Jakes Gerwel: ‘Mandela could see the essential core’

Before his death,  Jakes Gerwel spoke to Jan-­Jan Joubert about his time spent  in Mandela’s office

After Madiba, I will  never be able to work for anyone again. I don’t know if  we just had a special relationship, but the thing is:  He never let you feel he’s the boss in a dominating sense. That’s particularly because he recognised another person’s dignity,” Professor Jakes Gerwel said at his home in Belhar outside Cape Town while talking about his days as secretary to the Cabinet and head of Mandela’s office from 1994  to 1999.

Gerwel passed away on November 28 2012.

Gerwel was on the committee that had to arrange Mandela’s inauguration as president. Shortly before the inauguration ceremony at the Union Buildings on May 10  1994,

Gerwel was summoned to the ANC headquarters  at Shell House in Johannesburg.

“Madiba asked if  I wanted to be Cabinet secretary and director­general in his office, and of  course I couldn’t say no.

“But it was completely out of the blue, you know. It wasn’t on my radar screen. At  the time, I was fully occupied as principal of the University of  the Western Cape,” Gerwel said.

It was a challenge, no doubt about it. A new party was in power, a new dispensation and a new government of  national unity  had to be formed, and there was a lot of  interest in what the Cabinet would look like.

“There were quite a few surprises in the Cabinet. The ANC had already published a list of  expected Cabinet appointments. Some made it,but there were also the expected disappointments,” he recalled, but was too diplomatic to mention names.

Three parties were part of  the government in 1994,  namely the ANC, the NP and the IFP. Gerwel pointed out that they were not just ideological enemies, but also fought physically.

Party leaders of  the two opposition parties announced their Cabinet members in consultation with Mandela.

Contrary to what one might expect, there were, according to Gerwel, no formations of  groups in the Cabinet.

“If  you hadn’t known, you wouldn’t have said it’s three parties, but one. Kader Asmal and Dawie de Villiers could easily argue against Pik Botha and Mac Maharaj.

“About issues like the death penalty and abortion, you knew people would disagree, but in general everyone was committed to consensus.”

Mandela was never the chairman in the Cabinet. Deputy President  Thabo Mbeki was the convener and maintained order.

There were several reasons for this, Gerwel said. Mandela’s hearing wasn’t good, it wasn’t his  style to act as a formal chairman and he was morally inclined, rather than technically. “So Mbeki did the technical work in the Cabinet, but

Mandela was the moral leader in a peacemaking role as someone who could unite people,” Gerwel recalled.

“It was a matter of  give and take. All  three parties had to be willing to make sacrifices and to cooperate, and when the NP were no longer prepared to do so, they were out.

“It was very encouraging to see how the three parties worked together after all  those years of  a divided South Africa.”

It was, nevertheless, a time of great tension between political parties, and nowhere more so than in KwaZulu­Natal.

A low­ level civil war was waged there for a decade, and that the pot was still simmering was shown by, for example, the mass killings  in Izingolweni long after the 1994  election and the attack on Prince Sifiso Zulu by the bodyguards of  IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi at the SABC studios in Durban.

“Buthelezi was not a problem in the Cabinet. He was a friendly and cooperative colleague. In fact, we spoke of the Wednesday Buthelezi and the Saturday Buthelezi, because he was so mild in the Cabinet on Wednesdays and so aggressive at the IFP’s public meetings on Saturdays,” Gerwel recalled with a smile.

But after the attack on Zulu, Buthelezi was called to order before the Cabinet and submitted himself to the Cabinet discipline.

According to Gerwel there were, however, several obstacles that had to be overcome.

“Apartheid was not overcome by seizing power. It was a partial transfer of  power.”

Gerwel remembered three central challenges in particular: It was a government of  people who had no knowledge about how to govern; differences on policy issues; and uncomfortable with one another about apartheid.

Mandela strongly believed in keeping opposition leaders informed about important national issues.

“He really went out of  his way to do so, and that helped a lot to establish mutual trust,” Gerwel recalled.

Within the Cabinet, the tradition of  the ANC played a major role in getting things done, Gerwel said.

“The ANC was always a broad church. In the Cabinet there were a thousand views about every issue. No one ever said a discussion was going too far.

“Another feature of  that Cabinet was the constant courtesy, also by FW  de Klerk and Buthelezi. I could always maintain good relations. It was especially easy for me to talk to De  Klerk on a personal level.”

Gerwel would always remember  Mandela’s remarkable memory. It came naturally to him  to remember people, which also strengthened his relations with journalists. Mandela was someone who could converse easily with all  and sundry.

But Gerwel found that working with Mandela also required adjustments: “Great people have the ability to simplify and get through a thing. Madiba was very straightforward.

“I  spent my entire life in universities. Theorising comes naturally to me. I am suspicious about simple answers, but I had to hear so many times, ‘Jakes,  it must be simpler than that’.”

Finally, a thorny question that many people have wondered about. What are the biggest differences from his successor, President Thabo Mbeki?

Gerwel thought for a long time. “I’m more like Mbeki: An intellectual who sees things in their complexity. Mandela simplified, even as he saw the nuances.

“He wouldn’t speak a lot at meetings – he would rather listen, like a traditional leader.

“It was a case of  listening, summarising, concluding. Madiba could see the essential core and make things simple.

“He could therefore make a crucial decision – within five minutes, if  necessary.”

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