Discussion / History / Travel

Classics in South Africa: a personal view from somebody who didn’t know anything about it before going there and still doesn’t know very much

I’ve recently returned from a conference at the University of South Africa in Pretoria. A lot of people in Cambridge clearly regarded this as a rather dubious trip. The way people said ‘You’re going to a conference in SOUTH AFRICA?’, rather reminded me of the ‘A Tiger! In Africa?’ scene from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life.

Just as tigers stereotypically live in Asia and Los Vegas, so classicists are stereotypically in Europe, North America, and Australasia (even the last group probably has good reason to feel forgotten.) In a sense, they had a point: what were a bunch of classicists doing at a conference in suburban Gauteng? Like all good questions, this requires a bit of history to answer, which I will shamelessly crib from Michael Lambert’s highly informative book The Classics and South African Identities  (Bristol, 2010)

The continent of Africa was, of course, far from untouched by classical antiquity. Those of us who work (as I increasingly do) on early Latin Christianity should always be mindful of the fact that most of sources lived not in Europe but in Africa, and that many of them were ethnically not European, but Berber. It was almost certainly in north Africa that the Christian scriptures were first translated into Latin.

But Latin-speaking Africa was a fairly small fringe along the Mediterranean coast, extending only a few hundred kilometers inland. Greek and Latin came to South Africa with Europeans and with capitalism. The first recorded instance of a European-established school in South Africa was in 1658. It was established by Jan van Riebeeck, an official of the Dutch East India Company and the founder of Cape Town. All of the initial students at this school were black, the children of slaves from Angola who had been confiscated from a Portuguese slaver. The recorded curriculum at this school consisted of ‘the correct Dutch language’ and Christian devotion of a strict Calvinist variety. The aim was to instill a ‘proper sense of discipline’ in the pupils. Latin and Greek were not deemed important.

In one respect, however, the classics did feature prominently, and indeed intrusively. The school was instructed that ‘a register must be established and any who do not have names should be given names’. Many of the names given were taken from classical mythology and Roman history. Indeed, a study of the names of slaves in the Cape Colony between 1656 and 1762 reveals that 27.3% had classical names. Included in that number were 81 named Titus alone. It’s tempting to see the greater numbers of Scipios (39) than Hannibals (35) as symbolic of a second European triumph over Africa, but this is perhaps to establish more coherence to the practice than ever existed. What is certainly true is that Black Africans found themselves stripped of their own names in order to satisfy a European fashion for the classical.

A Latin school was opened at the Cape in 1714. By this point the Cape was already a culturally diverse society, including not only Dutch settlers and Africans of widely different ethnic and linguistic groups, but also Huguenots, and a community of Muslim ‘Cape Malays’ (very few of whom, despite the name, came from modern Malaysia). But this was no multicultural idyll. The Dutch ruled according the strictures of Dutch law, based on Roman law. 18th century Jurists in the Cape quoted from the Digest of laws prepared on the order of the emperor Justinian, some 1300 years earlier. Classical civilization was thus linked very clearly with European power and the oppression of non-European peoples.

The Cape Colony came under British control in 1795, as the immediate result of the Battle of Muizenberg (a small skirmish in what is now a surfers’ suburb). In 1822, English was made the official language of the Cape Colony. This led to the establishment of two separate Latin schools, one which taught in English and was headed by an Anglican clergyman, and the other which taught in Dutch and was headed by a Calvinist clergyman. In 1829, the first institution of higher education was founded in South Africa, initially providing classical instruction in both English and Dutch. However, 10 years later, as part of a wider educational reform, classical education was provided in English only.
It went on like this, bewilderingly, for decades. South Africa’s modern history has always been characterized by battles over languages (it’s for this reason that the country currently boasts 11 official languages). In the first decades of the 20th century, one of the major battles was for the recognition of Afrikaans as a separate language, distinct from Dutch, and worthy of use as a literary and academic language. One of the ways in which Afrikaners sought to assert the worthiness of their language was through the translation of classical texts into Afrikaans. Educated Afrikaners consciously portrayed themselves as heirs to a classical tradition. In first volume of Acta Classica, the journal of the Classical Association of South Africa, reference was made to the similarities between the austere Roman and the Calvinist Boer ‘between the anima naturaliter stoica and the anima naturaliter Calviana’.

This craze for the Roman was not confined to the academy, but spilled over into mainstream Afrikaans literature. N.P. van Wyk Louw, one of the great Afrikaans poets of the twentieth century, wrote a verse play entitled ‘Germanicus’, based closely on Tacitus, which is newly available in an English translation by Jo-Marie Claassen. Even in translation, one can get a sense of its vigour and literary quality, which at its best is reminiscent of a somewhat saltier Cavafy as in this bit of early speech by Agrippina:

Back! Yap in front of other doors!
A dog from the Suburra
comes here to bark at Caesar.
What do I care for Tiberius’ great name?
Did I not stand at the Long Bridge over the Rhine,
stand there that day
when Aulus Caecina had to fall back from the
marshy mud of the Batavian swamps?
Who wanted to destroy the bridge?
And leave our men right there?
This man and his kind who now can bark so loud…
Safe behind a water-shield.

But this flowering of Afrikaner literary culture cannot be divorced from political forces. In 1924, a student at Stellenbosch University completed the first PhD thesis to be written in Afrikaans. This young man, born in the Netherlands but raised in South Africa and a staunch supporter of Afrikaner Calvinism and culture, was Hendrik Verwoerd. In 1950 he became the Minister for Native Affairs in the new government of Daniel Malan’s National Party and eight years later the Prime Minister of South Africa. In these positions, he was one of the chief the architects of a system known as ‘Apartheid’, the one Afrikaans word familiar to English-speakers everywhere.

One of Verwoed’s policies was segregated education, enshrined into South African law in the Bantu Education Act of 1953. This was only one year before the Supreme Court of the United States of America would rule unanimously that ‘separate educational facilities are inherently unequal’. In Apartheid South Africa, there was not even the faintest pretense of schools being equal. The overwhelming majority of money was spent on schools for white South Africans, who at the height of Apartheid amounted to about 17% of the population (a proportion which has declined rapidly since). In such circumstances, Classics became an elite subject in an educational system that already effectively excluded 83% of the population. N.P. van Wyk Louw, that splendid poet, was one of many South African intellectuals who queued up to defend this new system.

This idea of Classics as privileged by and an agent of the oppression of Black South Africans by whites needs to be nuanced. Many South Africans from non-white ethnic groups studied Latin. Some explicitly did so only because of its association with the legal profession, and because they saw a study of the law as means to bring about change. But some anti-apartheid activists inspiration in Classical antiquity as well. Among them was Chris Hani, the leader of the South African Communist Party and the chief of staff of Umkhonto we Sizwe (literally ‘the Spear of the Nation’, the armed wing of the African National Congress), who wrote that

My early Catholicism led to my fascination with Latin studies and English literature… These two courses were gobbled up by me and I became an ardent lover of English, Latin, and Greek literature, both ancient and modern. My studies of literature further strengthened my hatred of all forms of oppression, persecution and obscurantism.


Above: Chris Hani (1942-1993), revolutionary and devotee of the Classics.

Another ANC member who found inspiration in the Classics was Nelson Mandela himself, who played the part of Creon in a production of Antigone whilst and prison and who wrote, in his memoir Long Walk to Freedom, that

I read some of the classic Greek plays in prison, and found them enormously elevating. What I took out of them was that character was measured by facing up to difficult situations and that a hero was a man who would not break down even under the most trying of circumstances.

There was a definite irony in the casting of Mandela to play Creon, who is (at least on one reading) an inflexible authority figure, fiercely resistant to change. The irony was not lost on Mandela, who wrote that

[Creon’s] inflexibility and blindness ill become a leader, for a leader must temper justice with mercy. It was Antigone who symbolized our struggle; she was, in her own way, a freedom fighter

In 1994, after the first elections held under universal suffrage, the requirement for Advocates (the South African equivalent to barristers) to have some knowledge of Latin was scrapped. The number of students studying classics in South Africa has declined markedly. According to one source, there are perhaps no more than 100 students of Latin and 50 students of Greek in South Africa today, out of a population of some 53 million. Not every classicist mourned this. Jo-Marie Claassen (who produced the splendid translation of Louw cited above) cited it as an opportunity to produce a really interesting curriculum.

Like most foreigners, I was woefully ignorant of South African history and culture when I arrived. I landed in Johannesburg Airport (our plane, incidentally, touched down just as Oscar Pistorius stood for sentencing). My initial impressions were of a beautiful but deeply trouble country. It suits politicians — in every country — to pretend that history doesn’t leave scars, but in Pretoria they are impossible to miss. Economic disparity is evident everywhere, and to a large extent it is rare to see white and black South Africans doing the same jobs.

Classics in South Africa is still very visibly white. South African classicists have acknowledged the problem. In 1997, Richard Whitaker of the University of Cape Town wrote that ‘if Classics remains the preserve of a White enclave, then it is hard to see a future for the subject in South Africa’. 17 years later, as one South African classicist put it to me ‘we’re fighting for survival’.

In J.M. Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello, the eponymous character rebukes her sister, a missionary nun in Zululand, for being a Christian in Africa ‘If you have to import Europe into Africa’, she demands, ‘is there not a better case for importing the Greeks?’. The response of her sister, might serve as a damning epitaph for the history of classics in the country:

 Are you aware that when Europeans fist came in contact with Zulus, educated Europeans, men from England with public-school educations behind them, they thought they had rediscovered the Greeks? They said so quite explicitly. … It was all here! Sparta in Africa: that is what they thought they had found. For decades those same ex-public schoolboys, with their romantic idea of Greek antiquity, administered Zululand on behalf of the Crown. They wanted Zululand to be Sparta. They wanted the Zulus to be Greeks. … It was not just in Zululand that it happened. It happened in Australia too. It happened all over the colonized world, just not in so neat a form. Those young fellows from Oxford and Cambridge and St Cyr offered their barbarian subjects a false ideal.

Can Classics survive in South Africa? Should it even? I wouldn’t presume to be able to give an answer based on my decidedly limited experience and knowledge. But I can say what is now widely said by South African classicists themselves: for the discipline to survive, it must prove itself relevant to a South African context. It can no longer be the ‘false ideal’ of the colonizer’s classics.

I was interested to hear one of the delegates, Jonathan Otchere of the University of Cape Coast in Ghana talk about teaching Greek History there. He said that the key was to highlight aspects of classical antiquity that were still relevant to students today. He pointed out inheritance law as one aspect that his students find interesting and relevant.  I found this fascinating, as I can’t imagine many subjects less likely to interest British or American students. But then, every context is different.

Tim and Jonathan

Above: Tim Whitmarsh (Cambridge) and Jonathan Otchere (Cape Coast), outside of the Union Buildings (the office of the President of South Africa) in Pretoria.

For my part, I hope that the study of classical antiquity will have a very long and fruitful future in South Africa. I hope this for several reasons. Partly because I was shown great hospitality by South African classicists. Partly because I am a romantic who loves antiquity and who also happens to love South Africa. But mostly because I think that South Africa has been good for classics. South Africa is a complicated country with many problems, but then Rome was a complicated empire and Athens a complicated polis. Scholars of every generation and nation have brought to the study of antiquity questions shaped by their own experiences — to read classic works of mid-20th century scholarship like  Syme’s Roman Revolution or Rostovtzeff’s Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire is to read works shaped by the concerns of European liberals (or at least liberals working in Europe, as Syme was a Kiwi at Oxford) living at a time when global politics was characterized by the rise of totalitarian ideologies.

What questions might post-Apartheid South Africa bring to the study of antiquity? What will South African classics look like in 20 or 50 years? I have no idea. But I’ll watch with interest.



3 thoughts on “Classics in South Africa: a personal view from somebody who didn’t know anything about it before going there and still doesn’t know very much

  1. This was an incredibly interesting read. I’m certainly going to root out Michael Lambert’s book and Louw’s Germanicus.

    I wonder if we have any readers in South Africa who could offer their thoughts?

  2. This is really fascinating. Interestingly, I’ve heard that in other southern African countries Classics has also been quite influential, among native African as well as white elites. I heard a classicist from Zimbabwe give a talk, and he said that a portion of the leadership of ZANU-PF, the governing party, have had a “traditional classical education”, including President Mugabe. Indeed, in his talk the classicist mentioned hearing a ZANU official citing Julius Caesar’s land redistribution as a precedent for the Zimbabwean seizure of white-owned land.

    On the same note, the former president of Malawi, Hastings Banda, though having trained as a medical doctor, was extremely fond of classics. He founded schools on the model of British Public Schools, and invited British classicists to teach there. The schools still exist, and indeed a former Cambridge student recently spent a few years teaching classics there.

  3. The point about Antigone is a really interesting one: Sophocles’ play became a real symbol for the opponents of Apartheid (just as it had been used by the WWII French Resistance before that). The Mandela production on Robben Island was (I believe) thanks to a fellow prisoner, who had been arrested while trying to perform it with The Serpent Players, a black theatre group: the playwright Athol Fugard (involved with the Serpent production) wrote ‘The Island’ about the Robben version. The play dramatises really well the debate about the significance of Antigone – and Classics generally – for contemporary black South Africans.

    You can find a good discussion of it by Fugard himself here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kk8J7v13_2Y
    …and a clip of The Island here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aKJkxwJL8OU

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