[lg policy] South Africa: Small gave voice to oppressed in his community

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Wed Jul 6 11:08:53 EDT 2016

 Small gave voice to oppressed in his community
by Graeme Addison  July 06 2016, 05:50

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[image: Adam Small. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES]
Adam Small. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
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STELLENBOSCH University’s new language policy, in effect, allows English to
predominate as a medium of instruction, while giving students the choice of
Afrikaans, and to some extent, promoting Xhosa. This is explained as
"unequivocal support for multilingualism, without excluding students who
are not proficient in either Afrikaans or English".

Critics say this fudges the issue that English has, in fact, taken over.

Language is power, prestige, and ultimately, profit. English, French,
Spanish, and Portuguese were carried into the far reaches of the globe by
conquest, trade and religion, embedding themselves in the administration
and economies of subject societies. Today, the overwhelming presence of
China in world commerce suggests that Mandarin may soon become the
supranational language of choice. Yet English is likely to be retained by
scientists, doctors, technologists and business people because it is
entrenched in knowledge systems including the internet.

The campaign by black students and staff at Afrikaans universities to adopt
English is an ironic outcome of the country’s — indeed the world’s —
colonial past.

In the same week that the university announced its policy, the poet,
dramatist and philosopher Adam Small, an icon of resistance to linguistic
imperialism, died. In popular verse and theatre dialogue, Small used Kaaps,
the dialect of Afrikaans spoken by Cape coloured people, as a vehicle to
mock apartheid and racial prejudice.

In doing so, he also took a swipe at "correct" Afrikaans as spoken by the
white Herrenvolk. His critical stance against Afrikaner nationalism,
undertaken on behalf of the disenfranchised "brown Afrikaners", has left us
with an ambivalent legacy of freedom entwined with ethnicity.

By adopting the creole lingo of the Cape Flats, he signified that all
languages can express the full scope of our ideas and emotions.

Small was a trained philosopher with a postgraduate degree from the
University of Cape Town on the philosophy of Nicolai Hartmann and Friedrich
Nietzsche. These German thinkers mounted a critique of Christian and
European spiritual decadence, contending that a meaningful life could only
be attained by returning to a sense of responsibility for one’s beliefs and
actions. This was a common theme among German romantic sages who saw the
natural order of life being corrupted by technology, multiculturalism, and
false doctrines of human equality. One of the main exponents of these views
was Martin Heidegger.

Small took up only the ideas that related to his experience of oppression
in SA. He transformed leading currents in western thought into a highly
localised, ethnically based form of expression in blank verse, making
copious use of the Coloured patois in all its wry and scornful idioms.

He had studied at Oxford and was much influenced by the movement that
focused on the relationship between philosophy and language.

Years ago, he told me that philosophy topped poetry as the way to
understand life and oppose injustice, but he used poetry to give voice to
the oppressed in his own community. As the translator into English of
perhaps the greatest Afrikaans poet, NP Van Wyk Louw, Small shared the
belief in lojale verset (loyal resistance) to injustice through writing and

The Afrikaners are the people historically rooted in the Cape comprising
colonial forbears, former Malay slaves, a dash of Khoi blood, and African

After his creative assault on Afrikaner nationalism, Small produced a
volume of English poems and then strangely went silent for decades. He
continued his career as a professor of social work at the University of the
Western Cape, which he had helped to found, retiring in 1997.

In 2013, he resurfaced to receive an award for drama. Small has left us a
controversial legacy in which an ethnic identity becomes the means to
advance a universal claim to human rights and freedom. For the framers of
the Stellenbosch language policy, the conundrum has posed harsh choices.

To provide access to the modern world of communication and international
collaboration, English is necessary. To preserve the heritage of Afrikaans,
there must be room to use and develop it — even in its less prestigious

Meanwhile, the Constitutional requirement for equality of all SA languages
has prompted Stellenbosch to give a nod to Xhosa. Only time will tell
whether this leads to an academic flourishing of the language, or to
constant marginalisation.

• *Addison teaches media skills at the Institute for the Advancement of


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