Professor Adam Small was born on 21 December 1936 in Wellington, Cape Province (now Western Cape) to a mother of Muslim Indian heritage and a slave descendant father. He grew up in a village called Goree after his family moved there a few years after he was born, where his father was a teacher at a primary school. Later, his family moved to Retreat on the Cape Flats in Cape Town, where he discovered the Kaaps vernacular (the dialect of the Cape Peninsula’s Coloured working-class community) that would later characterise his writing.
He matriculated at St Columba’s High School in Athlone in 1953, after which he enrolled at the University of Cape Town, studying towards a BA in languages and philosophy. Thereafter he completed an MA (cum laude) in philosophy, focusing his thesis on thinkers Nicolai Hartmann and Friedrich Nietzsche at the same institution. He studied further at the University of London and University of Oxford before returning to South Africa to lecture philosophy at the University of Fort Hare in Transkei (now Eastern Cape) in 1959, and in 1960, at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) – of which he was one of the founders.
Soon enough, Prof Small would find a particular interest in liberal intellectual thought as well as a strong association with the Afrikaans language – an association which was both linguistic and cultural. He identified as an Afrikaner, which was very controversial during a time when ‘Afrikaner’ was a title reserved only for Afrikaans-speaking White people. Throughout his life, he upheld the idea that one of apartheid’s greatest injustices was that it divided people who shared the same cultural heritage and who spoke the same language based on the difference in the colour of their skin. He saw apartheid as an abomination that stripped people of their right to experience their humaneness.
As a young intellectual, Prof Small strongly advocated using one’s voice, something which he lived by as he actively used his voice to capture the stark reality of life under apartheid, commenting on the challenges that poor and Black people were facing under the regime, such as the forced removal and demolition of District Six and the socio-economic hardships faced by families living on the Cape Flats. He spoke for them using various public platforms– newspaper columns, open letters, his poems, plays, essays, and even public speaking.
He published his first collections of poetry in 1957 called Verse van die Liefde (Love Poems) and Klein Simbool: Prosaverse (Little Symbol: Poetry in Prose Form) in 1958. These were well received and Small was acknowledged as a budding poet. In 1961, he wrote Kitaar My Kruis (Guitar My Cross), which criticised racial discrimination and apartheid policies. Furthermore, his use of the Kaaps vernacular started to become more apparent. During a time when (White) Afrikaner nationalists were promoting ‘pure Afrikaans’ as ‘civilised Afrikaans’ and who saw something like Kaaps as a speech used by lowly, deficient people, Prof Small defended his use of it, arguing that it was a real language and continued to use it in his poems, becoming its biggest defender and promoter. For example, he used it in his poetry collections Sê Sjibbolet (Say Shibboleth, 1963) – which carried the same themes as Kitaar My Kruis – and Oos Wes Tuis Bes Distrik Ses (East West Home Best, 1973) with photographs by Chris Jansen, which paid homage to those that were affected by the forced removals at District Six.
A list of his other works includes his best-known play Kanna Hy Kô Hystoe (Kanna, He Comes Home, 1965); Joanie Galant-hulle (Joanie Galant-them, 1978); Krismis van Map Jacobs (Christmas of Map Jacobs, 1983); his novel Heidesee (1979); A Brown Afrikaner Speaks: A Coloured Poet and Philosopher Looks Ahead (1971); Black Bronze Beautiful (1975); English translation of Oh Wide and Sad Land: Afrikaans poetry of NP van Wyk Louw (195); District Six (1986), with photographer Chris Jansen; Klawerjas (2013); The Orange Earth; Goree; Kô Lat Ons Sing; Maria, Moeder van God (Mary, Mother of God, 2015), his last play; the unpublished poem Trap Der Jeugd (2013); and his long essay Die Eerste Steen (The First Stone) which explored apartheid’s influence on race relations.
The common theme found throughout his works is the focus on the political, social and economic effects of apartheid, especially on the Coloured community. He used his writings as a tool to bring attention to the oppression experienced by the working class at the hands of the apartheid regime, especially speaking up against the Group Areas Act and Population Registration Act. As a result, he became a nuisance to the apartheid government; however, while the security police did make his life miserable, his fame as an Afrikaans writer shielded him from anything further, such as imprisonment.
Nonetheless, his writings are among the few that were allowed under the apartheid syllabus, which gave progressive teachers a rare opportunity to have discussions with their learners about the oppression of Black South Africans as they analysed his poems.
Prof Small is particularly recognised for his resolute to show that Afrikaans was not just the language of the oppressor (i.e. the apartheid government). He wrote mainly in Afrikaans, intending to show how the language could be used just as affectingly, emotionally and purposely by the oppressed. As a result, he was praised for his immense contribution to Afrikaans literature.
His thinking and writing started taking a new shape in the 1970s and he joined the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) early in the decade. He soon became an important campaigner for the movement, even testifying as an expert witness in the well-known South African Student Organisation (SASO) trial. It was during this period that Small began writing the first of several English medium works, however, the majority of his poetry and plays written in English have remained unpublished.
In 1973, while he was the Head of Department of Philosophy at UWC, Prof Small was not permitted to become a member of Senate because he was not White. In June of that same year, following the suspension of students who were protesting against apartheid, Prof Small, being the only Black member of staff, resigned from his position at the university in solidarity with the students, leaving at the beginning of 1974 and moving to Johannesburg prior to returning to Cape Town in 1977. In 1983, he re-joined the university under greatly different circumstances as Head of the Department of Social Work, holding this position until his retirement in 1997. In 1985, he was promoted to Professor and became a permanent member of the Senate of UWC.
In 1993, he accepted the Order for Meritorious Service (Gold) from former President and last National Party (NP) leader, F.W.de Klerk. Additionally, he accepted awards from the Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns, (South African Academy for Science and Art), an academic organisation which previously excluded Black Afrikaans speakers.
Even though he is today regarded as one of the top Afrikaans writers, he was, however, side-lined from being recognised earlier on in his career as literary award committees were often reluctant to give him awards. Only later on in his life did he start to be fully recognised for his literary contribution, receiving numerous literary and cultural awards. Furthermore, he was honoured with four Honorary Degrees from the universities of Natal, now KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), (1981), Port Elizabeth, now Nelson Mandela University (1996), the Western Cape (2001) and Stellenbosch (2015). In 2012, he was presented with the Hertzog Prize and in 2018 Stellenbosch University renamed their theatre complex after him. The university’s Rector and Vice-Chancellor described Prof Small as “one of those critical voices – one of the loudest, in fact, an acclaimed poet, playwright and academic who wrote himself into the very being of the South African nation as compass and moral conscience” (IOL, 2018).
He died at the age of 79 on 25 June 2016 in Cape Town following complications from vein bypass surgery. In July of that same year, his life was celebrated in a production called Adam Small: A Celebration Of A Life at the Artscape Theatre. Before his passing, the musical What About The Law (the title of one of Small’s works), was also performed in tribute to him, to which he was in attendance. In addition, the City of Cape Town awarded him Civic Honours. He is survived by his wife, Rosalie, and his four children.
- Accone, D. (2016). Obituary: Adam Small had words and learning in his blood, [online], Available at: https://mg.co.za/article/2016-06-28-obituary-adam-small-had-words-and-learning-in-his-blood/. (Accessed on 10 June 2020)
- Coloured SA. (2016). Award winning author, poet and playwright, Adam Small. has died. aged 79, [online], Available at: https://www.colouredsa.co.za/profiles/award-winning-author-poet-and-playwright-adam-small-has-died-aged-79. (Accessed on 10 June 2020)
- Evans, J. (2016). Writer, poet Adam Small dies, [online], Available at: https://www.news24.com/news24/southafrica/news/writer-poet-adam-small-dies-20160625. (Accessed on 10 June 2020)
- Hirsch, M. (2016). Adam Small honoured on stage, [online], Available at: https://www.atlanticsun.co.za/news/adam-small-honoured-on-stage-5400375. (Accessed on 10 June 2020)
- IOL. (2018). Big honour for poet and playwright Adam Small, [online[, Available at: https://www.iol.co.za/capeargus/news/big-honour-for-poet-and-playwright-adam-small-18263799. (Accessed on 10 June 2020)
- Willemse, H. (2016). Adam Small, South Africa’s poet, prophet and man of the people, has gone home, [online], Available at: https://theconversation.com/adam-small-south-africas-poet-prophet-and-man-of-the-people-has-gone-home-61758. (Accessed on 10 June 2020)
- Willemse, H. (2016). Tribute- Adam Small (1936-2016) in Tydskrif vir letterkunde, 53(2), pp. 181-185, https://doi.org/10.17159/tvl.v.53i2.15. (Accessed on 10 June 2020)