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Promoting the dignity of the marginalised – Adam Small

Promoting the dignity of the marginalised – Adam Small

Paying tribute to a legend, social community worker, activist, scholar, philosopher, poet and writer

In a keynote address at the Adam Small dialogue hosted by the Department of Social Work at UWC in 2015, Di Oliver spoke these words on the theme of helping in social and community work :

 “and some 50 years later, I find myself invited to hone my thinking about the core concept of Social Work in dialogue with Professor Adam Small, philosopher, poet, playwright, writer and social worker.  In my book, he is first and foremost a philosopher-cum-social & community-worker in whom, I believe, we have an outstanding role model for the Social Work profession. In conversation about the theme of today’s Dialogue, Professor Small identified ‘helping’ as core to Social and Community Work and said he always refers to Social and Community Work because they are linked.  I knew no better way of speaking to these concepts…”

Adam Small who died on Saturday 25 June 2016 aged 79 years, was born on 21st of December, 1936 in Wellington, Boland in the Western Cape  in South Africa. He matriculated in 1953 at the St Columbus High School in Athlone on the Cape Flats. He then attended the University of Cape Town where he studied for a degree in Languages and Philosophy. In 1963 he completed an MA (cum laude) on the philosophical thinking of Nicolai Hartmann and Friedrich Nietzsche. During the same time period he studied at the University of London and the University of Oxford.

Adam Small became a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Fort Hare in 1959, and in 1960 he was one of the academic founders of the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and  was appointed Head of the Philosophy Department. In the early 1970’s he  was influenced by the Black Consciousness Movement. By 1973, he was pressured to resign from this position at UWC in solidarity with the Black Consciousness inspired student movement . This prompted a move to Johannesburg, where he became the Head of Student Body Services at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). He returned to Cape Town in 1977and  enrolled for a BA degree in Social Work through UNISA   and became   the Director of the Foundation for Community Work (FCW), an NGO rendering early childhood services, until 1983. In 1984 he returned to UWC as the HOD of the Social Work Department, a position he held until his retirement in 1997.

Most tributes to celebrate the life of the late Adam Small  make special mention of his contributions in the literary field as philosopher, poet, and playwriter. He is mainly remembered for his contributions to ’ Afrikaaps’, but there is less awareness of his overall contributions as a social worker, teacher/ scholar and community activist in the field of social community work. This includes leading substantial developments in community education, and adult education perspectives in the Early Childhood Development (ECD) field.  Professor Small was awarded his first Honorary Doctorate by the University of the Western Cape,  and in 2015 by University of Stellenbosch. He is regarded as one of the most eminent writers of English and Afrikaans literature in South Africa. Belatedly, he was given the prestigious  Hertzog Prize for literature in 2012.  In accepting this prize which only came at the age of 75,   Professor Small said the following: “ Paradoxically, I do understand why the prize could not be awarded to me until now. In the past everything was drenched in apartheid, so it was unthinkable for a person of  so-called colour to receive such recognition” (cited in Mouton’s magazine article as a tribute to this prize; 2012).

In 2013, the Department of Social Work under the leadership of Professor Catherina Schenck UWC hosted the first Adam Small Dialogue to acknowledge his contributions to  Social Work and the Faculty of Community and Health Sciences; in particular his  crosscutting thoughts as a philosopher, social work academic and scholar. Furthermore, in 2015  the second  dialogue theme chosen by Adam Small himself, was presented. This was titled: “Helping:  the Core Concept of Social and Community Work”. At the event on Thursday, 23rd of  July 2015, we as a collective of staff  and students as well as social work alumni wanted to honour his contribution to community care  as part of advancing production  of indigenous knowledge in SA.

His scholarly work  and philosophical ideas which guided his social community work orientation to ‘helping’ could be identified  amongst others as ‘ liberal humanism’ which he blended , lived and practiced with a deep sense of values of humanity , care,  and justice, in  all its complexity in most of his work.  Apart from other  esteemed academic qualifications listed in his  impressive CV ,  Adam  Small  enrolled and  completed  a Bachelor’s of Social Work degree through UNISA.  His unique  display of  an anti-oppressive working class consciousness , socio- political wisdom,  gave new meaning to the interpretation and understanding of Tronto’s (2013) ‘political ethic of care’ perspective.  By respecting  the need to give voice to the oppressed, vulnerable and marginalized (silenced by  ‘powerful elites’ in any society), these issues  are consistently  displayed in  chosen characters  in plays and or poetry. Small’s work thus amicably reflect the five elements or values of attentiveness; responsibility; competency, responsiveness; and trust as outlined in feminist political theory.

Professor Small rejoined UWC as full Professor and HOD of the Social Work staff team in 1984 and  went on early retirement in 1997. Some of his major achievements as an HOD  and Professor in the  Department of Social Work upon his return to UWC in 1984 were:

  • Playing a critical role at a national level in the Joint University Committee  for Schools of Social Work (JUC) during the 1980s in terms of developing national policy around Social Work;
  • Being together with others a founder member of the  current Faculty of Community and Health Sciences (CHS);  managing the transitioning of  the BASW programme to a four-year degree; contributing to the change of Social work  from the Arts Faculty to the CHS Faculty ; and assisting with building a united core faculty identity with  and through initiatives such as the Health and Welfare Mission project and Joint Academic Planning Initiative ( JAPI). Charting the journey for a core Faculty of Community and Health Sciences curriculum to be implemented by  the year 2000 was a major achievement . In all of this his leadership was described as ‘radical and ahead of his time’ ( Vivienne Bozalek cited in Mouton, 2012).
  • Introducing key concepts such as a transformative approach to social policy and curriculum development t; linking  notions  of health and welfare visioning  and missioning in an integrated and holistic way; concretizing the health and welfare  values of the  1978 ALMA ATA declaration, which resulted in an inter-disciplinary (inter-professional curriculum)  working group;  leading  it to one of the first South African  universities  to  integrate the health and community allied caring  professions into undertaking multi-disciplinary modules e.g. dentistry, nursing occupational therapy, physiotherapy, social work, psychology, and sport sciences etc.  The  Introduction to the Philosophy of Care’ (IPOC) module (at 1st year level) emerged out of this development.
  • Leading several Departmental Seminars and Annual Conferences on  alternative policy debates with the broader UWC community and the mass democratic movement;
  • Engaging in team-based curriculum dialogues to incorporate a strong anti-apartheid, justice and care inspired faculty and departmental discourse to specifically incorporate perspectives of poverty and social inequalities before it became ‘popular’, and was open to critical and new ideas regarding rural/urban dynamics. The naming of modules such as “Poverty and Social Renewal”;  ‘Rural Social Work’ were examples  of  some of his key concerns on a difficult period in South Africa’s history.  Contributing to the development of the first UWC post graduate Social Work MA degree.The themes of particular modules such as “Rural Poverty” and “Democracy and Research” reflected the calibre of his proactive stance. True to the vision and mission of the then Rector Jakes Gerwel’s coining of UWC as the ‘University of the Left’, the path  for Social Work under Adam Small inspired the delivery of an anti-apartheid, community-oriented, democratic and contextually relevant curriculum that challenged the dominant oppressive paradigms of the time. This inspired further post-graduate research and study areas for many of the staff  and post-graduate students;
  • Reviewing the  social work curriculum which led to healthy academic debates on the abhorrent apartheid academic system, which resulted in  social mobilization by more politically conscious social work students who played a critical activist role in many community based anti-apartheid  civil society and civic organizations.
  • Being open and warm-hearted  to his students  ” which allowed  for a ‘caring’ and ‘democratic’ approach within the Department. These initiatives were characteristic of a professional style that he modelled within the Department  of Social Work and elsewhere.
  • ‘Being’ there for staff and students (as a fatherly  intellectual figure, a giant moral compass) showing deep respect for self and others, for his compassion and understanding of  human dignity ,  justice and care.
  • Introducing Social Work students to his new terminologies i.e. references to the ‘drama of social work’;
  • For introducing the main characters that were carefully crafted  in dramas like ‘Kanna Hy Ko hystoe’ e.g. foster Mother  (Makiet )  and  foster adult child (Kanna)  representing  universal and social work themes that are still relevant  and researchable in the ‘drama ‘ of social work structures, processes, policies, services and knowledge production.

June 2016

Compiled by Dr Marie L Minnaar-Mcdonald  on behalf of  Department of Social Work (HOD, Staff (current and ex-colleagues), Students and Social Workers)