Love at centre of Prof Small’s life
You won’t die wondering what’s on Adam Small’s mind. Even his deep love for his wife shows in his writings, says Gasant Abarder.
Cape Town - You won’t die wondering about what’s on Adam Small’s mind. The doctor of philosophy, teacher, social worker, poet, writer and thought leader wears his heart on his sleeve. As he takes me through the rollercoaster of his life, there are tears and laughter. There is also the clear absence of the fear of being forthright.
The golden thread through the life story of the 78-year-old man I’ve come to know as “Prof” is a romance spanning many decades.
Rosalie Small, 67, is the rock in Prof’s life and he has deep love for her. It’s reflected in his most recent volumes of poetry which have love as a distinct theme. Their love story has none of the patronising clichés like “behind every successful man … blah blah blah”. Rosalie is a self-made woman and is Prof’s intellectual equal.
Prof had been married previously and got divorced in 1968. He has two sons, both in their fifties, from that marriage. In 1969, he married Rosalie.
“Rosalie was a philosophy student of mine at UWC. It’s interesting… she was going to be a social worker to start with and she spent some months in that class. I encouraged Rosalie to leave social work and rather get a degree in philosophy.
“She took an honours in philosophy and started teaching like I did. She spent long years at Immaculata Secondary School in Wittebome, which was quite a famous school. She taught English and history.”
Prof and Rosalie’s son Peter, 39, relates a great story of how his mom, Rosalie Daniels, then 17, was a student in his 28-year-old dad’s philosophy class. It was the moment the couple met.
“When my dad marked all the essays he asked: ‘Will Mr Daniels please stand up, he got the highest mark’,” says Peter.
“And up comes this hand – it was my mother and from that time I suppose the romance started.”
Prof giggles, not unlike a schoolboy, and adds: “It was a big mistake. It was one of the best essays I had ever read. Miss Daniels put up her hand and she hasn’t forgiven me for that up until today.
“There’s another story she tells, which I don’t think is true,” he adds mischievously.
“She says she didn’t concentrate on what I was saying in philosophy class because she was just watching my hands. She says I have very nice hands, very intellectual hands.
“But she did splendidly in philosophy, she is a born philosopher and intellectual. She took a diploma in teaching.
“She went on and on and without me even being aware of it, she would sit reading and writing at night, in between the dishes and preparing meals at home. Then she just announced to me that she was getting a doctorate at the next graduation ceremony.”
On the same night that Rosalie graduated with her doctorate, their son Peter got his BSc degree in mathematics and physics.
Peter says: “The most amazing thing is that every day you see my mom and dad at his laptop. My dad puts his written notes in front of him and she types it up. Day after day after day you see the connection between the two. The way they work together, the way they finish each other’s sentences. It’s something quite magical, actually.”
Rosalie makes sure Prof meets his deadlines. His latest assignment is writing a fortnightly column for the Cape Times called “Counterpoint”.
“I write everything by hand. I can’t think on the computer. It goes to Rosalie for typing up and she is the most vicious critic. Sometimes I have to tear up all my bloody pages and start all over again.
“The article I’ve just done is going off today to the Cape Times – it had seven drafts. We correct it and correct it and sometimes I can’t read my own corrections so I’ve got a spyglass at home and try with that to see what I wrote down.
“Without her I’d be nowhere.”
When Prof started university he had ambitions of becoming a medical doctor. But deep down, writing was in his veins.
“I knew that I wanted to be a writer when I was five or six years old. At university that though took hold of me. I put out my first work – very youthful, over ambitious and not very good – when I was about 19 or 20 years old.
“I took my first degree in 1956. I was going to become, I imagined, a medical doctor. Thank God I didn’t. I managed to pass physics of all things but I was always better at mathematics than other science subjects.
“I knew then that this medical thing was not for me and I changed to languages and philosophy. Despite the fact that I had missed out on a year, I still finished in three years. After that I went on to an honours, completed that and decided to get out into the world.
“I left for London against the wishes of my mother. When I was there, one of my subjects was fine art, which they offered as a one-year course, and that included a course in practical drawing. Of course, when we did practical drawing we had to draw nudes. That got to my mother.
“Later I found that my mother had torn up all my drawings and chucked them away. I was furious but there was nothing I could do to retrieve them, they were gone forever.”
Prof returned to SA and settled in his birth town of Wellington as a teacher of English, Afrikaans and history.
A few years later he was be lured to his first university teaching post.
“I was there until 1959 and then I went to Fort Hare, which was then a college before it became a university. I had a wonderful teacher in philosophy at university, Dr Sim du Plessis. I asked him if I should go to Fort Hare, which was in the boendoes. He told me: ‘Adam, if you manage to get a university job, take it. It doesn’t matter. It overrides everything else.’
“I took his advice and it worked out very nicely for me. I spent the year at Fort Hare and the very next year, UWC opened in 1960, which made it possible for me to come to Cape Town. I was one of the first 13 – there were just 13 teachers to start with. You can’t believe how that place has grown over the years.
“With my honours degree I headed up the philosophy department. I stayed there for quite some years until 1973. The university governance however was an apartheid governance-orientated system so I just could not take that anymore. I just resigned at the end of that year and left.”
By then Prof and Rosalie had a daughter Zaidee (who is now 42). They left for Johannesburg and Prof worked for a students’ community organisation, like UCT’s Shawco, at Wits. But the race politics of the country would have the final say.
“I liked the job, it was nice at Wits, but again like the thing that haunts us all the time, there was no place to stay because of apartheid. There was accommodation advertised every day but we couldn’t live there because of apartheid.”
“Rosalie and I returned to Cape Town at the end of that year. The only reason we found accommodation in Johannesburg was because a family in Riverlea, south of Johannesburg, moved down to Cape Town where they found work. They agreed for us to stay in their house and they stayed in our house in Cape Town.
“Before then Rosalie, Zaidee and I stayed in the Bosmont Hotel and paid for our stay – with a new baby. When I complained about this publicly, some unfeeling person said ‘it’s alright to stay at the hotel, you have accommodation’ – with no feeling whatsoever. All those people, some even calling themselves liberal, were apartheid-orientated.”
But on his return to Cape Town, life would again smile on Prof in the form of a new journey as a social worker. It also saw Prof become one of the pioneers of early childhood development in the Western Cape.
“I got a working directorship with Maskew Miller. Those were some of the nice years of my life, when they still had the bookshop. By 1977, I had in the process become a member of a guiding trust for a community work organisation, which for short we called FCW – the Western Cape Foundation for Community Work.
“It was founded thanks to a very large gift from the businessmen Renier van Rooyen. He was a great guy. He said one night he was going to build himself a new house with half a million rand. In those days you could build a big house with that. But he saw children sleeping under newspapers on the street while driving through town and he changed his mind. He couldn’t build himself a new house while these children were out on the street.
“So he decided to give this money to the Western Cape communities to fund an NGO. I was part of that governing body from the beginning and I wanted to put the money into preschool education. Some of the other members wanted to establish a place out in Hawston, a holiday resort for the children. I told them that it was flash in the pan stuff, let’s put the money into something a lot more permanent.
“My experience in Johannesburg was the Wits NGO which had concerned itself with preschool care and I saw the need here as well. It worked out very nicely and that organisation is thriving today. Just last year they had their 40th anniversary and they’re going very strongly.
Prof is in tears as he remembers Renier. “Renier grew up in Upington and was against apartheid since he was born – in a hard, Afrikaner world. He always thought differently and I have the highest regard for him.”
While at FCW, Prof, while suspecting the authorities wouldn’t appreciate a non-social worker being the director of a community organisation, enrolled for a social work degree through Unisa – at the age of 40. He got his degree in 1981. It was fortuitous because in 1984, Prof’s former student, Jakes Gerwel, then-rector of UWC, dropped by at the house in Lansdowne.
“He persuaded me to return to UWC in 1984. This time not in the philosophy department but as head of the social work department. I stayed there for quite some years. Those were the difficult years.
“I remember another UWC rector Dr (Richard) Van der Ross. One afternoon we were in a senate meeting and the students and police were at each other at the front gates. Van der Ross just gave up. He went out there to calm things down but the students wouldn’t listen and he just came back into our meeting and said: ‘To the devil with it all now, this isn’t what I get paid for.’ He just continued the senate meeting.
“The students and police kept on… teargas and rubber bullets and who knows what. We (an 8-year-old Peter was with Prof at campus that day) got caught in that teargas. It was a hell of a thing. I just sat there and could hardly breathe.
“But those were the difficult years… the whole of the 1980s. It was a hell of a time for us at university. There were marches on campus. Sometimes they risked marching up to Bellville in Voortrekker.”
It was hard then for Prof to imagine the turning point and the end of apartheid would only be a few years away.
“I used to call the whole thing a miracle in those days. But miracles don’t come easily… I just call it a great event now.
“It’s a pity that the present ANC regime, with Mr Zuma in charge, is messing up things a little and actually going back on Mandela’s legacy. But Mandela could not live forever.
But, as he later adds: “Where the devil would we have been if it hadn’t been for the ANC?”
* Gasant Abarder is editor of the Cape Argus.