Sunday, January 8, 2012


Michael Lambert, The Classics and South African Identities. Classical Diaspora. London; New York: Bristol Classical Press, 2010. Pp. 160. ISBN 9780715637968. $33.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Lydia Matthews, Brasenose College, Oxford (

Version at BMCR home site

In this monograph Michael Lambert offers us an eminently readable study of classics in South Africa (the first of its kind). Throughout the work Lambert presents interesting case studies of the way that black South Africans and white South African Afrikaans and English-speakers, have reacted to the structures of classical learning and have used ideas of the classics in formulating their identities. It is only a shame that the author did not explore some of the examples he presents at greater length, as at only 160 pages (including notes and indices) his treatment is often regrettably brief.

By way of introducing the study of identity construction, Lambert presents an analysis of Aeschylus' Suppliants. This section is refreshingly light on obtuse theoretical terminology; however, the subject matter seems somewhat removed from the material that Lambert treats in the rest of the book.

The first chapter deals with how Afrikaners used the classics to shape a national, and especially linguistic, identity for themselves. Paying special attention to the teaching of classics and classical languages in Cape schools and universities, Lambert shows how Dutch and Afrikaans-speakers used classical learning to distinguish themselves from other groups. Formulated above all in response to the 'multi-cultural' context in which Dutch colonizers found themselves, Lambert shows how these colonizers used classics to formulate an idea of themselves as belonging to a European tradition of learning, linking them to their imagined Dutch or German homelands.

The main focus of this chapter, however, is on the way that Afrikaners reacted to British power and the dominance of English as the medium of education. Lambert shows how, with British power having been firmly established in the Cape early in the nineteenth century, the Dutch colonizers found themselves in a more marginalized position as regards classical learning. Dutch speakers were excluded from this knowledge, and thereby from entry into the educated elite by the educational reforms of Sir John Herschel, which stipulated that at secondary schools the classics could be taught in English only. Lambert points out that this exclusion from the 'centres of power ... was not forgotten by Afrikaans-speaking educationalists and classicists in subsequent years' (33). It is against this background that Lambert discusses the formation of the Classical Association of South Africa (CASA) in 1956. While in previous years English had been the language of power, and as such the language through which classical knowledge was mediated, with the foundation of CASA, Afrikaans-speaking classicists sought to redress the balance. Lambert shows how this organization promoted Afrikaans as the language of classics and became associated with the politics of Afrikaner nationalism (for example, by inviting the Chief Justice of South Africa and the future Minister of Foreign Affairs to assume positions of honour within the association). For Lambert, this preoccupation with the power struggle between English and Afrikaans meant that CASA, in keeping with the educational policies of the Apartheid state, excluded black, coloured, and Indian South Africans.

It is regrettable that Lambert only discusses the most recent incarnation of CASA. An organization of the same name was founded in 1927 by, amongst others, C. S. Edgar, A. Petrie, W. Rollo, W. Ritchie, T. J. Haarhoff, and, perhaps most significantly, J. H. Hofmeyr, who only two years later would become the minister in charge of Education, the Interior, and Public Health. In omitting this earlier foundation, the author misses a valuable opportunity to discuss the political identity of classics in the years before the National Party came to power in 1948. The omission perhaps results from Lambert's desire to discuss his three examples of South African identity (Afrikaner, English, and black) separately. The politics of Hofmeyr are instead discussed in Chapter 2, where the author focuses on the 'Englishness' of Hofmeyr's classical identity. However, as an Afrikaner whose uncle had been the powerful leader of the Afrikanerbond, who had studied at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship, and who had expressed liberal views on racial integration, he would have been a welcome addition to the discussion in Chapter 1. The case of Hofmeyr suggests that the history of this earlier incarnation of the classical Association might offer a more nuanced view on the 'official' nature of classics in South Africa. However, since Lambert sees CASA as an expression of Afrikaner identity, and Hofmeyr is treated as almost English (his liberal politics are attributed to the influence of Oxford's Gilbert Murray) there is little space for such a discussion.

Chapter 2 looks at the classics and English-speaking identities. Lambert starts off by discussing Cecil John Rhodes and J. H. Hofmeyr. In the case of Rhodes in particular, Lambert's analysis stops short of explaining what exactly was at stake in the way that Rhodes used the classics in formulating his colonial identity. However, he soon turns to an insightful discussion of the inaugural addresses given by three successive Professors of classics in the 1970s and 1980s at (what was then) the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg: David Raven (1973), Magnus Henderson (1978), and Geoffrey Chapman (1984). He extends this analysis to the work of other South African classicists, looking at how Oxford-trained classicists embedded their understanding of the classics in a series of British, colonial assumptions. For example, discussing the inaugural address of Richard Whitaker (an Oxford and St, Andrews-trained classicist) at the University of Cape Town, Lambert argues that Whitaker's suggestion that we compare the orality of Homer's poetry with that of black 'worker poets' in order to enlighten our understanding of transitional texts relegates the poetry of black South Africans to being of only secondary importance.1 This poetry is made into a tool by which we understand the questions of 'real' interest: ones that inevitably concern the Western canonical tradition. Here Lambert offers a detailed and engaging account of how each man shaped his idea of classics in a South African context according to 'deeply rooted ... unequal power relationships' (83), and how even attempts to subvert these relationships only served to legitimize them.

As a solution to the problems that plague attempts by English-speaking classicists to make classics relevant to the South African context, Lambert looks to the cautious undertaking of comparative studies. He traces his own comparative research on the Ancient Greeks and the Zulus to the work of A. T. Bryant, a Zulu linguist from Marianhill monastery. Lambert describes how he was influenced by Bryant's comparative study of Nomkhubulwane (who is described as the Zulu Corn-and-Sky-Princess) and Demeter and Persephone. Interest in such studies has increased in the post-Apartheid context in response to the need to once again make classics relevant. Its adaptability (to the cause of Afrikaner nationalism, British colonialism, post-Apartheid multiculturalism, and so on) is taken as evidence of the 'protean identity' of classics which allows it to 'make and unmake itself in response to political hegemony' (90).

Chapter three deals with 'The classics and black South African identities'. Lambert starts the chapter by writing about the history of teaching classics in what were traditionally the black universities. He casts a harsh light on some of the more patronising attitudes adopted by the white classicists who taught Latin to black students, quoting academics talking of the 'few clever ones' (93), and the rest who 'cannot make the leap from fact to fiction ... but stare blankly at [the words in a sentence]' (94). As a way of explaining the relationships that these students had with the classics, Lambert looks at the pre-Apartheid history of classics at various mission schools across the country: Lovedale, Zonnebloem, and Marianhill. The teaching of classics to black students at these institutions became a point of ideological and political conflict. For example, he argues that the Anglican missionaries at Zonnebloem saw classics as a tool for the 'ideological disarmament of the sons of rebellious black chiefs' (106). Conversely, at Lovedale, the teaching of classics to black students was argued against on the grounds that this group should first be concerned with 'not classics, or even politics – but industry' (103). Vocational training was to be emphasised over the 'useless' academia of the classics. The black students of Lovedale, and men like John Tengo Jabavu and Robert Grendon found that, having accepted the ideological terms of the empire, they were nonetheless to be excluded from it. Lambert's accounts of Jabavu's defence of classical learning for black students and Grendon's epic poem Paul Kruger's Dream offer fascinating insight into how classics was adopted and adapted by these men as a way of indentifying ideologically with the white 'colonizers', but who also used classics as a tool in their struggle against their oppression at the hands of these colonizers.

Lambert ends this chapter by discussing the relationship between classics and the struggle against apartheid. He gives a realistic appraisal of the role played by Greek drama in discourses of resistance, observing that it is nonsense to suggest that Euripides' Medea 'was a crucial text in the war against South African apartheid' (115). Likewise, he notes that the performance of liberation-type Greek tragedies on university campuses for white audiences served only to confirm the liberal identities of the audience. By way of suggesting a more fruitful way of approaching this topic, he examines how leaders of the struggle, Chris Hani and Nelson Mandela in particular, declined to engage with classical literature on the terms set by white South Africans, who viewed classics as a marker of the 'civilization' to which black South Africans should aspire. Instead, they used classical literature in a more strategic way as part of their own political identity.

As with the introduction, in the conclusion we are presented with another close reading, this time of J. M. Coetzee's novel Elizabeth Costello. Here Lambert reflects on the position of the classics in particular, and of the studia humanitatis generally, in the South African context. Lambert suggests that the instrumentalizing of classics and the humanities and the prevalence of crude managerialism will be the death of the traditional humanities. Instead, he recommends 'looking at classical antiquity via an African lens' (132), something which he hopes will break down the binaries of European/African that have characterized South African classics. Lambert presents us with a vision of classics in South African universities that is less about the ancient world and its literature and more a study of why classics is not irrelevant; however, his suggestion of looking at classics through 'an African lens' as a way of making it relevant to the South African context perhaps suggests that even he cannot altogether escape the paradigms he has been criticizing.

Lambert has written a thoroughly enjoyable and engaging work. Because of his clear mastery of the history of classics in South Africa he is able to present the reader with a series of interesting examples of the way that the classical tradition has developed in that country. By calling attention to material such as Grendon's epic and Bryant's comparative studies Lambert adds not only to our understanding of classics in South Africa, but to South African history more generally.


1.   See Whitaker's recent article: 'History, Myth, and Social Function in Southern African Nguni Praise Poetry', in Konstan, D. and Raaflaub, K.A. (eds.), (2010), Epic and History, Chichester, pp. 381-391.

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