Michael Lambert, The Classics and South African Identities. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2011. Pp. 160, incl. a general index. ISBN 978-0-7156- 3796-8. UK£18.99.
Classics, University of Cape Town, South Africa
Identity politics is a minefield. Stray too far to right or left and you risk being blown to pieces. And the ‘reasonable’ middle path is no less hazardous. The questions that haunt anyone venturing into this field are: Who is, or is not, entitled to speak for whom? For instance, is a white English- speaking South African entitled to discuss and interpret the writings and ideas of black and ‘coloured’ and Afrikaans-speaking South Africans?
The implicit answer that Michael Lambert’s book, The Classics and South African Identities, delivers to these questions is: Yes, one is so entitled -- always provided that one approaches the feelings, thoughts, ideas, and aspirations of people different from oneself with due caution and sensitivity. Nevertheless, for all the care with which Lambert picks his way through the identity minefield, his book may still set off a few explosions, dealing as it does with the way Afrikaans- and English-speaking and black South Africans have constructed identities for themselves through the Classics.
Lambert introduces and then concludes his book in a refreshing and original way. Instead of making the sort of obeisance to Grand Theory that has now become almost de rigeur, he uses works of the imagination as a lens to focus his discussion. In the introduction (pp. 7-19), Lambert lets an analysis of Aeschylus’ Suppliants raise issues of migration, skin-colour, gender, language and power, all central to the notion of identity in general and of South African identities in particular. In the conclusion (pp. 125- 32), an examination of J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello brings to the fore troubling questions about the place of the Classics in contemporary South Africa: ‘Coetzee . . . suggests that the study of the Humanities in Africa (and especially the study of the Classics) is trapped in an intellectual cul-de- sac, between the Scylla of instrumentalism and the Charybdis of a meaningless “art for beauty’s sake” ’(p. 130). (It should be said that Lambert himself does not altogether share this gloomy outlook.)
Three long chapters make up the body of the volume, each discussing the way in which the Classics have participated in the identity-formation of a particular group of South Africans. In the first chapter, ‘The Classics and Afrikaner Identities’ (pp. 21-59), Lambert examines the beginnings of education and the teaching of Latin in the Dutch settlement at the Cape of Good Hope. Pointing out that many Cape slaves bore classical names (Cupido, Titus, Coridon, Scipio), the author writes: ‘the classical tradition is . . . inscribed, from the outset of its reception in South Africa, in relationships of dominance and subservience’ (p. 24). The first Latin school was set up at the Cape in 1714, lasting about 25 years, to be followed by a second in 1793. After the British occupation of the Cape, this second Latin school was made, in the early 19th century, into an English grammar school, with an English classically-trained Rector. Dutch- speakers responded by establishing their own private schools, where classical languages were offered. Thus began a long history of conflict over the medium of education -- Dutch or English. Since Greek and Latin were an important part of that education, the Classics were caught up in struggles over Cape Dutch and, later, Afrikaner identity in South Africa.
So it was not surprising that, when the present Classical Association of South Africa (CASA) was founded in 1956, eight years after the triumph of the National Party, the Association was dominated by Afrikaners. Lambert well shows how ‘natural’ it seemed for CASA during the 1950s and 1960s to align itself with power by making members of the ruling elite honorary patrons or vice- presidents of the Association. He argues that ‘had CASA been steered by scholars less seduced by Afrikaner nationalism . . . steps would have been taken to promote Latin (and the Classics) in black schools . . . to ensure the future survival of the discipline’ (p. 52).
Chapter 2, ‘The Classics and English- speaking South African Identities’ (pp. 61-90), opens with an account of the remarkable set of translations of Greek and Latin sources used by Gibbon that the ‘arch–imperialist’ Cecil John Rhodes commissioned for his library at Groote Schuur. This leads to a discussion of the multiple ways in which education in the Classics, particularly at Oxford, became involved with British imperial assumptions. Lambert uses his own classical training at the (then) University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg, as an example. He shows how his Oxford- educated professor, David Raven, in a 1973 inaugural lecture, blithely ignored the context in which he was speaking, remaining unaware of Afrikaans-speakers in the audience and assuming his listeners to be ‘part of the great British diaspora in the wake of Empire, as if British and South African English- speaking identities had merged’ (p. 71). Lambert also poignantly recalls ‘being constantly reminded [by Raven] that, at various stages of my degree, I was still x number of years behind an Oxford or Cambridge undergraduate of the same age’ (p. 72), with all the sense of academic inferiority and insecurity such treatment engendered.
The author goes on to consider the inaugural lectures of several other Oxford-trained classicists at South African universities (including this reviewer), finding that from the 1970s through to the 1990s these lectures reveal a gradually-increasing awareness of a need to link the teaching of the Classics to its local context. Apropos my own inaugural, Lambert comments, with some justice: ‘Comparisons between aspects of Classical civilization and African cultures, especially in South Africa, where the study of the Classics is deeply rooted in unequal power relationships, can result in legitimizing the very perceptions they intend to subvert’ (p. 83).
Finally in this chapter Lambert analyses some of his own comparisons between Zulu and ancient Greek religion, even- handedly drawing attention to the weaknesses as well as the strengths of his work in this area. In the course of so doing he makes an important point: English-speakers often complacently believe themselves to be liberal and free from prejudice; but, ‘No South African can, in [Lambert’s] opinion, ever claim to be entirely free of racism . . . Thus the “resistant discourses” generated by English-speaking white South African classicists can, in the process of comparative studies, be as implicit in the rule of oppressive élites as the Afrikaner nationalist voices’ (p. 87).
The book’s last chapter, ‘The Classics and Black South African Identities’ (pp. 91-123), begins with a painful reminder of just how patronizing white classicists could be when teaching Latin to black students at the old ‘Homelands’ universities. The author also gives a fascinating account of nineteenth- century Christian educational institutions for blacks, and the debates that took place there as to whether, or how much, Latin and Greek should be included in the courses studied. (Which cannot but remind one of contemporary debates about ‘Eurocentrism’ and ‘Africanization’ of the curriculum.) Lambert focuses in particular on the writings of John Tengo Jabavu (father of D.D.T. Jabavu, who later taught Latin at Fort Hare) in defence of a Classical education for blacks which would give them access to universities and to the professions.
The rest of the chapter reviews the relationship to the Classics of such figures as Robert Grendon, author of an epic, Paul Kruger’s Dream (1902), Chris Hani, Nelson Mandela and Benedict Vilakazi. Lambert deals here en passant with the weakness of Demea (Guy Butler’s Southern African version of Euripides’ Medea) and of supposedly subversive productions of Classical tragedy on liberal English-medium university campuses during the apartheid era. I must confess that I found this part of the book somewhat scrappy and unfocussed.
At various points in the volume, Lambert also examines the work of individual South African Classical scholars such as T.J. Haarhoff and Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr, who are difficult to fit into the categories that the book sets for itself. The latter is discussed under ‘English-speaking Identities’, the former under ‘Afrikaner Identities’.
As I am sure the author would be first to admit, The Classics and South African Identities does not give a comprehensive account of its subject. But then it is not intended to. The book is meant as an exploratory essay, a large-scale map of a terrain many parts of which have not yet been adequately charted. As such it succeeds admirably, and provides a stimulating and provocative survey from which any future account of the Classics in South Africa will have to take its starting-point.