Obituary: Adam Small, 'Kaaps' poet who set himself up against Afrikaner establishment

03 July 2016 - 02:00 By Chris Barron

Adam Small, who has died in Cape Town at the age of 79, was an Afrikaans poet, playwright and philosopher of almost legendary status in the Western Cape during apartheid.When he published, it was an event. When he spoke, people listened.However, for 30 years he did neither. In 1983 he went into a period of self-imposed silence that only ended in 2013.He was angry and bitter that no matter how much effort, thought, skill or despair went into his writing, it would never be seen as a work of art, but as something written by a coloured person.So why bother?In 2013, he announced that he had put his bitterness behind him. "I am stripped of all hatred," he said. He marked his return from the great silence - or great sulk, as far as some were concerned - by publishing amid suitable fanfare his first collection of poetry in 30 years, Klawerjas.His change of heart was at least partly influenced by the decision the year before of the Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns (South African Academy of Science and Art) to award him the hugely prestigious Hertzog Prize for drama after giving him the cold shoulder for 50 years.To the surprise of many he agreed to accept it. He was doing so as a gesture of reconciliation, he said.The award was controversial, because winners had to have had original work published in the previous three years. According to the rules Small did not qualify.But the majority view was that the award was a long overdue correction of a historical injustice. "Better late than never," said Breyten Breytenbach.In 1993, he received the Orde vir Voortreflike Diens (exceptional service) gold class from then president FW de Klerk.Small wrote a form of colloquial Afrikaans that he called "Kaaps" as a protest against standard, or "white", Afrikaans, which he felt excluded the people on the Cape Flats whose language it also was.He was setting himself against the Establishment, which claimed to own Afrikaans. He saw himself as empowering coloured people to speak in their own language. "I am giving the voice of my people back to them," he said. He felt that only in Kaaps could he speak to the heart of his people.Not everyone saw it like this. He was sharply criticised by more politicised members of the community for portraying a stereotype of coloured people that diminished them.He was aggrieved by the criticism and some felt this was the real reason he retreated behind a wall of silence.Small was born on December 21 1936 in Wellington in the Western Cape, and grew up in the small village of Goree outside Robertson, where his father, John Sylvester Small, taught at a farm school.In 1944, they moved to Retreat in Cape Town when his father, a deacon in the Dutch Reformed Mission Church (his mother was Muslim), was appointed principal of a mission school there.Small attended the Catholic StColumba's Christian Brothers College in Athlone, and remembered with great fondness how dedicated the nuns and brothers who taught there were.In 1954, he became a medical student at the University of Cape Town, but after a year switched to philosophy and languages.His first volume of poetry was published in 1957.In 1961, the revered white Afrikaans poet NP van Wyk Louw wrote him a letter after reading his book The First Stone? about his experiences of apartheid.Small regarded Louw as one of the world's great poets. If he had written in any other language than Afrikaans he would have been given the Nobel prize, he said.In his letter Louw wrote: "In these times what can people like us do? We can only talk, because we are not people of violence."Small himself was always opposed to violence. "There is nothing that we can or want to achieve through violence," he said.Nevertheless, he grappled with the concept of violence for a just cause.His autobiographical play The Orange Earth, which was first broadcast by BBC radio in 1984, interrogates the difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter.In 1976, he gave evidence in a "terrorist" trial in Pretoria involving the South African Students' Organisation. He read from his poems in the witness box to illustrate the meaning of apartheid. When he finished the state prosecutor asked him to sign his copy of Small's 1961 collection, Kitaar my Kruis.After UCT he studied at the London School of Economics under Karl Popper. In 1959, he became a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Fort Hare. In 1963, he went to Oxford on a British Council scholarship to study moral philosophy.He returned in 1965 and published Kanna Hy Kô Hystoe, (Kanna Comes Home), his most autobiographical and famous work, which André Brink regarded as the greatest dramatic work ever written in Afrikaans.To attend the first performance of Kanna in Bloemfontein in 1971, Small had to apply for a permit allowing him to be in the Free State for more than 24 hours.A reviewer compared it to Arthur Miller's After the Fall. Small's was the better play, with greater impact and sincerity, he wrote.In 1974, it was performed at the Nico Malan theatre in Cape Town, which was whites-only. Small refused to attend the opening night to highlight the fact that a play by a coloured writer about coloured people was being produced at a theatre where coloured people were not welcome.In 1966, he became the first professor of philosophy at the University of the Western Cape. In 1973, he was forced out for siding with students protesting against apartheid.He went to the University of the Witwatersrand, but was brought back to UWC by its first black rector, Dick van der Ross, as head of the social services department, a position he held until his retirement in 1997.Small was characterised by a senior colleague at UWC as an "ambivalent and enigmatic figure, a loner".He is survived by his second wife, Rosalie, who was one of his philosophy students, and four children.1936-2016

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