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Adam Small Tribute

Adam Small (1936-2016)

The passing of Prof Adam Small on 24 June 2016 is a great loss to South Africa’s cultural and intellectual life and to Afrikaans literature in particular. Small, who described himself at one time as a loner and individual, was a fearless critic of the apartheid system, racial discrimination and social injustices. In his life and work he identified with the downtrodden and less fortunate and actively sought to alleviate their plight and to bring about a more just and humane society. Our former rector and student of Small, the late Prof Jakes Gerwel, described him as one of a few university-based intellectuals whose influence reached far beyond academia.

He was born on 21 December 1936 in Wellington in the Boland. His paternal family attended the Dutch Reformed Church while his mother’s family is Muslim. These different influences instilled in him a sense of cultural and religious tolerance at an early age. He was raised on the farm De Goree outside Robertson, where his father served the farm labourers as school principal, community leader, and lay preacher. In his earliest recollections he recalled the orange colour of the soil as well as the simplicity and poverty of the people.

The family moved to Retreat on the Cape Flats when his father became the principal at the local school. This was where Small acquainted himself with Kaaps, the vernacular which he used so eloquently in his writing. Thereafter he attended several Catholic schools before matriculating in 1953. He enrolled at the University of Cape Town for a degree in Languages and Philosophy and obtained an M.A. cum laude with a thesis on the philosophy of Nicolai Hartmann and Friedrich Nietzsche.

Small was appointed as lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Fort Hare in 1959 and assumed the same position at the then University College of the Western Cape in 1960. He was the first black staff member appointed at the institution.  In the early Seventies he became involved in the activities of the Black Consciousness Movement and the student organization SASO. He led a protest against the conservative leadership at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and staged a march off campus after which he was forced to resign. He relocated to Johannesburg for some time and worked at the University of Witwatersrand’s student services before he returned to Cape Town in 1977. In 1983 he rejoined UWC as head of the Department of Social Work and remained here until his retirement in 1997.

Small debuted in 1957 with Verse van die liefde followed by Klein simbool (1958), a collection of short prose sketches and aphorisms. The long essay Die eerste steen? (1961) laments the detrimental influence of apartheid on race relations.

A persistent theme in Small’s work is the depiction of the lives of the oppressed people and working class under apartheid. In his poetry collections Kitaar my kruis (1961) and Sê Sjibbolet (1963) he criticizes the policies of forced removals, race classification, discrimination and separate amenities. Small is credited as the first poet to use Kaaps as literary medium and in doing so he legitimized the different varieties of Afrikaans and added value to the life experiences of its speakers. It is part of his legacy that a number of contemporary poets and performers are continuing to use Kaaps in their work.

In Oos Wes Tuis Bes Distrik Ses (1973), a book of poems with photographs by Chris Jansen, Small pays homage to the destruction of this tragic historical landmark in South African history.

In the midst of the Black Consciousness Movement in 1975 he published a collection of quatrains titled Black bronze beautiful. These verses bear testimony to pride in blackness, black history and culture, and propagate the solidarity of black people in their struggle against white oppression. These lyrical verses celebrate black beauty and praise the aesthetic attributes of blackness.

Small is regarded as a leading playwright with Kanna hy kô hystoe (1965) undoubtedly a pinnacle in the Afrikaans literary canon.

The play deals with an individual who is torn between his own ambitions and the expectations of his people. His family has sacrificed a lot to afford him a decent education and has fallen prey to poverty and dire socio-economic circumstances, while hoping that he will one day uplift them. The play puts the spotlight on the political system that imprisons people in their desperate social environment and explores the question of man’s responsibility for his deeds. Critics praised the use of conventions of the Brechtian epic theater and the way it experimented with music, decor, and time.

The first staging of the play was directed by Small himself for the UWC Drama Society. Prof Charlyn Dyers, a lecturer in the Linguistics department, played the role of Makiet, the courageous mother figure.

His other plays include Joanie Galant-hulle (1978) which deals with the forced removal of the Anthony family from their home in Woodstock and their subsequent travails on a Cape Flats rife with gang violence and poverty. Krismis van Map Jacobs (1983) explores an individual’s search for identity and his guilt after an act of violence perpetrated against his family for which he was partly responsible. The unpublished play The Orange Earth (1984) has autobiographical elements and refers to the colour of the soil where he spent most of his childhood years.

In the nineties Small withdrew from the public domain. The publication of his anthology Klawerjas in 2013 marked his return to public life. The title refers to the popular card game played in the UWC cafeteria during the struggle years. At the time of his death he wrote a column in the Cape Times in which he reaffirmed his belief in liberal values and commitment to dialogue.

Small was awarded an honorary doctorate by UWC’s Faculty of Arts in 2001. The Afrikaans Department hosted a symposium on his life and work in 2011 and the papers were published in Tydskrif vir Letterkunde. The Department of Social Work introduced an annual event, the Adam Small dialogues, in honor of his contribution to their discipline. This veneration by his intellectual home was very dear to Small.

UWC has lost a great son and we celebrate his life and work in his well-known credo: Kô lat ons sing! (Come let us sing!).

Prof Small is survived by his wife, Dr Rosalie Small who retired from the department of Educational Studies at UWC in 2012, as well as four children.