South African leader speaks

Dr. Neville Alexander sought to dismantle apartheid and has worked for equality.

Kathryn Nelson

Celebrating the twelfth anniversary of the African American Read-In, community leaders and local celebrities gathered to share their experience of discrimination, education and courage in a crowded conference room in Andersen Library on Tuesday.

Although participants listened to brief remarks from Minnesota Vikings players and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, the most anticipated visitor of the afternoon was South African leader Dr. Neville Alexander.

Born in Cradock in the Eastern Cape Province, Alexander fought tirelessly for the dismantlement of the apartheid, which stretched from 1948 to 1994, said Karla Davis, curator for the Givens Collection of African American Literature.

The initial colonization of Africa allowed British forces to claim South Africa as their territory and began a brutal movement against the native Africans. The installment of apartheid created a racial hierarchy in which black Africans were denied many of the rights given to other citizens.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that one of the most devastating conditions that humanity continues to suffer from is racial prejudices,” Alexander said.

During Tuesday’s event, Macalester professor Peter Rachleff, University professor John Wright and Alexander engaged in a conversation about the links of racism, literacy and language between South Africa and the United States.

Alexander has a long history of advocacy and empowerment for politically and economically disadvantaged populations.

In his early career he was the co-founder of the National Liberation Front, which contested the South African’s government-sponsored racism. Due to his actions, Alexander was convicted of conspiracy in 1964 and imprisoned at Robben Island for 10 years, said Davis.

During this time, Davis said, Alexander befriended Nelson Mandela, another anti-apartheid leader, who later became president of South Africa in 1994.

Alexander is now the director of the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa, which engages in literacy advocacy, language surveying and youth empowerment.

His biggest obstacle “is finding a way to tell young people that living on planet Earth is meaningful,” he said.

Mayor Rybak said the day Mandela was released from prison in 1990 Mandela “walked out into freedom.” Similarly, Alexander is helping South African youth find the same kind of independence through literacy, he said.

“I’m inspired by the work you’re doing in Africa,” Rybak said.

Conversation also focused on the issue of reconciliation, restitution and affirmative action in South Africa after apartheid, as black Africans continue to face economic hardships.

Although the government is working to give back land to the proper African owners, “Only 4 percent of the 30 percent (of land) has been redistributed,” Alexander said.

Despite affirmative action being debated in both the United States and South Africa, Alexander said his country doesn’t need to resort to giving privilege solely to certain racial groups.

Requiring civil service employees to learn a native language could aid rural Africans in getting better jobs, as their skills will be seen as more worthy, he said.

We can use features other than race to determine the need for affirmative action, Alexander said.

Even so, he did not blame any group for past transgressions. “Even though the white Afrikaans people are from European descent, they are African people,” he said.

His main goal, along with most South Africans, is to reduce the power of prejudice as well as religious and linguistic barriers, he said.

“Multiculturalism is unavoidable and desirable,” Alexander said. “These things are essential for survival on earth.”