South African anti-Apartheid struggle poet, with Oromo ancestry, Neville Alexander dies

September 3, 2012

Dr. Neville Alexander died on Monday, August 27, 2012, after a crippling, albeit brief battle with lung cancer. Professor Neville Alexander, a public intellectual, a prominent educationist and a hero of the struggle for liberation was 75 years old.

In a statement released by the presidency, President Zuma’s office said Alexander would be “remembered for his pioneering work on language policy, including his most recent work, focusing on the tension between multilingualism and the hegemony of the English language in the public sphere.”

“We are saddened by this tragic loss of a South African who had contributed selflessly to the struggle for liberation and to building a better society and a better South Africa. At a professional level, Dr. Alexander, as an accomplished linguist, contributed immensely to language development in our country. The country has lost a person of high intellectual and academic standing. We extend our deepest condolences to Dr Alexander’s family, relatives and friends,” Zuma said in the statement.

In its tribute to Alexander, the University of Cape Town, where he was teaching, said in a statement that Alexander was an “acclaimed linguist, academic and anti-Apartheid struggle veteran.” He was all that, yes, but it is a tribute to Alexander that those labels simply do not do him justice. For a man of his stature, these labels, well-meaning and fitting as they certainly are, also fall short of describing what exactly Alexander stood for – and what exactly South Africa has just lost.

Alexander was born in Cradock, Eastern Cape, South Africa to David James Alexander and Dimbiti Bisho Alexander, a schoolteacher. Dimbiti’s mother, Bisho, was one of a group of Ethiopian Oromo slaves freed by a British warship in 1888 off the coast of Yemen, then taken round the African coast and placed in the care of missionaries in South Africa [detail ayyaantuu].

Nerville father was David James Alexander, a carpenter. From his father the young Neville inherited a strong sense of white oppression in South Africa, while this was leavened by his mother’s Christian values and respect for everyone.

Bisho, the grandmother

Bisho Jarsa, trained as a domestic servant, went on to become a teacher

Commander Gissing’s mission was part of British attempts to end the slave trade – a trade that London had supported until 1807, when it was abolished across the British Empire.

All the 204 slaves freed by Commander Gissing were from the Oromo ethnic group and most were children.

The Oromo, despite being the most populous of all Ethiopian groups, had long been dominated by the country’s Amhara and Tigrayan elites and were regularly used as slaves.

Emperor Menelik II, who has been described as Ethiopia’s “greatest slave entrepreneur”, taxed the trade to pay for guns and ammunition as he battled for control of the whole country, which he ruled from 1889 to 1913.

Bisho Jarsa was among the 183 children found on the dhows.

Her first memory of the British was the sound of automatic gunfire blasting into the sails and rigging of the slave dhow while she huddled below deck with the other Oromo children.

They all fully expected to be eaten as this is what the Arab slave traders had told them would happen if they were captured by the British.

But Commander Gissing took the Oromo to Aden, where the British authorities had to decide what to do with the former slaves.

After many children were displaced, Bisho and the remaining children reached Lovedale on 21 August 1890.

In that year, the Lovedale authorities asked the survivors whether they would like to return to Ethiopia.

Some opted to do so, but it was only after a protracted process, involving the intervention of German advisers to Emperor Menelik, that 17 former slaves sailed back to Ethiopia in 1909.

The rest had by this time married or found careers and opted to stay in South Africa.

Bisho was trained for domestic service, but she must have shown signs of special talent, because she was one of only two of the Oromo girls who went on to train as a teacher.

In 1902 she left Lovedale and found a position at a school in Cradock, then in 1911 she married Frederick Scheepers, a minister in the church.

Frederick and Bisho Jarsa had a daughter, Dimbiti. Dimbiti married David Alexander and one of their children, born on 22 October 1936, was Neville Alexander.

On their arrival in Yemen, the children were looked after by local families and missionaries

Professor Nerville tried to trace back to the fate of the returnees to Ethiopia in 1909. We do not know how far he succeeded. The names of these returnees:

1. Aguchello Chabani
2. Agude Bulcha
3. Amanu Figgo
4. Baki Malaka
5. Berille Boko Grant
6. Dinkitu Boensa
7. Fayesse Gemo
8. Fayissa Umbe
9. Galgal Dikko
10. Galgalli Shangalla
11. Gamaches Garba
12. Gutama Tarafo
13. Hawe Sukute
14. Liban Bultum
15. Nagaro Chali
16. Nuro Chabse
17. Rufo Gangilla
18. Tolassa Wayessa

Details are found here: 

Ijoollee Oromoo Gabrummaan Gurguraman (VOA reports)-
How an Ethiopian slave became a South African teacher –
Neville Alexander – an important voice –