By: Jason Lloyd
The image of a 24-year old Jakes Gerwel with “lots of hair” wearing a coat and holding a packet of chips in his hand, one hip propped up against a pillar on the Cape Town station, is a lasting memory of the son from Kommadagga, who will be remembered long after his death as a bridge builder, peacemaker and highly intelligent and influential Mensch.
This is how former school principal Julian Steenkamp remembers Professor Jakes Gerwel, who gained prominence as a proponent of Steve Biko’s black consciousness philosophy in the 1970’s, who as rector of the University of the Western Cape (UWC) transformed the institution into the “intellectual home of the left” and who as director-general in the office of former president Nelson Mandela, cabinet secretary, advisor and influential confidante of Madiba, played a key role in South Africa’s transition from apartheid to a constitutional democracy.
Gerwel, who was born on January 18, 1946 on the farm Malvern, approximately 64km from Somerset East in the Eastern Cape, died in Cape Town exactly five years ago today at the age of 66, following heart surgery.
It is apt to reflect on his influence and contribution to the demolition of apartheid and the establishment of a democratic, non-racist South Africa. Especially against the background of a comment made to me by Mandela’s erstwhile personal assistant, Zelda La Grange.
“Mandela would not have been what he has been to us all and to the world if it were not for Jakes Gerwel,” she said.
It was in 1970 – while Gerwel was a lecturer in Afrikaans at the then Hewat Teachers College in Athlone – that Steenkamp spotted the humble Gerwel at the Cape Town station.
“We were a bunch of teaching students at Hewat who were being taught Afrikaans literature by Gerwel, on our way from Athlone to Cape Town to listen to a Supreme Court ruling. There stood Gerwel like an ordinary person with his slap chips, and he spoke to us.”
Within days, Gerwel would leave for Brussels in Belgium to study towards a master’s degree in Germanic philology at the Vrije University.
“In the years that followed, Gerwel’s humility and integrity as a person remained imprinted on my memory. I think that he retained those qualities until the day he died”, said Steenkamp.
From a young age, Gerwel’s thinking was based on an authentic principle of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, on what he called the “chaos” of man’s imagination – the power to keep on creating space in one’s thoughts.
He also commented that, intellectually, the person who probably had the greatest influence on him was the philosopher and poet Adam Small, his philosophy lecturer at UWC.
“Adam taught a course on the scientific value of doubt. I don’t think I have ever fully escaped from the effect of that course.”
Gerwel always had his doubts about a coloured identity, regarding it as an artificial creation – just as Sylvia Vollenhoven, in her book The Keeper of the Kumm, indicated that on the emergence of the Black Consciousness movement, she saw herself as a member of that generic black group.
He adamantly believed, like the Stellenbosch philosopher Johan Degenaar, that one should adopt “multiple identification” and not be trapped in a “static identity”.
Ethnicity-based mobilisation involving “us” and “them” were unacceptable to him.
He so often spoke out throughout his life against the fallacy of ethnicity-based identity formation that he called himself a “bad coloured” (slegte kleurling).
Gerwel’s enormous contribution to South Africa crossed political, colour and ethnic boundaries.
His greatest contribution was possibly as rector of the UWC, a position he assumed in 1987.
Under his leadership, the anti-apartheid struggle on campus intensified and UWC was transformed into the “intellectual home of the left”. Gerwel was also hailed by students as the man who stood between them and the apartheid government’s Casspirs.
According to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Gerwel’s most difficult task was, however, the “deracialisation” of UWC.
“To create the circumstances for coloured resources to benefit Africans, and even a few whites, was utterly revolutionary. To succeed was extraordinary.”
Gerwel’s contribution, as chief of staff of Mandela’s office and cabinet secretary, in managing the transition from apartheid to a constitutional democracy has been widely recognised, but his influence on Mandela’s intellectual thinking and the critical decisions that determined how Madiba governed South Africa and formulated and executed foreign policy, and also how he managed his personal affairs, must still be illuminated politically, scientifically and intellectually.
According to La Grange, Gerwel was the “centre” of Mandela’s existence.
“During and after Madiba’s presidential years, Prof Gerwel was not only Madiba’s staunchest advisor, friend and confidante: he was also a son to Madiba. President Mandela knew and consulted Prof Gerwel in all decisions. Even if Prof Gerwel did not write all his speeches, he had to inspect the final product delivered by others.”
La Grange’s assertion about the high esteem in which Madiba held Gerwel has been confirmed in the recently published book Dare Not Linger – The Presidential Years by Mandela and Mandla Langa (Pan Macmillian).
Gerwel was also the founder and chairperson of the board of trustees of both the Nelson Mandela (1999-2012) and the Mandela Rhodes (2003-2012) foundations.
He was the first senior appointment in Mandela’s Presidency in 1994, “bringing gravitas to the presidential staff”. Many years later, Mandela wrote of Gerwel that he held all his positions with distinction.
“He is an impressive and fearlessly independent thinker. As chairperson of our foundation, he is a linchpin in keeping all of us working together harmoniously, and he nips in the bud any incipient developments towards any form of infighting among comrades.”
According to Langa, Gerwel served as a solid base for Madiba, which he couldn’t function without. “Having Gerwel at the helm served this purpose. He respected Gerwel and would take his advice.”
In the Afrikaans world, his pleas for non-racialism in Afrikaans through a new Afrikaans thought world were never fully appreciated, especially by Naspers (of which he was a board member) and Media24 (of which he was the board chairperson).
This was to such an extent that, in 2010, he wrote that “coloured people generally do not recognise or hear themselves in the mainstream Afrikaans media”.
According to certain coloured intellectuals, opinion formers, authors and journalists this situation, to which Gerwel objected so vociferously, remains unchanged to the present day.
As a literary critic and brilliant literary expert, and also as an exceptionally fine reader and analyst of complex literary texts, he gave, in book reviews and literary writings, critical and scientific assessments of authors’ works.
The now deceased author André Brink once commented: “Jakes was one of the sharpest literary experts I ever came across”.
Gerwel believed in the presence of social consciousness in the aesthetic appreciation of literature, especially in illuminating the manmade suffering of the “other” – the previously disadvantaged.
On the subject of his beloved ANC, he wrote in 2010: “My criticism against what is happening in the ANC, especially currently, is well documented. At the same time, I cannot deny my identification with that movement.”
The critical question posed by the author and poet Clinton V du Plessis in a 2015 LitNet article titled “Jakes Gerwel – poster boy for Marxism, Naspers or the liberal elite” should be grounded in a scientific study on Gerwel’s business involvement in the years between 1999 and 2012.
Du Plessis posed this question with reference to an alleged struggle Gerwel had with himself during a newspaper interview in 2010, during which he made the following remark: “For an old Marxist to serve in boards… I sometimes have to give myself a small ironic smile.”
Steenkamp is correct: irrespective of the criticism and praise, Gerwel (known also for his love for children and tortoises) died a humble person with his integrity intact, a gratified product of the black Afrikaans-speaking working class.
In his final days, when he fell ill, his request was for an Afrikaans-speaking physician.
Jason Lloyd has worked as a journalist and is a columnist and social commentator. He is currently researching the life and times of Jakes Gerwel