Reimagining History to Alter the Future: Demea’s Interrogation of Two Colonial Ideologies

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In the nineteen-fifties, South African scholar and poet Guy Butler wrote Demea, an adaptation of Euripides’ masterwork, Medea. The play carried with it a strong message against apartheid and a possible solution for South Africa’s future. Due to government censorship, the play went unpublished and unperformed for nearly four decades. With the abolition of apartheid in 1990, national mythologies were struck down, and people were left to reframe their memories according to the new South African socio-political paradigm. The long overdue production and subsequent publication of Demea provided South Africa with a reimagined history and proposed a way of moving forward as a nation.

            By placing the events of Demea during the Great Trek of the nineteenth century, Butler is able to criticize the present and conceive a possible future by looking through the lens of the past. Butler sets up two treks. The first is historically accurate, and led by the Creon character, Kroon. This trek exemplifies European colonialism. The second trek, of Butler’s own construction, is composed not of Boers, but of people of diverse racial backgrounds. This imaginary trek, led by Jonas (the Jason character), mirrors the Greek archaic colonial ideology. Thus, Demea offers an interrogation of two national mythologies regarding colonialism, ultimately proposing a solution to apartheid in the form of an altered history.

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Emerging Scholars