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A Tribute to Neville Alexander by Pushpa Lallah


Neville Alexander a revolutionary socialist and great defender of the cause of Mother Tongue Based Bilingual Education, passed away on the 27th August 2012 in Cape Town. Comrade Neville will be sadly missed by all of us

Neville Alexander, yet another cherished person mourned

Neville became a very dear friend from the day we first met. Non-profit organisations plan events in a participatory way. Whenever he came to Mauritius I had the pleasant task of sharing the chauffeuring Neville either to or from the airport or, to or from the event,. During the long conversations we had, he came to know how I joined the Anti Apartheid movement. I told him the story of how I and my husband, who passed away on 03 June this very year, became a friend of Archbishop Trevor Huddleston when he came to Mauritius. I was encouraged by both of them to join “Solidarite Morisyin Anti-Apartheid” (SOMAAP). Way back in the 50s, what my husband related was how, as President of the law students’ union of Balliol college, Oxford, he invited Bishop Trevor to lecture on the Anti-Apartheid movement. When the latter retired, I frequently visited him in London. Among other publications, I remember bringing back to Mauritius, the video he gave me, entitled “Any Child is my Child”. We, members of the Federation of Pre-School Playgroups (FPSP), presented the video along with a translation of its dialogues in Kreol. It was during an 8th March Women’s Solidarity Movement exhibition, in the Muvman Liberasyon Fam (MLF) premises, which portrayed peoples’ struggles against the evils of apartheid. One more link was thus established for consciousness-raising on the anti-apartheid issue. On his suggestion, 2 Lectures by Bishop Trevor were organized by the LPT in Mauritius.

Gitta Luchun, Mala.I.Veeramootoo, Begum Fareedun, myself and other members of the FPSP had the honor of being introduced to such an eminent person as Dr Neville Alexander by Lindsey Collen, Alain Ahvee and Rada Kistnasamy, members of Lalit and the Ledikasyon Pu Travayer (LPT). It was when we badly needed the support of experts in the field of linguistics and rights, to find out whether a Pre-primary Curriculum published by the Mauritius Institute of Education (MIE), and launched by the Minister of Education was, in practice pedagogical or, in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. We were convinced our fears were founded: systematic psychological abuse was going to be perpetuated through this Pre-primary Curriculum. It was on the basis of the written comments and advice sent by Neville and Professor Derek Bickerton, the advice of linguist Dev Virahsawmy and legal consultant Rajsoomer Lallah, that a constitutional case was entered at the Supreme Court of Mauritius in 1997 by the FPSP and 2 parents: Sylvaine Coureuse, the mother of Alexia Laval and, Souresh, the father of Bhoumeeta Ramsahok.

Dr Neville Alexander and Professor Derek Bickerton agreed to come as witnesses but the case was not defended by Government. Both came in 1998 when the FPSP and LPT organised two public Lectures, one at the Curepipe Town Hall, attended by a number of Pre-primary and Pre-school teachers and the other one at the University of Mauritius (UoM). It was interesting that Nita Rughoonundan, then as an MIE Lecturer, brought her MIE students to attend the Lecture held in Curepipe. Nita is now at the head of the MIE’s Kreol Language Unit,

As a result of the statement made by the Minister at the time, Kadres Pillay, through the State Law Office (SLO), a task force was set up at the MIE and Pre-school Guidelines were worked on for a whole year. It was only in 2003, when Steeve Obeegadoo became Minister of a new Government, after further discussions, analysis, re-drafting, involving this time Nita Rughoonundun (MIE) and the Mauritian branch of the World Organisation for Pre-school Education (OMEP), that consensus was reached and the document was finally published. I left a copy of the Pre-school Guidelines at the Resources Centre of the Project for Alternative Education in South Africa (PRAESA). Neville was the Director of PRAESA, based at the University of Cape Town. The very dedicated and enthusiastic team working at PRAESA, with the assistance of very able external Lecturers, organized 3 courses entitled: Training of Trainers for South Africa (TOTSA). They were most intensive, 5 weeks’ courses on bi/multilingual mother tongue based education.

As members of the LPT, first Alain Ahvee, then Rada Kistnasamy and in 2005, I attended the TOTSA course. My respect for Neville gradually grew when I listened to his lectures during the course, read and studied his writings, went on a guided tour to Robben Island, where he was imprisoned for 10 years with Nelson Mandela and other freedom fighters. They started a University in prison. I understood the depth of his dedication and his sincerity that led to his being made Chairman of the Language Task Group (LANGTAG). As a result of which 11 African mother tongues became the official languages of South Africa. He remained politically active nearly to the end.
As a tribute to you Neville, the challenge now is to keep links, including the broader based ones, alive.

An excerpt . From the Media Library
“When asked about his experience in the prison of Robben Island, Neville Alexander remembers that it was ‘brutalising’, that both the physical and mental conditions he was put through were terrible. He remembers the humiliation by the prison guards, which took multiple forms: censorship of the prisoners’ denunciations of the tortures they were living; total disinformation of what happened in the world around them; fake humanity on the part of the prison authorities during journalists’ visits and so forth. In addition to this, the crucial lack of education of most of the guards and the ‘opportunism’ of certain prisoners were so many things that he now tries to forget.
This being said, if his experience on Robben Island could be distressing at times, he now believes it was also an ‘ennobling and enriching experience’, where most prisoners became ‘much better people’. According to Alexander, this period (prison term) was an example of true democracy, as he learned to disagree with people while still respecting them. Indeed, the realisation that they all needed each other in a way formed the basis of a new nation. He recalls for instance how, although Nelson Mandela was almost always the spokesperson for the prisoners to negotiate or talk with the authorities, there always was a very democratic process to come to that decision beforehand. There was also a stronger sense of civic responsibility that grew between prisoners. As intense relations and differences emerged in prison, it was necessary for them all ‘to learn to say, “I am sorry” or to say, “I was wrong” without feeling humiliated’.
Moreover, the small scale of living in a prison provided grounds to establish a different but participatory and extremely diverse education. In that respect, the receiving of an Honours degree in History by Alexander only reflected some of the opportunities that came to be offered to—and created by—prisoners. The prison education began with informal seminars, discussions and workshops during working hours, and then, from 1966 onwards, the prisoners were ‘sort of allowed to study’. From this period it became more formal and they could register with the University of South Africa (UNISA) as well as with other correspondence colleges. On the process of educating themselves, Alexander says: ‘We taught one another what we knew, discovering each other’s resourcefulness. We also learned how people with little or no formal education could not only themselves participate in education programmes but actually teach others a range of different insights and skills. The “University of Robben Island” was one of the best universities in the country… it also showed me that you don’t need professors.’
Nicholas Magnien, SAHO Public History Internship.