- ‘The life and times of Neville Alexander’
A year after Neville Alexander died in August 2012 the Centre for Non-Racialism and Democracy (CANRAD) at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University hosted a commemorative conference in his honour. The purpose of the conference was to reflect on Alexander’s significance for the struggle for freedom, equality and justice in South Africa. The conference had the benefit of a number of provocative keynote addresses and a good collection of papers. The keynote addresses will be published by CANRAD itself. Transformation 86 brings you two of these papers, by Bill Freund and Michael Cloete.
There are important thematic currents which ran through the conference. Those which stand out, as might be expected, given Alexander’s major interests, are nation-building, the national question, the role of the university, and, the question of ‘race’. The question of ‘race’ is, of course, high on the national agenda, and, to a somewhat lesser degree, so is the question of the university. Distinctly less so are the national question and nation-building – while the latter featured a decade ago it has been supplanted by the idea of ‘social cohesion’ at present. These are not terms which find easy resonance in our current political discourse, which make these themes feel somewhat out of time. Very little of the blogging, the commentary in the popular media and even writing in scholarly journals is about the nation and how it should or could be built. Why this is so bears thinking about, because, if the frame of building the nation is indeed not a priority, we have important new or additional work to be doing in our social analysis.
There are many urgent issues that have captured the attention of the country. The immediate questions of employment and job creation, crime and safety, corruption and integrity have, as can be understood, taken [End Page 1] central stage. At issue, I want to suggest, in this preoccupation with the immediate is a displacement of the sense of the larger context in which these issues play themselves out. The discussion has moved towards new alignments in the country around and about how one thinks and practices the politics of freedom, equality and justice. How power is constituted in these new alignments about freedom, equality and justice is not, as a question, posed in sufficiently analytic or theoretical terms. Instead, in the clamour of the urgency, analysis has taken a journalistic turn, and for the purpose of providing answers as to where the solutions lie, has fixated on the symptomatic – it is towards irrational behaviour or greedy individuals that explanation moves. How power is being approached, how it is thought of and understood, and how, in relation to this, it provides for ways in which people in the common space of South Africa develop practices of connectedness – nationhood and nation-building – are not questions that are being raised systematically. The outcome of this superficiality is a tendency to blame either the African National Congress or the Democratic Alliance for whatever failure or breakdown has happened and, almost inevitably, wittingly or unwittingly to invoke a genre of explanation that depends on racial superstition. It is then the black ANC or the white DA which is irretrievably the problem. The theory in this analysis, to make sense of whatever situation is highlighted, is often arbitrarily eclectic or crudely essentialist depending on where it comes from. Illustrating this, David Johnson (2013: 29) provides the example of the Minister of Trade and Industry, Mandisi Mpahlwa, who quotes Fanon in defence of ‘the boldness and self-reliance of the founder of Tata Enterprises, Jamsetjie Tata who was turned away at the door (of the best hotel in India), because he was Indian. His response, to build the Taj Mahal Hotel…’.
Of course, this broad-brushed characterisation of the discursive landscape of our past and our present over-simplifies, but it is important for us to acknowledge that the dynamics and what is considered important in our politics have shifted. I am suggesting that in contrast to the kind of analysis we are seeing in the current period, analysis in the struggle against apartheid was marked...