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  • The Classics and South African Identities by Michael Lambert
  • Adrian Tronson
Michael Lambert. The Classics and South African Identities. Classical Diaspora, Series editor: Sarah Annes Brown. London: Bloomsbury/Bristol Classical Press, 2011. Pp. 160. US $34.95. ISBN 9780715637968.

This slender, interesting volume examines the interplay between Classics and the formation of South Africa’s three politically constructed identities: the Afrikaners, the English-speaking South Africans, and the blacks.1 Using each of these identities as a “theoretical lens” (8), Michael Lambert examines the role of Classics in politics, education and identity from the time of the Dutch settlement at the Cape in 1652 to the post-1994 Rainbow Nation (8, 125). The Introduction and Conclusion examine respectively a local version produced in 1997 of Aeschylus’ Suppliants (11–17) and (126–132) an episode in J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello as literary models to demonstrate how Classics responds to two issues in the post-apartheid era: identity alienation and xenophobia, and concern over the future of the discipline after [End Page 373] 1994, the year Latin ceased to be a requirement for a law degree. Copious endnotes, many based on the minutes of the Classical Association of South Africa (CASA), provide interesting insights into South Africa’s political history after 1956. Unfortunately, the book’s admirable succinctness results in generalization and lack of nuance regarding the complexities of Afrikaner and Anglophone attitudes.

Lambert’s premise of “language . . . as a . . . weapon to exclude the dominated from the governing-class” (33), applies especially to the Afrikaners, who were both the dominated and the dominators. For the Dutch settlers at the Cape and, after annexation in 1815, its British occupiers, a classical education ensured membership of the ruling elite. Controlling access to such an education meant controlling the composition of the elite: for the British, this meant a career in the colonial administration and for the Dutch, membership of the professional class. Since Latin is embedded in Roman-Dutch law, and the ability to read Greek and Hebrew texts and the Latin of Calvin is required of a Dutch Reformed pastor (26, 31, 49), the Oxford-educated Afrikaner classicist T.J. Haarhoff, in his 1938 translation of Vergil’s Georgics, compared the dour Afrikaans boer with the peasant soldier of the Roman Republic (48).2 Classics, therefore, has long played a notable role in South Africa’s politics.

Chapter 1 surveys the rise of Afrikaner identity in response to the colonial government’s imposition of English as the official language and subsequently as the only medium for secondary and tertiary education. To avoid marginalization or assimilation, many Dutch adopted the local vernacular (Afrikaans) as the means of defining themselves as “Afrikaners,” distinct in culture and identity (35, 38). The defeat of the Boer republics in 1901 and the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910 sparked among Afrikaners an aggressive cultural and political nationalism in which Classics played an important role, especially after 1925 when Afrikaans became the second official language (45). In the 1940s, Latin and Greek grammar books, as well as translations and editions of classical works, became available in Afrikaans for use in high schools and universities (46). After the Nationalists had ousted Smuts’s pro-British United Party in 1948, a group of young [End Page 374] Afrikaans academics founded the bilingual Classical Association of South Africa (CASA) in 1956, to promote Latin in white schools and Afrikaans as an academic language (22), and to provide a forum in which members of both language groups could present papers, exchange ideas and publish articles in the journal Acta Classica.3

Lambert maintains that the political climate enabled Afrikaners to appropriate the teaching and propagation of Classics (44) and explains how in the 1950s the Nationalists implemented the policies of Separate Development (“grand apartheid”) and Christian National Education (44). Whites were educated to be the master race and blacks restricted to vocational training in separate schools and in state-controlled ethnic universities where Latin and Greek were taught (by whites) at the elementary level required for entry into law and the ministry (146, n. 18).4 The only independent black university, Fort Hare in...


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