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#ClassicsMustFall? Monument-mindedness in contemporary South Africa

Grant Parker

Stanford University

How might we make sense of classical reception in South Africa today? Nearly a full generation has emerged since Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, and there are plenty of criteria by which to evaluate change and continuity. In one sense, the place of classics came rudely to the fore when the Rhodes Must Fall movement started focusing attention on colonial and apartheid symbols, many of them classicizing. Most famously, the statue of Cecil John Rhodes on the University of Cape Town campus was defaced by protesters and then removed by the University administration in March–April 2015. Protests elsewhere met with varying results.

There is no need in this presentation to rehearse the story: it is well known and current. Rather, it is fair to say that several points emerge, variably relevant to classical reception in postcolonial contexts. In the shadow of Rhodes Must Fall, it is possible to identify different ways of thinking about classics in contemporary South Africa, now that the history of classics has been outlined with regard to different racial groups (Lambert 2011). As Michael Lambert (2011) shows, ancient Greece and Rome have been part of racial identities and civilizational discourses throughout South Africa’s colonial history. Today the critical study of classics holds enormous potential for rethinking the very notions of race, ethnicity and civilization per se, in relation to their historical contingencies.

What has been the place of classics in South African society? We may use either a filibuster paradigm or a palette paradigm. By this I mean that, in the first case, it is easy to conceive classics as a means of suppressing the voices of subordinate people. In South Africa and elsewhere, classical columns have been a ready formula for asserting colonial authority in education, law and other elements of the state. Obvious as this may seem, it is also a subtle matter, given that there are few cases of explicit conflict between classical and indigenous pasts, and we need to read between the lines. By contrast, it is also true that ancient Greece and Rome have provided a palette of expressive possibilities, not circumscribed by knowledge of Greek and Latin. For example, Mandela referred to Dido in one of his first official speeches as president, among African leaders at Tunis in 1994; compare Hans Huyssen’s CD, Remember Dido (2006), in which African music is performed on European period instruments. The artist Nandipha Mntambo has repeatedly reinterpreted Narcissus and the Minotaur in order to represent the female body, e.g. Metamorphoses (2015). Such mythical figures, no less than Electra, Medea and Antigone on the stage, have allowed a wide range of South Africans to explore identities, voices and perspectives at a time of social change.

Furthermore, the status of classics in South African society might be conceived as that of either a monument or a memorial. Here I draw on a distinction made in discussions of Vietnam War and holocaust commemorations (Young 1994). In South Africa it has generally been assumed that classical monuments such as UCT’s Rhodes statue by their very nature celebrate colonialism, in triumphal style; all of antiquity is tarred with the same brush. But such a monumental conception of classics overlooks its creative and political potential. Justice Albie Sachs (2015), responding to Rhodes Must Fall, pointedly commented that the physical reframing—rather than removal—of controversial monuments and artworks would be a more powerful statement about social justice. What, we might ask, would it take to reframe South African classics? The process has already begun. Indeed, the sooner we discard the monument paradigm, the more productively South Africa’s many-faceted classical tradition will seem like memorials challenging viewers and readers to face up to unresolved pasts, and to see the broader dynamics of history, including the hopes and fears of all those involved.

Session/Panel Title

Theorizing Ideologies of the Classical: Turning Corners on the Textual, the Masculine, the Imperial, and the Western

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