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Family, Friends and Colleagues Celebrate Interviews with Neville Alexander at the Centre for African Studies

Mbulungeni Madiba, Karen Press and Lungisile Ntsebeza

The launch of Interviews with Neville Alexander: The Power of Languages Against the Language of Power by Brigitta Busch, Lucijan Busch and Karen Press was a particularly momentous event, taking place on the anniversary of Neville Alexander’s death.

The multi-faceted activist and linguist, educator and struggle hero passed away two years ago, but his memory was alive and well to those present at UCT’s Centre for African Studies. Many who had known and loved him, whether as family or friend, colleague, mentor or lecturer, were there to celebrate his remarkable life and accomplishments.

Welcoming his colleagues, Mbulungeni Madiba, Karen Press, Rajend Mesthrie and Carolyn McKinney, Professor Lungisile Ntsebeza said this event was a celebration of Alexander’s life.

Karen Press and Lungisile NtsebezaInterviews with Neville Alexander“Neville never wrote an autobiography,” said Ntsebeza, who chaired the panel discussion, “but these interviews tell the story of his life.”

Press, who edited Interviews with Neville Alexander, spoke of the work of the Austrian sociolinguistic professor Brigitta Busch, a colleague with whom Alexander established a strong connection. They worked together at PRAESA (the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa) and in Europe on issues of language policy for the European Union. Press said they did an enormous amount of fieldwork in South Africa and found kindred spirits in each other, in their similar 1960s radicalised sensibility. “Neville found his on Robben Island and Brigitta had been in a various agricultural communes in Europe. She had a strong eastern European experience as well,” Press said.

“With her husband, and later with her son Lucijan, they became friendly and collegial with Neville. Brigitta works a lot of work in multilingual contexts and has developed an approach to teaching academics and teachers to work in multilingual contexts. Those who work in that manner know it can be hard to bridge an individual student’s personal experience of language and their theoretical experience of socio-linguistics.

“It can be even harder to make the step to being useful as a language planner in a multilingual environment. Brigitta developed a way of asking her students to do language biographies. This is a way for groups of students to begin working with each other – often in different multilingual contexts – by talking about how they use languages in their personal lives, working across languages, as children, as adults, the languages they use in different relationships and the meaning each language has in their life.

“At a certain point, Brigitta decided to interview Neville, to find out about his language biography. Because he was Neville, it turned into a much bigger process than she did with her students. It evolved into a series of interviews with the idea of putting together a book that would be a record of Neville’s experience with language for his 75th birthday, a kind of festschrift,” said Press.

“Neville never wanted academic laudatio. This would be a way of recognising his spirit in the same way he conducted his work. Brigitta and Lucijan conducted the interviews in English. Over time they were transcribed and translated as a real labour of love. A German edition, Neville Alexander im Gespräch: Mit der Macht der Sprachen gegen die Sprache der Macht, was published in 2010 for his 75th,” she said.

Fred Alexander and Myrtle KarrimPress said the book went into the world of German academics, where it was wildly popular, especially with students. “A lot of what Neville talks about is his own young life of language. He also talked about his political experiences; nothing was ever separate. They encountered the history of struggle in an exciting way. After Neville died, we felt it was really important to make those interviews available in English.

“I was able to add material in English that was not included in the German edition topics of relevance for a South African audience. Some of the interviews, the later ones in particular, Neville spoke a great deal about the development of language policy. He spoke in vibrant detail about the individuals involved and the process,” Press said.

“He also spoke about the broader African context. In addition, the publishers thought to include some of Neville’s essays on language issues for those who wouldn’t have had access to his academic writing. Brigitta selected documents Neville wrote after he first formulated his theories on the politics of language. There are a series of documents which give a sense of the range of his thinking. It’s important to say this is an autobiography in a way Neville never imagined. In the verbatim transcripts, you hear his voice shining through,” she said.

Academics Madiba, Mesthrie and McKinney presented fascinating discourses on the life, work and vision of Alexander – which hopefully will be made available in future. A moving question and answer session followed, with all present determined to see that Alexander’s legacy is honoured.

Many spoke passionately about him, and one audience member remembered him as the “linguistic conscience of South Africa”. A generous sharing of the many ways Alexander had profoundly impacted the language heritage of South Africa poured out on an evening that must have made his brother, Fred, and sister, Myrtle, enormously proud.

Linguistics students

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Liesl Jobson (@LieslJobson) tweeted from the launch using #livebooks:

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