The life of Jakes Gerwel

2012-11-28 07:56

He grew up on a sheep farm and little did he know that one day he would become the right-hand man of South Africa's first democratic president.

Jakes Gerwel - an academic, executive and multi-award winner - served as director-general in the office of former president Nelson Mandela.

He was born on January 18 1946 in the Eastern Cape town of Somerset East and matriculated from Paterson High School in Port Elizabeth.

In 1967, Gerwel graduated from the University of the Western Cape with a Bachelor of Arts degree and completed his honours a year later.

In the late 1960s Gerwel became involved in the Black Consciousness Movement, led by Steve Biko. He became an educational advisor to the South African Students' Organisation (Saso) in the early 1970s.

Raising eyebrows

For a short while, Gerwel lectured at the Hewat Teachers' Training College in Cape Town and in 1971, he received a government scholarship to study at the University of Brussels.

Here he completed a licentiate [academic degree] in Germanic Philosophy and a literature doctorate.
When he returned to South Africa, he took up a teaching post at Grassy Park High School in Cape Town.

He later moved to the University of the Western Cape and became a lecturer.

In 1980, Gerwell was appointed a professor and just two years later a Dean of the Arts Faculty.
He was appointed vice-chancellor of the university five years later.

Gerwell's political participation raised university eyebrows and before his appointment to permanent staff he received three probations.

During the 1980 education protests, Gerwel was detained by police.

Nine years later, he and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, together with fellow teacher Franklin Sonn, were arrested during a march in Cape Town.

‘Intellectual home of the left’

In 1991, Gerwel was elected a member of the ANC's Western Cape regional committee.

The University of the Western Cape on its website, said Gerwel saw an "unambiguous alignment with the mass democratic movement and a new edge to the academic project".

It said that under the banner of "an intellectual home of the left", space was created for curriculum renewal and for innovative research and outreach projects.

"Important social and policy issues, which had been swept under the carpet by the government of the day, thus received attention," the university said.

It also formalised its "open" admissions policy, providing access to a growing number of African students.

In 1994, Gerwel was appointed to the post of director general in the office the Mandela presidency.

In a series of interviews with writer and researcher Padraig O'Malley, published on the Nelson Mandela Centre for Memory website, Gerwel talked of the crucial years preceding South Africa's transition to democracy.

‘The miracle of our transition’

He also recalled the tough negotiations at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa, and the first years after the election of Mandela as the country's first democratically elected president.

"We often forget the miracle of our transition, the fact that a country so deeply divided managed to negotiate a settlement and establish a democratic order, and establish a government of national unity and managed to establish national unity amongst the diverse, cultural, ethnic but particularly political groupings which we have in the country," he said in an interview in August 1998.

"So really one doesn't need to be very profound actually to make the statement that what has changed fundamentally in SA is that it has got a democratic government; SA has a government, has got a polity in which all of its people and all its political tendencies hold together."

Concerned about crime

During his own time in government, he named crime and unemployment as two areas of concern.

"So one would have wished that the combination of social factors and capacity for law enforcement was such that the crime situation was less critical than it is," he told O'Malley.

His awards include the Order of Southern Cross from Mandela, the Order of Good Deeds from Libya and Freedom of the Town from Somerset East.

He served as chairperson for Media24, the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation, and chairperson of the board of trustees for the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory.

He has also been a chairperson of SAA and a chancellor of Rhodes of University.

A rugby and cricket lover, Gerwel was the chairperson of the policy committee of the 2003 Cricket World Cup.

He was married to Phoebe Abrahams and they had two children a daughter Jessie, a son Heinrich and four grandchildren.

  • stanford.flanagan - 2012-11-28 08:57

    One of the few coloured men who never traded his core believes for self enrichment, but who worked hard at what he believed, and made an indelible contribution to South Africa has come to the end of life's road. My deepest condolences to the Gerwel family. " Nag ou Grote".

      rehana.mohamed.5 - 2012-11-28 21:23

      So true!Indeed a man who stood by his true believes unlike some in our troubled country!

  • jerome.pienaar.7 - 2012-11-28 17:01

    Prof Gerwel believed in freedom, he didn't just talk the talk but also walked the walk. Now u have eternal freedom 'Afrika Seun'. Condolences to the family. Hamba Kahle Jakes.

  • Sydney Myzer Mokgotho - 2012-11-28 17:09

    May his soul rest in peace. He fought the fight to our lives now as all in great country of peace an harmony... God bless

  • LinKris Hani - 2013-10-14 16:16

    Spoke and Led by example, A GREAT LEADER INDEED! This man did so much for our nation and his contribution will benefit South Africa for centuries to come. Alluta Continua!

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