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Pieter Jacobus Conradie: An appreciation.

Pieter Jacobus Conradie is one of the few Afrikaans-speaking male South African Classicists who came to the discipline because of love for the Classics and not because of a calling to the ministry. That is, he did not discover Greek at university when starting theological studies, but was already inspired at school by his Latin teacher to a life-long love affair with the ancient world. It was during Piet's stint at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands that this love affair found a new direction: Greek mythology as it was told and retold in dramatic form, not only by the ancients, but as it still is today, and even in modern African theatre.

As eldest son of a Dutch Reformed minister, the young Piet Conradie had a varied schooling, as the family moved from manse to manse. He was born in Grahamstown on February 1931, lived in Loxton in the Karoo for a short while, and then the family moved to Rondebosch in the Cape. Piet matriculated at the Nassau High School in Rondebosch, after which he enrolled for a BA at the University of Cape Town. The late Professor J.P.J. Van Rensburg, Conradie's predecessor in the Chair of Greek at the University of Stellenbosch, on occasion told of the concern with which the elder Conradie came to consult him about his son's apparently rather futile choice of career: he wanted to become a 'Classics lecturer'. Young Piet was to prove his father's concern gloriously fruitless, for the brilliant young undergraduate, who moved from the University of Cape Town to Stellenbosch after his first year, passed his BA with Greek and Latin cum laude at the University of Stellenbosch (1950), and went on to graduate studies, ending with a D. Litt. et Phil. from Utrecht (1958).

Piet's other subjects for his first degree were History and Afrikaans, and he also successfully completed third-year Hebrew during the first year of his MA studies, while already teaching a variety of courses in Classics. His teaching career started in 1951, when he took over teaching Latin at beginners' level. In the first years the young 'temporary junior lecturer' had to teach courses in Beginners' Latin and Greek IB (a course designed for the less able Greek students who were obliged to reach a certain sub-minimum of proficiency for the sake of their theological studies). His own stint in Holland was from September 1954 until the beginning of 1958, and on his return, young Piet grew bolder and demanded to be allowed to teach thirdyear Greek (when the unwilling, force-fed theologians had gone their way and only dedicated students remained).

Piet Conradie had 'discovered' Greek tragedy while reading for his dissertation, which was published at Utrecht in 1958 as Herakles en die Griekse Tragedie. His interest had previously been piqued by a production by Fred Engelen and Tine Balder of the Antigone of Anouilh. In Holland part of his prescribed reading was the whole of Thucydides, all of Sophocles, all Aeschylus's works, but 'only five plays of Euripides', he says. Soon after his return Piet Conradie became one of the academics instrumental in instituting Classical Culture as a separate course of studies at Stellenbosch. He considers the success and popularity of the three-year course in Greek drama that remained his particular domain until his retirement in 1994, as his crowning achievement, and it also was his 'greatest love'. It was a joy to him to awaken young minds to the magnificence of the ancient dramas, and to help them to explore, from first to third year, the great Nachlebung that Greek theatre has acquired through the centuries, from Anouilh and Goethe to Hofmannsthal and O'Neill, and more recently, various African playwrights.

Piet has wonderful memories from a long and distinguished teaching career. On being asked to recall some of the funniest incidents, Piet remembers one young lady who always requested a postponement of each assignment and every test, until she was about to go overseas, and had to meet his deadline. He remembers with a chuckle the large young rugby player who took umbrage at Piet's quiet amusement at the athlete's odd translations from Latin. There was very little relationship apparent between the Latin text and the young footballer's Afrikaans words. It took a deal of tactful explanation that he was laughing at the metaphorical 'ball' and not at the 'player', to prevent his being involved in a melee. A student, the son of an acquaintance, on occasion telephoned Piet about the possibility of a viva voce. Soon after came a third person with the report that the young man concerned had committed suicide. He was much relieved when Piet could assure him that he had just been speaking to the 'corpse' on the telephone. On another occasion, he says, a young lady who had been summoned for a viva voce arrived 'dressed to kill' as he tactfully puts it, and he and Professor Van Rensburg had found it difficult to concentrate on the young lady's face and not the appearance of her garb. 'I wasn't used to women in class in those days', he explains, for in the early years, when he had taught Greek for theological studies only, Greek had been a solely male domain. Saddest for him were the earnest young theologians who were unable to pass, try as they might, as they were academically unsuited to achieving the required minimum of proficiency in Greek that the Dutch Reformed church set for entry to the Seminary.

From this may be deduced that Piet Conradie was a kindly and inspiring teacher. His calm manner belies a dry sense of humour that hugely contributed to the charm of his classes. He was diligent and meticulous in preparation for every class, and expected equal diligence from any student who enrolled for his subject. He would probably say that he demanded such diligence but did not expect it, human--and student--nature being what it is. He was advanced to the position of associate professor in 1972, becoming full professor two years later. On the retirement of Professor Van Rensburg in 1977, Piet Conradie took over the Chair of Greek at Stellenbosch and became Head of Department, in which position he continued for a year after his official retirement in 1995.

As researcher Piet Conradie concentrated on the Nachlebung of Greek myth and drama in world literature, but especially in Afrikaans literature. In spite of a heavy teaching load, he published close on seventy articles in various literary journals, not only in those devoted to the Classics. These ranged from Acta Classica to Teater S.A., the South African Journal for Literature and Journal for the Humanities, Standpunte, Literator and the S.A. Theatre Journal, as well as several Festschriften and occasional publications. After contributing from its inception to the Stellenbosch Classical Newsletter (that later became Akroterion), he became its editor in 1987, serving for about eight years.

Besides his published dissertation, Conradie has six other books to his name, some being specifically aimed at aspects of undergraduate training. Predictably the titles of his research papers indicate a keen interest in Greek drama and its Nachlebung, with the names of Western authors predominating, such as Anouilh, Cocteau, Hofmannsthal, Van Wyk Louw, Leipoldt, Opperman, Gerhart Hauptmann, Brecht, Andre Brink, Corneille, T.S. Eliot, O'Neill, Bartho Smit, Winckelmann, Nietzsche, Racine, Henriette Grove and Theo Wassenaar. By the early 1990s the Africans Wole Soyinka and Ola Rotimi began to feature. Piet's interest in African drama inspired by classical myths continued after his retirement. In 2000 he published 'Tragic conflicts in three African plays' in the South African Theatre Journal (pp. 129-45). This article had been preceded by a paper (in Afrikaans) on the reception of some Afrikaans productions of Greek tragedies, that was published in Akroterion 33 (pp. 14-23) in the previous year. These papers were followed in 2003 by 'Recent criticism and Hegel's interpretation of Sophocles' Antigone', in a publication honouring W.J. Henderson (edited by A.F. Basson and W.J. Dominik): Literature, Art, History: Studies in Classical Antiquity and Tradition (Frankfurt am Main, Peter Lang) 197-210. A complete bibliography of Conradie's research up to his retirement may be consulted in Akroterion 41. 3-4 (1996) 199-203.

Conradie also contributed greatly to the academic and intellectual life of South Africa, serving in various capacities on the executive of the Classical Association of South Africa, at both the branch and national levels. This included a term as its Chair (1975-1976). In 2003 he was elected Honorary Vice-President of CASA, as a tribute to his stature as teacher and academic. He also served on the board of the South African National Library, and served in various capacities in the Stellenbosch chapter of the South African Academy for Science and Arts, was treasurer of the Afrikaans Writers' Circle and secretary of the University Teachers' Association at Stellenbosch. As avid mountaineer he was an active member of the Mountain Club of South Africa until about 1976.

Professor Piet Conradie is being honoured in this edition of the flagship journal of the South African Classical Association for his contribution to the study of classical drama in South Africa, but also as a dedicated teacher and a popular colleague. Generations of students will remember him as 'Piet Grieks', the single-minded cyclist on his thick-wheeled bicycle with its ticking pedometer that shows him as intrepid explorer who, in terms of distance, has circled the globe more than once without taking his bicycle outside the limits of Stellenbosch town. Metaphorically speaking, Piet Conradie has circled the aeons, bringing a love for ancient Greek drama to South Africa today.

Jo-Marie Claassen

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Author:Claassen, Jo-Marie
Publication:Acta Classica
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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