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An Encounter with Neville Alexander in a “Gentleman’s Club”

29 Feb 2016 - 14:45
Neville Alexander's handwriting
Neville Alexander's handwriting

At around 5.30 PM on 9 February I made my way to the Cape Town Club. The club is situated in an elegant old building designed by Herbert Baker in the late 1890s. It had been a steamy day, and it was a somewhat sweaty specimen that stopped outside 18 Queen Victoria Street and peered about looking for a way in. A doorman appeared and looked over this perspiring pedestrian in the slightly suspicious manner of doormen everywhere who are used to ill-clad and unworthy gate-crashers. He well knew that this particular personage was not a member of the club, and would never be a member. A quotation attributed to Groucho Marx skidded to a halt on the tip of my tongue, but I intuited that it would not be good form to antagonise this keeper of the gate, so I meekly explained my business at the club to him, and – reluctantly – he entered a string of numbers into a security keypad; there followed a buzzing and a clicking as electronically activated bolts were released, and I was ushered through a high-tech security door – into a PG Wodehouse novel.

You see, I’ve never been to a real “gentleman’s club” before, but I have read a great many PG Wodehouse novels, and so Woodhouse’s Drones Club is my point of reference when it comes to establishments such as the Cape Town Club. Incidentally, when I say “gentleman’s club” I mean the type of discreet, decorous, (mainly) male sanctum one finds scattered about London and in various far-flung corners of the once mighty British Empire, to which (mostly) men of a certain standing can repair to read the newspaper, smoke a cigar, sip on a snifter or two, and discuss the problems of Empire (or cricket, which is much the same thing); I do not mean the other kind that advertise on billboards and in the adult section of the daily newspaper. And I haven’t been to any of the latter, either, in case you were wondering. As I wandered about this little outpost of quintessential English exclusivity and comfort, my footsteps muffled by the thick pile of the carpet, peering into the many high-ceilinged, wood-panelled dining rooms occupied by a few corpulent old codgers who all looked like Winston Churchill, I rather hoped to find Bertie Wooster and a few of his pals such as Bingo Little and Boko Fittleworth lounging about smoking, or, better yet, throwing food at one another.

I do remember thinking, in between my mental escapes into the Edwardian Eden that was the Drones Club, that it would be ill-advised for the management of UCT to invite #RhodesMustFall to this venue for a conciliatory tête-à-tête or game of snooker, since large portraits of Mr Rhodes and various other luminaries of the “for queen and country” variety stared down smugly and somewhat belligerently from the panelled walls. Recent events involving similar portraits confirm this conjecture. But I digress. Eventually I was forced to abandon my Wodehousean reverie and get down to the business which had brought me to the Cape Town Club.

Now, if you will accompany me on another small excursion, dear reader, we must leave Cape Town and the present for a moment, and travel back in time to the late 1950s, to Tübingen, a small town in central Baden-Württemberg, Germany, site of the venerable university that was established there in the fifteenth century. It was to this ancient university town that a young South African man made his way in 1958 to pursue a PhD. In between studying German, the young man made many friends among whom were radicals and revolutionaries and romantics, and no doubt some regular people. I am not entirely sure to which category she belonged, but one of the people he befriended was a woman named Hildegard von Windheim. He was 25, she was 65. After completing his studies in 1961, the young man made his way back to South Africa. He missed Germany, he missed the friends and the freedoms he had found there, and he missed Hildegard. So he wrote letters to her, in German – excellent German, I am reliably informed. In these letters he told her of the deepening political crises in South Africa, of the dehumanising race-based policies that brought great suffering upon the majority of the population by an ever more oppressive minority regime, of the perils faced by those who attempted to oppose the apartheid machine, and he enquired about the many friends he had left behind in Germany. Soon, however, the letters stopped. The young man had been arrested and convicted of plotting to commit acts of terrorism. He was given a sentence of ten years to be served on Robben Island.

That young man’s name was Neville Alexander.

And so from Tübingen and Robben Island we return to the Cape Town Club, and my unprecedented presence there.

I was there to as a guest of the Noon Gun Rotary Club. You see, Hildegard von Windheim’s granddaughter, Nadia von Ancken, had found amongst her deceased grandmother’s papers four letters written by Neville Alexander to Hildegard. She also found some diaries in which Alexander was mentioned, as well as a letter from Mrs Alexander, Neville’s mother, penned when he still had four years of his sentence left to serve. Nadia von Ancken undertook to ensure that these letters made their way back to South Africa, so that this small cache of struggle history could be preserved in the country in which it originated. She presented the letters and copies of excerpts from the diaries to the Rotary club in Rendsburg, Germany. The Rendsburg club supports a Global Grant scholar at UCT, Anneke Eichstedt. Serendipitously, some of the Rendsburg Rotarians were due to holiday in South Africa, and so it was arranged that they would make contact with a local Rotary club, who would make contact with UCT, so that the letters could be handed over to the institution where Neville Alexander’s personal archive is housed, and where a building is named in his honour. And so it transpired. Susanne Schubert of the Noon Gun Rotary Club came to learn of the letters, and she made contact with UCT Libraries. Her husband, Alex, who is president of the Noon Gun club, invited me to the meeting where the letters would be handed over. And so it was that I came to visit the club on Monday, 9 February 2016. There I met the Rendsburg “delegation”, led by Dr Nils Borchers, and Anneke, the German UCT student. After I had given a brief presentation about Neville Alexander, Dr Borchers and Anneke spoke about their part in the project, and finally the letters were “officially” handed over to me. After more than 50 years, these epistolary records had made their way back home. As I remarked when they had been handed over to me, only someone with absolutely no sense of history, or no human decency, would have been unmoved not only by the content of the letters, but by the remarkable story of their journey through time and across continents.

The Neville Alexander collection at UCT, which I was privileged to arrange and describe, is a substantial one, comprising more than two cubic meters of documentation. Yet in this voluminous archive there are only two letters that date from the early 1960s, and they do not reveal anything of Neville Alexander the man as he was then. The value of these four letters is therefore incalculable. It was with great sincerity and genuine gratitude that I expressed, on behalf of UCT Libraries, my thanks to everyone who had been involved in bringing them back to South Africa.

As I made ready to exit the Cape Town Club, I stopped for one last moment to savour the opulence and elegance of my surroundings. I wondered what Neville Alexander, a man who eschewed ostentation in all its forms, would have said. I smiled wryly at the incongruities that make South Africa such an interesting – and tragic – country. As I passed through the electronic barrier into the warm African dusk, the doorman once more cast his beady eye upon me. His misgivings about my suitability for membership of the club were indubitably confirmed when I said in my best Bertie Wooster voice, “I say, old bean, what a rum turn of events, by Jove!"

Article by André Landman

From left to right: Dr Nils Borchers (Rendburg rotary Club); André Landman (UCT Libraries); Alexander Schubert (Noon Gun Rotary Club); Anneke Eichstedt (UCT student and Global Grant Scholar)