Informative and penetrating

2011-06-29 00:00

Reviewing a book written by a long-time colleague and a friend is a daunting challange to the reviewer's objectivity. Readers of this review should bear that in mind.

This erudite, witty, thoroughly researched book is offered “as a self-questioning and critical response to the South African classical tradition”, and examines the whole business of the history, the teaching, the relevance (if any), and the reception of classical studies in South Africa, from the country’s earliest occupation by Dutch settlers until the present.

Inevitably, the book looks at the often tortured and frequently axe-grinding entanglement of classical studies with racial politics; and so Lambert has titled his three chapters “The Classics and Afrikaner Identities”, “The Classics and English-speaking South African Identities”, and “The Classics and Black South African Identities”.

As is clear, the book deals with red-hot issues, notably the conflicts and occasional bridge-building between the three major linguistic/cultural/ethnic groupings of the country (if we include so-called coloured and Indian South Africans under “black”).

For that reason, the book could be of interest to a far wider readership than simply South African classicists: its frequent treatment of the big political movements and figures of our tormented history is highly informative and penetrating.

Its pages are peopled by iconic figures: Cecil Rhodes, T. J. Haarhoff, Jan Hofmeyr, J. T. Jabavu, Robert Grendon, Chris Hani, Nelson Mandela and several others. It examines institutions like Lovedale, Zonnebloem, Fort Hare and Mariannhill, and it constantly foregrounds the ongoing and often heated debate about the relevance of classics to South Africa, past and present.

No doubt the book would be of primary interest to South African classics teachers and scholars. But as suggested above, it could well appeal to others — ethnologists, political scientists, linguists, sociologists, educators at various levels and historians. By any criteria, it is a solid and fascinating piece of work.

David Pike  

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