Nothing small about Adam

Adam Small – the coloured Afrikaner intellectual and literary great who died last Saturday (June 25) at the age of 79 – experienced the bitter fruits of being ostracised by the political and cultural establishments throughout the apartheid era and even during democracy.

A principled loner, a complex individual and a philospher-thinker, Small was capable of carrying within himself a range of potentially conflicting ideas that may appear at odds with the received wisdom of others.

Born in Wellington to a Muslim mother and a Calvinist preacher-teacher, he moved to Retreat on the Cape Flats as a young boy when his father was appointed to a post at a local school.

He excelled at the Catholic schools where his parents enrolled him and, going on to the University of Cape Town, earned accolades for a brilliant master’s thesis on Friedrich Nietzsche before studying under scientific philosopher Karl Popper at the London School of Economics.

In 1959 he was appointed as a philosophy lecturer at the University of Fort Hare but left a year later to join the newly-formed University of the Western Cape as head of the philosophy department.

By then he already had published volumes of poetry and he became highly regarded within the Sestigers literary movement along with Andre Brink and Breyten Breytenbach.

In the 1970s, Small was an influential academic in the Black Consciousness Movement and its student formations.

He resigned from UWC in support of protesting students in 1973 and, after a brief stint in Johannesburg, re-established himself as a social worker in Cape Town.

He eventually retired as head of the department of social work at UWC in 1997.

But it was as a writer, satirist and social commentator that Small made his most telling contribution to South Africa.

Small wrote in the Cape Flats Afrikaans Kaaps patois and was probably single-handedly responsible for bringing the language of the oppressed coloured people of the Western Cape into the mainstream.

His role in entrenching this cultural expression was not without contestation, with “uppity” coloureds accusing him of denigrating their community, and some non-racialists, especially from a Unity Movement perspective, going as far as criticising a perceived promotion of National Party dogma by his assertion that he too was an Afrikaner.

Small regarded Kaaps as a language in its own right that carried the burdens and destiny of the people who spoke it, the people who gave their first scream at birth in that language and who uttered their final breath in it.

It didn’t help Small’s standing within the liberation movements in the 1960s that he disavowed the armed struggle as a means of over-throwing apartheid.

His poetry was cutting about the political and social conditions of (especially) coloured people, even as his writings often explored principles that were universally accessible.

As a result, it is no surprise that his 1965 drama “Kanna hy ko hystoe” about the conflict between individual aspirations and social expectations, was translated into English and staged in American theatres to acclaim.

He was also an accurate observer of what was happening in local communities – for example, his criticism of modern day preachers who preyed on the underclass to establish great riches on earth for themselves.

Biblical themes from the Old Testament, most notably Moses’ representations on behalf of his people living in exile in Egypt and his leadership of them to the Promised Land, are recurring metaphors in his writing for what happened in South Africa as the National Party entrenched its oppressive policies on the majority.

Music and humour played key roles in his writings and interpretation and his “Ko lat ons sing” was a call which resonated with people in times of trouble and celebration.

Small’s life and work were discussion points even in my own English-speaking home when I was growing up. When his writings first came to me at the start of my high school, it had a profound impact on my own sense of non-racialism and rejection of unjust laws.

In latter years, Small appeared to disavow the liberal and non-racial principles of his earlier years as a student, writer and academic, flirting with conservative groupings in the Afrikaner establishment, seemingly happy to court any support he could find.

Perhaps the lonely walk, even if he brought a feisty devil-may-care air to it, had taken its toll. Small’s list of accolades is surprisingly thin.

At the instigation of local writer Jason Lloyd and others, he was awarded the Herzog Prize in 2012. It was 50 years too late – a criticism raised by Brink and other writers of the Sestigers movement. And while a number of universities ultimately joined the University of Natal in awarding him honorary degrees, he was never feted in the same way as others.

He was given the SA Order for Meritorious Service by President FW de Klerk in 1993 but, according to published biographies, there are no awards from the post-apartheid government. —

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