OBITUARY: Adam Small had words and learning in his blood

Poet, playwright, translator, activist and educator, Adam Small was a protean man of letters, to which he brought black consciousness sensibility and notable humanity. 

A founder of the University of the Western Cape, Small died at the weekend at the age of 79. A life that began in Wellington in the Western Cape on 21 December 1936, ended early last Saturday morning in the same town. 

Words and learning were in his blood: his father taught at Goree, outside Robertson, to which the family had moved some years after Small was born. He took his matric in 1953 at St Columba’s High School in Athlone, following that up with a BA in languages and philosophy at the University of Cape Town and an MA cum laude in philosophy, focusing on the thinkers Nicolai Hartmann and Friedrich Nietzsche. Later, he furthered his studies at the universities of London and Oxford, returning to South Africa to teach philosophy at the University of Fort Hare in the Eastern Cape.

Of his plays, arguably the most memorable and enduring is Kanna hy kô hystoe: ’n drama (1965). His last play, Maria, Moeder van God, was broadcast last year on Radio Sonder Grense’s annual arts festival programme.

Small wrote mainly in Afrikaans, which for him was far more than the language of the oppressor. His words – both supple and robust and always moving – showed that Afrikaans could be used by the oppressed just as affectingly, poignantly and pointedly as by the coloniser. 

His relationship with the taal extended to the translated book, Oh Wide and Sad Land –  Afrikaans Poetry of N P van Wyk Louw (1975). The Afrikaans literary establishment gave Small the 2012 Hertzog Prize for his contribution to drama: too little, too late, many said. Certainly, the award had something of the feeling of those lifetime Oscars, given as consolation prizes to aged Academy Award nominees who have consistently missed out on the Oscar itself.

Indeed, the prize broke its own rules, which stipulate that it be given to writers who have published new and substantial work in a given genre over the preceding three years. At the time, Small’s last published play was in 1983.

Among his most moving books is Oos Wes Tuis Bes Distrik Ses, with poems by Small and photographs by Chris Jansen (Human en Rousseau, 1973). A limited edition of 1250 copies, signed and numbered by the authors, it tells in words and photographs the agony and the ecstasy, the glory and the grandeur, the grottiness and the tragedy of Distict Six and its human and animal citizens. 

Paging through my copy, I came across this old favourite, a poem about the last black cat in town:

Verf skilfer van hout af
wat kraak in mure
wat bars,
waarvan pleister voor skrapers
wat rondom stoot
Net, tot die laaste toe
– bitter eindeloosheid –
sit in ’n rinkelende venster
’n swart kat

Adam Small, writer, born 21 December 1936, died 25 June 2016

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Darryl Accone
Darryl Accone
Darryl Accone has been in journalism for the best part of four decades. He is also a Fellow of the Salzburg Seminar and the International Writers Workshop of Hong Kong Baptist University and the author of ‘All Under Heaven: The Story of a Chinese Family in South Africa’ and ‘Euripides Must Die’.

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