The SA Shakespeare media roadshow: Fiddling while Rome burns?

A few weeks ago, there was another brief kerfuffle over Shakespeare's place on the curriculum at South African high schools. Shakespeare scholar, editor of the journal Shakespeare in Southern Africa and occasional troublemaker, Chris Thurman, was asked to weigh in on the matter. In this post he shares both his pleasure and his discomfort at tackling the topic of Shakespeare-in-schools when, to put it mildly, South Africans had more urgent fish to fry.  


On a Monday morning, towards the end of March, my phone rang. It was Stephen Grootes, host of the Midday Report on sister radio stations 702 and Cape Talk. I’ve been on Stephen’s show a few times before, talking about writers and artists in a five-minute segment he allocates at the end of his hour to news that isn’t quite “hard news”. As a journalist Stephen is always half a step ahead of the news cycle and – because I’m usually at least a few steps behind – I know that when he calls me in the morning, a famous author has died overnight, or a new painting of the presidential penis is doing the rounds on social media, and I’d better do some research and develop an opinion on the matter because he wants me to share it with his listeners in a few hours’ time.



On this occasion, however, I was already prepared. Like Stephen, I had read an article in the Business Day announcing: “Shakespeare may be taken out of classroom”. It followed a comment by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga regarding “decolonisation” and curriculum review. In reply to a parliamentary question from the DA, Motshekga had affirmed vaguely that “the consideration of the works of Shakespeare is an aspect of the overall literature review process targeted for 2020”.


For people in my line of work, talk about decolonising Shakespeare is neither scary nor new (one of the first blog posts on ShakespeareZA was an account by Lliane Loots of the “Decolonising Shakespeare” colloquium held in Durban last October, papers from which will be published in a special issue of the journal Shakespeare in Southern Africa later this year). But the prospect of Shakespeare’s removal from the high school curriculum evidently struck a collective national nerve. For the next two weeks, as Jacob Zuma did his best to torpedo the South African economy and entrench his position as looter-in-chief of the public purse – and as the country’s citizens vented their anger at state capture – I was asked again and again for comment on the Bard (a moniker I don’t particularly like, by the way, but that’s a blog for another day).    


If I’d known that I would subsequently have many more opportunities to talk about the Shakespeare-in-schools issue, I wouldn’t have tried to fit so much into a few minutes on the Midday Report. But I didn’t know, so I did try, which meant that I spoke very fast – as I usually do when a topic enthuses me – too fast, apparently, for the behind-the-scenes team at 702, who introduced their podcast of the discussion by affirming that “Prof Chris Thurman of the English department at Wits University says William Shakespeare no longer has relevance for South African children.” As you can imagine, this would be a rather controversial (not to mention hypocritical) position for the president of the Shakespeare Society of Southern Africa to adopt.


What I actually said, in response to Stephen’s opening question, “Does Shakespeare still have relevance for South African children today?”, was that “The short answer, the easy answer, might be no...” I then went on to give a slightly longer, less easy answer! It was a refrain I’d be repeating, with variations, over the fortnight to come:


- teaching Shakespeare at university, as I do, is very different to teaching him at high school

- studying Shakespeare can be an invigorating and inspiring experience if teachers have the requisite knowledge and skills, and schools have the resources to give their learners access to the plays in performance

- translation of Shakespeare’s plays into South African languages has been a limited success but needs to be pursued more rigorously, both for the classroom and the stage (and screen)

- high school learners can encounter Shakespeare outside of the formal curriculum (for example through the Shakespeare Schools Festival)

- Shakespeare’s work can shine a light on South Africa’s past and present, and vice-versa, but we have to avoid easy recourse to cliché terms like “universal genius” in understanding Shakespeare’s global presence – he is connected, whether we like it or not, to a centuries-long colonial process in countries like SA; and he is linked to debates about the role of the English language in this country, as well as English cultural and linguistic imperialism.


(A different version of these points can be found at The Conversation, after that fine platform’s education editor, Natasha Joseph, sent me some questions to answer. Undoubtedly, Natasha also came up with the best headline on the subject, “Shakespeare in South African schools: to die, to sleep – or perchance to dream?”)


There was more of the same on Cape Talk’s Breakfast with Kieno Kammies the next day, as Kieno quizzed Motshekga’s spokesperson, Troy Martens, along with me. On this occasion I found myself referring to “pearl-clutching” in describing the response of shock and horror that some people have to the claim that Shakespeare does not automatically merit special treatment and need not get priority ahead of other authors. It seems a useful image to convey an unnecessary over-reaction. If “pearl-clutching” implies a certain demographic, however, it is inadequate. As I was reminded when listeners phoned in during a longer interview with Rowena Baird on SAfm (a really enjoyable discussion, of which unfortunately there is no record), Shakespeare’s most ardent fans – like his most strident detractors – come from all categories of age, race, class and gender.


By this stage, word of Shakespeare’s impending exit from SA’s classrooms (Shaxit?) had spread to the UK – where there is, of course, a strong investment in Shakespeare’s global status. A student at the University of Warwick, writing in campus publication The Boar, fretted over a (much-misquoted) professor, one Chris Thurman, who appeared to be an advocate of “excising Shakespeare’s work from the curriculum altogether”. Luckily, when the BBC picked up on the story, I could position myself between the PRO and ANTI Shakespeare camps – because I am not in the business of proselytising, but I am interested in the reasons that learners leave high school with such strongly divergent views on Shakespeare. And my fellow interviewee, Charlotte Scott of Goldsmith’s college, made it clear that an enthusiastic awareness of what Shakespeare can mean and do and be for learners is not at odds with (and in fact should be informed by) an equal awareness of the difficulties that Shakespeare presents.



It was fortunate that, between all this talk about talking about Shakespeare, I had the opportunity to travel to the University of Pretoria to see DCoriolanus – a devised student production (conceived and directed by Myer Taub) that, as the title suggests, was crucially concerned with what “Decolonising Shakespeare” might mean for and in performance. I wrote about the experience of watching DCoriolanus in my weekly Business Day dispatch. What I didn’t mention in the column was that I joined a panel discussion after the show in which a few of the panelists – myself included – expressed disquiet about my compromised place as a white male English professor presuming to hold forth about decolonisation.     


To complete the circle, I ended up back at 702. This time it was for The Literature Corner with Eusebius McKaiser and a more leisurely conversation, not just about Shakespeare in schools but about Shakespeare in SA more generally. This gave me the chance to do my “Shakespeare and the ANC” bit again, making the case that understanding the shifting attitudes towards Shakespeare of prominent members of the ruling party (from Sol Plaatje to Thabo Mbeki, perhaps via Nelson Mandela on Robben Island) can give us tremendous insight into the organisation’s contradictions and, indeed, into our current moment of crisis under Jacob Zuma. This is basically a synopsis of a seminar elective I’m teaching to a group of Wits University second years, but sharing it seemed apposite because I knew that there were more urgent conversations to have. My overwhelming sense, from my first interview with Stephen Grootes, was that we were taking up time on the airways that could better be allocated to the country’s BIG PROBLEMS (both acute and chronic). There are, of course, various responses that might allay such anxieties. One is that media consumers don’t only want to listen to, watch or read about Zuma, even though his cabal represents a clear and present danger to South Africa’s democracy. Another is that it would be rather arrogant to assume, if I was on TV or radio talking about the reasons behind the president’s proclivity for firing competent finance ministers, that my opinions might have any influence on the matter. I would have done better to join a protest march.


Instead, something better happened in the discussion with Eusebius. My fellow guest, Deborah Seddon of Rhodes University, rightly shifted the focus to the South African secondary education system more broadly. She warned of the risk that Minister Motshekga and others in government may choose the low-hanging fruit of paying lip service to decolonisation rather than fixing schools and the material conditions under which most learning takes place (or doesn’t take place) in this country. Talking to Eusebius and Deborah about the failings of our school system, I was reminded again that discussing Shakespeare’s place on the curriculum – and the wider topic of his history in SA – is not at odds with discussing economic inequality, or racism and sexism, or poor policies, or bad appointments, or skewed spending priorities.


Shakespeare is so embedded in education in SA that he is, whether we like it or not, part of the problem. But the good news is that – if we can find more nuanced ways of talking about him, of studying and translating and performing his plays – he may also be part of the solution.