Adam Small

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Adam Small (1936-2016) [1] was a South African poet, dramatist, political icon and professor of philosophy and social work. Regarded by many as one of South Africa's leading poets and playwrights, particularly so for his watershed contribution to the canon of Afrikaans literature and theatre in the pivotal early years of the cultural struggle.


He was born on 21 Desember 1936 in Wellington. His father's family was Calvinist, while his mother’s family belonged to the Islamic faith. In 1937 the family moved to Goree, a missions station on the Vink River outside Robertson, where his father was a teacher in a one-man school for farm workers. At the end of 1944 they moved to Retreat, where he was introduced to the Cape Flats vernacular, later called Kaaps, that he uses so skilfully in his writings.

In December 1959 he married Julia Anne Elizabeth Engelbrecht and they had two sons, Jannie and Leon. Divorced in 1968, he married Rosalie Joan Daniels in 1969. They had two children as well, Zaidee and Peter John.

Adam Small died on 25 June 2016.


He went to St Columba Christian Brothers' College in Athlone, finishing in 1953. In 1954 he began studying medicine but after a year switched to a BA course in languages and philosophy, under teachers such as the poet/playwright D.J. Opperman, the poet/storyteller "Boerneef" en the Catholic philosopher Marthinus Versfeld. In 1956 he obtained a BA-degree with distingtion in ethics, logic and metaphysics. In 1957 he completed his B.A. Honours degree with distinction, followed by an M.A. (Cum Laude) in Philosophy in 1962.

He also had two spells of advanced study in England, at the London School of Economics under Karl R. Popper in 1958 and University of Oxford (1963-65).

Career as educationist

Appointed lecturer in philosophy at the University of Fort Hare in 1959, and in 1960 moved to the University of the Western Cape. In the seventies he became involved with the Black Consciousness Movement and the student organisation SASO, leading protests that eventually led to his forced resignation. He now moved to Johannesburg to work in the buro for student services at the University of the Witwatersrand, In 1977 he returned to Cape Town and in 1983 became head of the department of social services at the UWC. He retired there in 1997.

Socio-political contribution

Over the years his political and philosophical commentary, have appeared in a number of publications, among them a monograph called Die eerste steen? ("The first stone?") (HAUM, 1961). It is an essay in which he bemoans the negative impact Apartheid has had on white and "coloured" ("bruin") relations in the country.

His artistic contribution

Perhaps the most prominent so-called "coloured" writer of the 1960-1970 period, and an early icon of the cultural resistance movement, he would later reject the label, in the 1980s associating himself with the ideals of black consciousness and referring to himself as a black writer of Afrikaans. For a while he even turned to writing solely in English, but by the 1990s he had returned to writing in Afrikaans as well.

Besides one novel, Heidesee (1979), his most important artistic and political contributions have been in poetry and theatre.


His first collection of poetry, Verse vir die liefde ("Verses of Love") appeared in 1957 and Klein simbool: prosaverse ("Little Symbol: prose poems") followed in 1958, but it was with the Afrikaans collection called Kitaar my kruis ("Guitar my Cross", 1961) that his name was truly made. A number of other poetic works followed, including Sê Sjibbolet ("Say Shibboleth", 1963), Oos wes tuis bes: Distrik Ses. Photography by Chris Jansen (1973), and the English Black bronze beautiful: quatrains (1975) and District Six. Photographs by Jansje Wissema (1986).

He also translated the poetry of N.P. van Wyk Louw in Oh wide and sad land: Afrikaans poetry of NP Van Wyk Louw (1975)

Work in Theatre

His involvement in theatre began through the University of the Western Cape, where he worked with the [Drama Society of the University of the Western Cape]] (DRAMSOC), and would go on to help found the famous Cape Flats Players in 197* and the Peninsula Theatre in 198*.

As a dramatist he wrote (and directed) a number of works for DRAMSOC). The first was Gone Canada, written in 196*, later rewritten to become one of the most famous and influential of Afrikaans plays: Kanna hy kô Hystoe ("Kanna Comes Home" - 1965, English 1990), which he orignally directed himself with DRAMSOC). His later works include Joanie Galant-hulle ("Joanie Galant and her people" - published 1978), The Orange Earth (1978), Die Krismis van Map Jacobs ("The Christmas of Map Jacobs" - A Nederburg commission for the Performing Arts Council of the Orange Free State, published 1983), What about the lô? (a programme of his poetry), Die Vyfde Evangelie ("The Fifth Gospel" - 19*) and ****. SMALL, Adam. His Kanna hy kô Hystoe was staged at the Alexander in 1974. Wilna Snyman starred in this play for which she received a best actress award. His first play in English, The Orange Earth was directed by Jo Dunstan and staged at Upstairs at the Market in 1978.


Honorary Doctorates from the University of Natal (1981), the University of Port Elizabeth (1996), the University of the Western Cape (2001), Stellenbosch University (2015).

The South African Order for Meritorious Service: Gold (1993); the Afrikaans Onbeperk Award (1995); the Patrick Petersen Prize (2000); a Fleur du Cap Theatre Award for his life's work and contribution to the theatre (2005) and controversially and very belatedly - a Hertzog Prize for Drama by the Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns (2012).



'n Saluut vir 'Kanna' in Die Burger, 12 September 2012 (Aktueel page 11).

Tucker, 1997

Celebration of Adam Small at Fugard Theatre - 26/01/2011 - News

Erika Terblanche in LitNet 2008-03-12[2]

"Adam Small, South Africa’s poet, prophet and man of the people, has gone home", The Conversation (Adam Small, South Africa’s poet, prophet and man of the people, has gone home June 28, 2016)[3]

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