Farewell to celebrated poet and academic

Adam Small, a Heathfield resident, died at the weekend.

Professor Adam Small will be remembered for his work as both a writer, an activist and disruptor of the apartheid system.
The famous Afrikaans poet died over the weekend, at the age of 79. The Atlantic Sun spoke to Oranjezicht resident and fellow Afrikaans writer, Professor Antjie Krog about the significance of Mr Small’s work.
Professor Small’s presence in the Big Anthology of Afrikaans poetry was destabilising during the apartheid years in the best sense of the word, says Professor Krog. “By using Kaaps (a form of Afrikaans spoken largely by coloured people in Cape Town) he forced the average poetry reader to take cognisance that another kind of Afrikaans existed and that the language they thought belonged only to them, had very strong other claims. Up until then, Kaaps had been used mostly for a little bit of humour, but Small showed how profoundly Kaaps could cut with hurt and burn with truth.”
“But then next to his Kaaps poems he would have another poem written in 100 percent pure Afrikaans. One of the most beautiful for me is one about the Biblical Elijah and Elisha – how, despite several orders from Elijah to be left alone, Elisha, as an act of brotherhood, insisted to remain with him, then Small says: but God became angry, ‘because God is first and foremost with his own / He never leaves them in the lurch’ and sent a chariot of fire to sweep Elija to heaven.”
The poem ends: “Elisha looked down at his dark skin / and embarrassed, walked away in the dark.”
Professor Krog said it was important to bear in mind that Professor Small was a philosopher, so his engagement with literature was done in the way of true philosophy. “Opening up, broadening out and a curiosity about the world and its foundations. His work not only opened and deepened the debate around standard Afrikaans, but his public admiration for NP Van Wyk Louw’s work freed Afrikaans in a way that confronted after 1994 many young poets from marginalised spaces with multiple complexities.”
Professor Krog says Professor Small was known for his reluctance to be a public figure but gave a lecture at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) last year. She said that she will remember him for the strong bond he had with his wife Rosalie.
The first annual Adam Small Dialogue was held at UWC on April 11 2003. Professor Krog was also at the event.
“Through his work he brought poverty directly into poetry and drama,” she said. “He berated the apartheid system but his most searing anger he, at times, spared for God: for the arbitrariness of poverty, for not caring, for not rectifying, for not punishing those responsible for it. But importantly, at the same time Small’s work carried the Love of Christ as its most devastating fingerprint. In some of his most beautiful poems he suggests that all one has in the world is love and to love, even the oppressor, liberated the healing qualities of love.”
Professor Small was born in Wellington on December 21, 1936. He was raised on a farm in Goree outside Robertson, where his father served as the school principal, community leader, and lay preacher to farm labourers.
After attending several Catholic schools and matriculating in 1953, Professor Small obtained a degree in languages and philosophy, and an MA (cum laude) at the University of Cape Town on the philosophy of Nicolai Hartmann and Friedrich Nietzsche.
He was appointed as a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Fort Hare in 1959 and at UWC in 1960.
He served as UWC’s first head of the Department of Philosophy since 1960, left the employ of the university in 1973 and returned as the head of the Department of Social Work in 1984 where he played an influential leadership role until his retirement in 1997. In recognition of his contributions to society the University conferred on him an honorary doctorate in 2001.
UWC said they were deeply saddened by the passing of one of its stalwarts.
Among those to pay tribute to Professor Small was the Minister of Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa, who said: “Prof Adam Small has occupied a unique and inimitable place in South African literature, academia and culture. At a time when the apartheid government sought to use Afrikaans as a tool of oppression, Prof Small strove to decolonise the Afrikaans language. Through his poetry he asserted the language as a language of the people and as a language through which the oppressed could articulate their particular vantage point in the world and claim their freedom.”
In a statement, Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille, sent her condolences to Mr Small’s family. “We will always remember you for your great contribution to literature and the struggle.”