Thuli Madonsela on Adam Small's legacy

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At the recent Adam Small literary festival former public protector Thuli Madonsela praised the late poet and playwright Adam Small, and challenged South Africans to bring about change.

The Adam Small literary festival took place over the weekend in Pniël near Stellenbosch. Madonsela, who is currently the chair of social justice at Stellenbosch University, was the keynote speaker.

Small was well-known for his contribution to Afrikaans literature during the apartheid era and the Adam Small festival aims to honour his legacy.

You delivered the memorial lecture at the Adam Small festival – what are your thoughts about Adam Small's legacy and the impact it has had on present times?

A thought leader ahead of his time and founder of UWC, Adam Small was one of South Africa’s greatest philosophers, poets, authors. His thoughts, expressed mostly in Afrikaans, highlighted the immoral character of racism and related oppression and subjugation of the black majority.

An optimist who believed it was possible to embrace the humanity and dignity of every person and achieve peaceful coexistence in a society devoid of racism, Adam Small expressed his thoughts through poems and plays that continue to influence academic thought, art and society.

In his honour Stellenbosch recently renamed its theatre the Adam Small Building. This is fitting restorative justice by the university in its efforts to be a constructive change agent as South Africa seeks to rebuild itself in pursuit of the constitutional dream of a united nation bound by a common destiny and shared prosperity.

Why do you think it important to honour late Adam Small and celebrate his legacy?

There are several reason for honouring the legacy of Adam Small. One is to propagate his ideas regarding the possibility of social cohesion in a society that embraces the humanity of all regardless of colour. Another is to remind us about where we come from and the legacy of accumulated advantages and disadvantages that define the lives of the historically advantaged and the historically disadvantaged. For example, Adam Small wanted to study at Stellenbosch University, but apartheid prevented him from doing so.

Highlighting and celebrating his legacy is also about promoting the kind of scholarship he represented despite the adversity he had to confront. This is important to encourage the young generation to excel and lift the bar even higher. Also important is to highlight the dream behind the struggle for democracy and the many pathways that delivered South Africa’s constitutional democracy, an important memory as we celebrate 25 years into democracy. Above everything else, Adam Small is a reminder to young people that education can be a game changer and also that the intelligentsia are empowered to use thought leadership to change the world as opposed to using violence or violent language.

Do you think people like Adam Small, who played a significant role in positively influencing South Africa's history, are getting enough recognition for their efforts?

Adam Small is one of the forgotten midwives of South Africa’s freedom and democracy. While sectoral efforts such as the Stellenbosch University building are commendable in highlighting and keeping the legacy of Adam Small alive, the broader public narrative excludes contributions like his as it tends to focus on those who contributed through armed struggle or were imprisoned on Robben Island.

We ignore the legacy of Adam Small and other African thought leaders of the past at our peril as they serve as great examples of the adage that excellence is the best antidote to bigotry.

  • Foto's geneem deur Naomi Bruwer
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