leadership for the moment’. [5] This criticism, of course, was disingenuous as Alexander specifically qualifies that statement in the notes of the book. It specified that the class struggle continues amongst the political leadership of the emerging nation and seemed to refer to the temporary post-apartheid honey-moon phase within which the elite would engage in nation building. Alexander did not have a deep ambivalence about social class and in fact had consistently proposed working class leadership of the nation. Another academic Marxist alleged that Alexander was ‘stretching and stitching’ his ideological positions, but failed to grasp that intellectual’s approach to settling non-antagonistic contradictions amongst the oppressed and his fierce commitment to non-racialism.

In the introduction to his last undertaking, ‘Thoughts on the New South Africa’, Alexander declared that:

‘The title of this book makes a direct reference to the marvellous book – Thoughts on South Africa – by a remarkable South African, Olive Schreiner, which I read in prison on Robben Island and which had an enormous and lasting impact on me.’ [6]

Except this text, all of Alexander’s other works were fortuitously retyped by his life partner, Karen Press, and, due to the initiative of the Marxist Study Group of Namibia, were made available (along with several articles) on the Internet at the Neville Alexander Internet Archive (which is managed by the Marxists Internet Archive).

So, as the seismic political shift that started on the Marikana koppie (hillock) unfolds in South Africa/Azania, it is appropriate to also reflect on a granite koppie in another town, Cradock, where the mortal remains of the renowned intellectual were scattered by his family according to his wishes – as Alexander used to sit and read there as a child. On a different koppie of the same Karoo town, rests the well-known author, Schreiner - an early socialist who should be remembered for her ‘unrelenting search after truth’ (Dora Taylor). And, on the other side of this illustrious town, could be found the graves of Mathew Goniwe and his comrades, so brutally assassinated by apartheid agents for efficaciously constructing democracy from below. [7] The legacies of these three exceptional socialists should galvanize the building of a non-sectarian, non-racial and non-sexist Mass Workers’ Party of Southern Africa that could catapult the socialist struggle to greater heights.

And, as the moral authority of the ANC is rapidly dwindling, the historical moment of revolutionaries like Alexander is bound to appear with the eventual dawning of the socialist gift for the Garieb Nation. After all, it is the Garieb River that spawned the mineral revolution which irrevocably transformed this sub-region of the world. And it is the fruits of those kinds of resources that should be justly redistributed to provide a sufficient life for all. So, on behalf of the working people of the Garieb Nation/Azania, we say: Hamba Kahle, Comrade Neville Alexander. A luta continua!


[1] Marx, K. & Engels, F. 2010. The Communist Manifesto. London: Bookmarks Publications, p. 22.

[2] Busch, B., Busch, L. & Press, K. eds. 2014. Interviews with Neville Alexander: the power of languages against the language of power. Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press. pp. 90-91

[3] Alexander, N. 2002. Foreword to Isibophezelo Senhlangano Yamakhomanisi [isiZulu edition of The Communist Manifesto">. Translated by Brian Ramadiro. See Neville Alexander Internet Archive.

[4] Alexander, N. 1989. Negotiating a settlement or intensifying the struggle? Frontline Worker - A Journal for a Socialist Movement in South Africa, No. 1, August, London.

[5] Alexander, N. 2002. An ordinary country – issues in the transition from apartheid to democracy in South Africa. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press. p. 91 and p. 183.

[6] Alexander, N. 2013. Thoughts on the New South Africa. Auckland Park: Jacana

[7] Salim Vally pointed out that Neville Alexander was a mentor to Mathew Goniwe and his comrades and assisted them in setting-up study groups in Cradock

* Shaun Whittaker was a member of the Workers’ Organisation for Socialist Action (South Africa) and is now with the Marxist Study Group (Namibia). The Marxist Study Group of Namibia could be contacted at [email protected]



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