Eleven years ago this month, Neville Alexander, a revolutionary South African scholar, educator, and former Robben Island political prisoner who seamlessly combined rigorous scholarship with activism, died at the age of seventy-five. He was arguably South Africa’s foremost public intellectual to emerge from the turmoil and ferment of the struggle for liberation and a reference point for understanding some of the most important debates in South Africa over the past half century—from the strategy and tactics of national liberation to the relationship between “race” and class, the continuities of racial capitalism in after the end of apartheid, the role and purpose of schooling and higher education, and the importance of nation building and multilingualism.

Alexander is a key reference point for understanding some of the most important debates in South Africa over the past half century.

Alexander’s scholarship was not detached from, but deeply engaged with, the practical world around him. His life was a critique of the pretense of impartiality and the aloofness of the “disinterested” scholar, and he was constantly promoting anti-capitalist alternatives in the present in opposition to the neoliberal trajectory embarked upon by the post-apartheid establishment. For him, the boundaries constructed by the requirements of conventional scholarship were artificial since societal engagement was inseparable from serious scholarly activity. Alexander’s ideas were an orientation to activism in and outside the state, in the struggles of the poor and the marginalized, wherever injustice was found.

Alexander had a long view of history that fueled his consistent optimism. He was convinced that in the contradictory social spaces that characterized unequal relations and the struggles against it by the poor and workers, there were possibilities for a genuine democratic future. Alexander was appalled by the “looting of state resources” and profligacy he saw in post-apartheid society, and he was always reflective and humble and never wavered from his own self-description: a non-dogmatic Marxist, Pan Africanist, and internationalist. One of the most endearing characteristics of Alexander was his attentiveness to others, his self-effacing sacrifice, and tireless commitment to a radical humanism which made him such an outstanding revolutionary scholar. We mourn him deeply, but his praxis has enriched our lives and provided future generations with a compass to direct us to the decent society Alexander firmly believed it was possible to reach.

Alexander’s writings have been widely read and recognized not only for their perspicacity and their prescience, but also for their importance in provoking national debates about the theory and practice of the struggles against racial capitalism. Predictably, his political practice and his writings were also the subject of contestation since his thinking represented a strongly socialist perspective that was both irreconcilable and in conflict with the ideas and practices of strands in the liberation movement that favored a combination of liberal and nationalist perspectives on the liberation struggle. In particular, Alexander avoided both class-reductionist interpretations of social change and the essentialism of racist categorization.

Alexander was both a critical social analyst and an “argumentative” intellectual with a didactic commitment to organizing the premises and practices he hoped to engender for socialist outcomes. He refers to this issue in his seminal contribution to an analysis of state, society, and struggle in One Azania, One Nation: The National Question in South Africa, which he published in 1979 under the nom de guerre No Sizwe, and which could be regarded as perhaps his foundational thesis for all his subsequent writing and actions.

As we now know, Alexander clandestinely began drafting this book on Robben Island and completed it during his period of house arrest in Cape Town from 1974 to 1979. He was motivated to start writing the book after a celebrated debate with Nelson Mandela in Robben Island Prison. In his own words:

I wrote [the book] really because of the debates I had with Mandela on the Island about post-apartheid South Africa, the new nation, nation-building, what it all means in terms of racial prejudice, racial attitudes, racial categories, class, gender and so on … The discussion took almost two years; we used to meet once a week and discuss whether there is a nation and how we would build a nation. Our position was that there is no nation, and we have to build a nation, and that this implied a whole lot of things about education, structural change and identity politics and so on.

Reflecting on his aim in authoring the book, he says:

it should be stressed that my approach has been motivated throughout by the desire to facilitate the unification of the National Liberation Movement by fomenting a discussion on the basis of national unity and on the political-strategic implications of ideas about who constitutes the South African nation.

In other words, he was motivated not only by the need to clarify the abiding confusion about the national question but also by the deliberate and constructive purpose of producing unity among the contending political organizations in the liberation movement. Although this might seem quixotic, his intellectual and political orientation led him to believe in the necessity of seeking alliances with those forces that he considered to be potential participants in the realization of a new society. It was this that made him argue for and seek non-sectarian coalitions and principled forms of unity, especially against what he perceived to be the pervasive “reactionary nationalisms” in the ideas of both the apartheid regime and elements of the liberation movement itself. As he put it, he refuted the “propagation and proliferation of bogus nationalisms, the main purpose of which is to dissipate the force of the class struggle by deflecting it into channels that will nurture the dominant classes.” He explained that because social relations were mystified as “race relations,” there was a need to “illuminate the character of the real (socio-economic) basis of social inequality and the real (ideological) forms in which it is expressed,” in the pursuit of liberation and the demise of apartheid.

Alexander avoided both class-reductionist interpretations of social change and the essentialism of racist categorization.

The necessity of demystifying ideas about “race” so dominant in South African society led him to set out a radical “non-racial” alternative that enjoined those opposed to racism to engage in anti-racist practices. (From the early 1950s, Alexander was profoundly influenced by the views of Ashley Montagu, as developed in his 1942 book Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race.) These actions were intended to demonstrate the possibilities for developing forms of consciousness which counteracted the pernicious influence of racist ideas, and simultaneously to build the political and social movement for an anti-racist society. Although he spoke about this in terms of “non-racialism,” his conception cannot be interpreted to suggest a liberal or declassed orientation to the politics of “race,” since conceptions of “race” were for him inseparable from the exploitative nature of capitalist relations. For Alexander, the idea of “non-racialism” was simultaneously about the political and organizational forms of resistance to racial capitalism.

Although it could be said that his non-racialism represented a radical ontology and was deeply humanistic, these objectives were directly related to social mobilization and consciousness against a political regime and were not simply about the clarification of a concept. While it was important to lay bare the “nonsense of race,” for Alexander that was not an end in itself, since the purpose of clarification was as much about how the political struggle was to be prosecuted as it was about the socio-political and systemic implications of the deconstruction of racist ideas. This was inseparable from the forms of political and social mobilization needed to achieve these ends, as his trenchant argument in One Azania, One Nation about the entrenchment of a “race realism” by the Congress Movement in particular was to show. The very forms of racial organization predicated on the facticity of race were simply a capitulation to a social construct whose effects were pernicious and contradictory relative to any serious conception of nationhood or “national consciousness,” he argued. Indeed, that the weaknesses evinced by ideologues who maintained the unassailability of “race consciousness,” and who thus favored conceptions of “multi-racialism” and even “non-racialism,” led inevitably to the forms of racialized political mobilization whose consequences were likely to lead to the very socio-political morass which faces society today.

Alexander’s prescient approach was intended to avoid the problem of making “racial” difference a continuing political creed even in an ostensibly “non-racial” society. His overarching purpose, which he refers to explicitly in One Azania, One Nation, was to “foment” a political discussion about nationhood and how it might be constructed against the long history of racist division and the entrenchment of its forms of consciousness. This did not imply a negation of the existence of other forms of oppression since he perfectly understood the indivisibility of the multifaceted nature of oppressive and exploitative regimes. The choice of “race” as the primary metaphor for political division was self-evident, given its palpability and presence in the lives of oppressed and exploited communities. Yet it was simultaneously—in his writings about forms of oppression—not reducible to issues of “race,” because of his recognition that “almost everything, from religion to politics to economic systems to what we refer to as values, has to be revisited, reconceptualised and rearticulated in a language that frees us from the clichés and shibboleths of the 19th and 20th centuries.”

Alexander’s ideas about racial capitalism, in particular, developed out of his long engagement with such questions. As Charisse Burden-Stelly, Peter James Hudson, and Jemima Pierre, editors of The Black Agenda Report, have noted, Alexander was “among the most important figures using the term racial capitalism in the South African context.” As they put it:

Alexander’s enduring contribution to the theory of racial capitalism comes from “Nation and Ethnicity in South Africa,” his address to the 1983 National Forum meeting in Hammanskraal, a town near Pretoria. Spurred by a call from Black Consciousness activists, the National Forum brought together some 200 organizations and some 800 delegates, most of whom were to the left of the African National Congress (ANC) and saw the ANC’s “Freedom Charter” as a compromised, liberal document. At the end of the conference, delegates unanimously adopted the Manifesto of the Azanian People; its opening sentences are drawn from Alexander’s talk.

Those sentences run as follows:

The immediate goal of the national liberation struggle now being waged in South Africa is the destruction of the system of racial capitalism. Apartheid is simply a particular socio-political expression of this system. Our opposition to apartheid is therefore only a starting point for our struggle against the structures and interests which are the real basis of apartheid.

Alexander returns to this issue a few years later:

It is simply a fallacy to claim that black workers are faced with two autonomous but intersecting systems of domination, viz. a system of ‘racial domination’ and a system of ‘class domination’. However valid it might be for specific analytical purposes to distinguish between the ‘racial’ and the ‘class’ elements that constitute the system of racial capitalism, it is impossible to transfer such a dichotomy on to the social reality in political and ideological practice, except in terms of, or for the purposes of, ruling class mystification of that reality.

In effect, Alexander’s analysis of racial capitalism in South Africa focused on three interrelated dynamics: racialized dispossession, racial exploitation, and racialized job reservations. Racialized dispossession refers to the conquest of land by white settlers, the forced displacement of “Africans,” and ongoing state laws that prevented “Africans” from owning or buying land in 87 per cent of South Africa. Alexander insisted that accumulation by racialized dispossession was not limited to the pre-capitalist era but was an ongoing, structural feature of racial capitalism in South Africa due to laws that “sanctified the original conquest” and facilitated further displacement and dispossession. For Alexander, racism and capitalism were not merely theoretical constructs requiring reconciliation but represented the very basis of material life for all society and expressed itself not only in the political economy of colonial and apartheid rule but also in the forms of social consciousness and organizational strategies adopted within the liberation movement.

At the same time, Alexander acknowledged that

it is important to remember that even though they are constructed, social identities have a primordial dimension for most individuals, precisely because they are not aware of the historical, social and political ways in which their identities have been constructed. This is, ultimately, the psychological explanation for the tenacity of such identities.

It was in this connection that he warned against the genocidal opportunism of demagogues using racist constructs of identity and culture for political and socioeconomic ends. For that reason, too, it was necessary to promote a “national consciousness” that could counter the influence of ethnic, religious, and racialized social identities by advancing the goals of a broader African and internationalist consciousness. National consciousness was thus not an end in itself but part of a continuous project of forging wider human understanding. Alexander refers to the importance of understanding that the opposition to racist ideas is simultaneously about the quest for national unity, especially in the context of the divisive and racist practices of the apartheid regime.

Alexander was convinced that there were possibilities for a genuine democratic future.

His examination of the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education illustrates his understanding of the relationship between social identity and post-apartheid education’s potential role in shaping it. Alexander argues that social identities are not given but are constructed, and he warns about the danger of perpetuating apartheid-era racial identities in the pursuit of policies such as the affirmative action policies to which the post-apartheid government is committed. Thus, Alexander argues that “deracialisation should extend beyond formal desegregation to school integration, as exemplified in the non-racial ethos of the new curriculum. The eradication of racial thinking is identified as the next historic task facing the new South Africa.” His main arguments are that social identities are changeable and fluid, and that change can be facilitated by an approach that considers the material reality of the citizens of a society. Failure to pursue such an approach could lead to genocidal conflict. He is critical of the established approach in the United States based on “ethnic” identities and its effect on the continuity of racial prejudice, though he concedes that in practice, different approaches could be adopted to the problem of eliminating racial prejudice in each country.

Above all, Alexander warns against entrenching notions of identity, which heighten prejudice and social fragmentation. As he sees it, “race” discourse is the hegemonic discourse of those who wield power in society, even if its opposition mediates that power; the state is the final arbiter, by virtue of its monopoly on the use of force to shape identities historically. Premising the elimination of racism on the identification and enforced adoption of ‘race’ categories could simultaneously silence any discussion of its persistence and fail to create the society it envisages, he contends. He argues, moreover, that social identities are “inherently unstable” and are therefore changeable through conscious planning, which is necessary and possible through open and democratic processes. He acknowledges those such as Abebe Zegeye who argue that the majority of South Africans place a great deal of weight on “racial and ethnic identities and their role in shaping historical struggles.” But he also writes:

As the ANC-led government’s vulnerability to a social paradigm that includes centrally the continuation of the notion of racial identities takes ever firmer hold on the consciousness of the population, reinforced by the cynical, profit-orientated and consumerist practices of the Establishment media, ever fewer people are willing to speak up for the possibility of that different world, the raceless and, let it not be forgotten, the classless, society that was the lodestar of the liberation struggle. I myself continue to take as my compass the views elaborated in their seminal study by Balibar and Wallerstein in which they assert, among other things that all social identities are ‘historical constructs’ that are ‘perpetually undergoing reconstruction’.

Alexander thus concludes that the state’s approach to affirmative action is truncated by its inability to alter the relations of power shaped by racial capitalism—neither regarding the power of the armed state nor in terms of the forms of wealth associated with the financing of the racist apartheid state and their continuities in the “non-racial” post-apartheid state.

Moreover, as a socialist internationalist Alexander remained open to the construction of a universal identity not constrained by national boundaries, while recognizing the variety of social orientations and identities which human beings are given to, provided these do not infract against the claims of a common humanity. The corollary is the need to use fluid rather than static concepts of culture that depend on specific cultural practices, traditions, and customs, thus recognizing that language is not merely a reflection of social reality but is also constitutive of it and can be transformative. For Alexander, identities are fluid and are constructed within relations of power which reflect ideological and material proclivities.

Today we are in many senses in an even more precarious world, wracked by even greater global, regional, and national conflicts than a decade ago. Alexander would have found the reason for this heightening of conflict in the complex relationships between history, culture, language, ideology, and the material socioeconomic and environmental conditions under which the great majority of humanity is forced to live. But he would have pointed to the inevitability of the struggles against these conditions, and the importance of finding both the analytical and organizational premises for resisting the many forms of exploitative oppression, patriarchy, racism, prejudice, and ecological catastrophes that shape people’s lives today.

Alexander’s life and work are important because exemplars of such highly developed consciousness are rare. His critical interventions are profoundly important for sustaining the life of struggle against rapacious and uncaring political and social systems, by providing an analytical framework that can be useful, at any time, for understanding and organizing against the powerful global and national interests at the root of inhumanity.

Editors’ Note: This essay is adapted from the introduction to Against Racial Capitalism, a selection of writings by Neville Alexander, edited by Salim Vally and Enver Motala and published by Pluto Press.

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