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  • A South African Classicist In Troubled Times
  • John Hilton

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KENNETH OGILVIE MATIER (13/06/1934 – 26/12/2017)

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Of all the Classicists of British extraction who have worked in South Africa, Professor Kenneth Ogilvie Matier1 is one who stands out clearly for the degree to which, over the course of his life, he became integrated with his adoptive country. His education began in Scotland at Busby School, Clarkston, and at Hutchesons’ Grammar School, Glasgow (1943–1947).2 Like many others, his family joined the wave of emigration from the United Kingdom to South Africa and other British Commonwealth countries in the bleak years of austerity following World War II,3 and his schooling was completed at Wynberg Boys’ High School (1947–1950) in Cape Town. Here, and later as a BA student at UCT (1951–1953),4 he studied Afrikaans [End Page 1] in addition to Latin and English.5 (He was very proud of obtaining an ‘A’ for Afrikaans in matric6 and of later passing the Afrikaans Taalbond exams.) He taught briefly at the University of Fort Hare in Alice, near Grahamstown (1954), and at Rhodes University in Grahamstown (1955–1957), during which time he also completed his BA Honours degree, before taking up a short-lived teaching post in Glasgow (1958–1960). He obtained an MA degree at Aberdeen under Professor William Smith Watt (1961–1963), who was editing the OCT text of Cicero’s letters at the time (1958–1982), and who stimulated K.’s lifelong interest in Cicero.7 Thereafter, K. took up a position as Lecturer in Classics at the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (1963–1964), before returning to Rhodes, where he taught for twenty years (1965–1984). During this time (on the 6th of January 1968) he married Rosemary Bach of Wolmaransstad, a town in the erstwhile province of Transvaal, and together they raised and educated two daughters, Jean and Fiona, who still reside in South Africa.8 In 1985 he was appointed as Professor of Classical Languages at the University of Durban-Westville, a position he retained until his retirement in 1998, when the UDW Classics department, together with Theology and Foreign Languages (including Sanskrit and Arabic), was closed down a few years before the merger with the University of Natal. [End Page 2]

K. was a whole-hearted supporter of Classics in South Africa. He maintained his membership of the Classical Association of South Africa (CASA) loyally for many years, and served on the executive board of the Association for eight years in all: four as Secretary (1983–1986),9 two as Chairperson (1987–1988), and two as Vice-Chairperson (1989–1990). He served his two years as Vice-Chairperson in order to assist the new incumbent of the chair, Dawie Kriel, in the campaign to retain Latin as a prerequisite for law degrees. K. later looked on his participation in the fight to maintain this requirement, which was led by Kriel and which culminated in their meeting with the then Minister of Justice, Kobie Coetzee, as his ‘finest hour’. It certainly represented a unique example of cooperation between Afrikaans- and English-speaking Classicists in a common cause and deferred the abolition of the Latin requirement for five years.

The issue was complicated and has been commented on before,10 but it is well worth revisiting. Briefly, because South African Law has been so deeply influenced by Roman Law, and because many Roman Law texts remain untranslated, clause 3(2)(a)(ii) of the Admision of Advocates Act 74 of 1964 made it a legal requirement for lawyers and advocates to obtain a tertiary qualification in Latin before they could be admitted as legal practitioners. This is turn raised the question of how much Latin was needed at university to comply with the Act and, since most university courses were spread over an entire academic year at this time, a minimum of one year of Latin became established as the norm, although there were disparities at different universities in the interpretation of the rule and in the standard actually achieved.

The ripples excited by this controversy were eventually...


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