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Adam Small Dialogue

Flickr SlideshowThe Adam Small Dialogue: The Philosophy of Social Work: 

“As a university-taught discipline, Social Work is of course a newcomer in the up-march of academic things over time. The foundational ideas and realities underlying Social Work, however are – so to speak – as old as the hills. And philosophical understanding of the meaning of Social Work is essential.”

Those were the words of Prof Adam Small, read in his absence by his wife, Rosalie Small, at the first annual Adam Small Dialogue, held at the University of the Western Cape's (UWC) School of Public Health on Thursday 11 April 2013. The topic under discussion was the Philosophy and Practice of Care.

The Dialogue was held in honour of Prof Adam Small, one of the academic founders of the University of the Western Cape, and its first Head of the Department of Philosophy, later serving as the Head of the Department of Social Work. An activist, he was very much involved in the Black Consciousness Movement - but he's perhaps better-known as a playwright who has written works dealing with racial discrimination and politics.

The greetings and introductions were handled by UWC Social Work lecturer – and master of ceremonies – Glynnis Dykes, who had been lectured by Prof Adam Small in Honours and Masters and spoke about how his teachings were so “out of the box” and “really expanded your mind”.

UWC Rector and Vice-Chancellor Prof Brian O'Connell opened the session, and reminisced about his time in first-year philosophy under Prof Small (“leading to a lot of fun on the Cape Flats spent confusing people with our new philosophical knowledge – not that we always understood what we were saying”).

The Dialogue itself was held between Prof Vivienne Bozalek, Director of Teaching and Learning at UWC and a former colleague of Prof Small, and Dr Rosalie Small, Prof Small's wife, reading her husband's contribution.

Prof Bozalek provided a brief overview of the political ethics of care and introduced the notion of “privileged irresponsibility”: when those who benefit from being in superior positions in a hierarchical system remain oblivious about the part they play themselves in maintaining the system, and do not consider the impact of their actions on those in inferior positions. “One of the privileges of the privileged is to be able to ignore the life experiences of the subjugated,” she explained. “Privileged irresponsibility occurs when those who are privileged absent themselves from any responsibilities that are allocated to caring practices.”

Prof Adam Small's response was largely in agreement with Prof Bozalek's presentation, but there were a few philosophical differences over the idea of privileged irresponsibility. “Surely, “privilege” does not necessarily mean carelessness concerning “others”. It seems to me to be often the case that the privileged person, because of a heightened consciousness, is even more concerned about the neighbour than the unprivileged.” Prof Small did not deny, however, that situations of “privileged irresponsibility” are prevalent in South Africa, or that they need to be addressed.

The very first Adam Small Certificate of Care award was presented at the Dialogue by Prof O'Connell, to acknowledge the bravery of Aisha Bassardien, a final year Social Work student Work student rescued a baby from a burning building in Bo Kaap. “We were passing by when we saw a fire. I knew the people in the house, so we ran in and got a little girl out of the house. There was a blind lady in the house as well, but we couldn't rescue her – another boy got her out.” Aisha took the award in her stride: “I'm very humbled and thankful for this award, but I'm sure that anyone would have done what I did.”

Dialogue attendees were also treated to a performance of extracts from the works of Prof Small (including Kanna hy ko Hystoe,perhaps his most famous and lauded play) by veteran – and respected – South African actors Sandra Kotze and Cobus Rossouw. They showed how powerful and moving Prof Small's work could be, and how it dealt with serious issues faced by South African citizens.

Prof Antjie Krog, Extraordinary Professor in the Faculty of Arts, and a celebrated poet and writer in her own right, expressed her appreciation for the performance and the dialogue. “When one listens to the poetic words of Adam Small, you realise what poetry and creative writing is capable of,” she said.

The event was sponsored by Tafelberg Publishers, Minolta, UWC Bookshop, D&J Stationers, Designtech Printing, the School of Public Health building, Prof C Snell and Mr A Dykes. A painting of Prof Small was unveiled by Prof O'Connell and Prof Hendricks of UWC 's Afrikaans Department (yet more indication of Prof Small's cross-disciplinary impact).