Neville Alexander

Neville Edward Alexander

Alexander at the World Conference of African Linguistics in Cologne, 18 September 2009
Born (1936-10-22)22 October 1936
Cradock, Eastern Cape, South Africa
Died 27 August 2012(2012-08-27) (aged 75)
Nationality South African
Education Holy Cross School, Cradock, South Africa
Alma mater University of Cape Town BA & MA, PhD (University of Tübingen)
Occupation Political activist, educationalist & academic: lecturer at various institutes and universities
Known for Jailmate of Nelson Mandela and Linguapax winner

Neville Edward Alexander (22 October 1936 – 27 August 2012) was a proponent of a multilingual South Africa and a former revolutionary who spent ten years on Robben Island as a fellow-prisoner of Nelson Mandela.

Early life

Alexander was born in Cradock, Eastern Cape, South Africa to David James Alexander, a carpenter, and Dimbiti Bisho Alexander, a schoolteacher.[1] His maternal grandmother, Bisho Jarsa was an Ethiopian from ethnic Oromo, rescued from slavery by the British.[2]

He was educated at Holy Rosary Convent, Cradock, and matriculated in 1952. He spent six years at the University of Cape Town obtaining a BA in German and History (1955), completing his Honours in German a year later and an MA in German, his thesis was on the Silesia Baroque drama of Andreas Gryphius and Daniel Caspar von Lohenstein. Having been awarded an Alexander von Humboldt Foundation fellowship place at the University of Tübingen[3] he gained his Phd in 1961 for a dissertation on style change in the dramatic work of Gerhart Hauptmann.[4]

The Apartheid years

By 1957, Alexander was already radicalised and a member of the Cape Peninsula Students' Union, an affiliate of The Non-European Unity Movement of South Africa.[5] He joined the African Peoples Democratic Union of Southern Africa (APDUSA) which was established in 1960. However he was ejected from APDUSA in 1961 and with Dulcie September, Ottilie Abrahams, and Andreas Shipinga, among others, formed a study group of nine members in July 1962, known as the Yu Chi Chan Club (YCCC); Yu Chi Chan is the Chinese name for guerrilla warfare, which Mao Zedong used. The YCCC disbanded in late 1962 and was replaced by the National Liberation Front (NLF), which Alexander co-founded. In July 1963, he, along with most members of the NLF, was arrested. In 1964, he was convicted of conspiracy to commit sabotage. From 1964–1974 he was imprisoned on Robben Island.[6]


After being released Alexander did pioneering work in the field of language policy and planning in South Africa from the early 1980s via organisations such as the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa (PRAESA), as well as the LANGTAG process. He was influential in respect to language policy development with various government departments, including Education.

His most recent work was focused on the tension between multilingualism and the hegemony of English in the public sphere. He founded and was Director of PRAESA ( from 1992 until the end of 2011 and a member of the Interim Governing Board of the African Academy of Languages.[7][8] In 1981, he was appointed Director of the South African Committee for Higher Education (SACHED). At the time of his death, he had retired from being director of Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa (PRAESA) at the University of Cape Town.[4] In 1994, his Trotskyist Workers Organisation for Socialist Action contested the elections.[9]

Alexander received the Linguapax Prize for 2008. The prize is awarded annually (since 2000) in recognition of contributions to linguistic diversity and multilingual education. The citation noted that he had devoted more than twenty years of his professional life to defend and preserve multilingualism in the post-apartheid South Africa and had become one of the major advocates of linguistic diversity.[10]


Alexander died from cancer following a short period of ill-health on 27 August 2012, aged 75.[11] His personal archive was donated to the University of Cape Town's Special Collections library. The university has also named a building on its upper campus after him.


  1. Nicolas Magnien. "Dr. Neville Edward Alexander". South African History Online. Retrieved 24 August 2012.
  2. Sandra Rowoldt Shell (25 August 2011). "How an Ethiopian slave became a South African teacher". BBC News. Retrieved 24 August 2012.
  3. "Humboldt Fellow – Neville Edward Alexander". Retrieved 21 February 2009.
  4. 1 2 "Literature Network profile of Neville Alexander". Retrieved 21 February 2009.
  5. "SA History – Dulcie Evonne September". Retrieved 21 February 2009.
  6. "PBS Interview about Mandella". Retrieved 21 February 2009.
  7. "PRAESA Biography". Retrieved 21 February 2009.
  8. "ACALAN History". Retrieved 21 February 2009.
  9. South Africa: what about the working class?
  10. "Niamey Blog". Retrieved 21 February 2009.
  11. Notice of death of Neville Alexander
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