Professor Gert “Jakes” Johannes Gerwel
Gert Johannes “Jakes” Gerwel was born 18 January 1946 in the town of Kommadagga in the district of Somerset East, Eastern Province (now Eastern Cape). While growing up on a sheep farm, Gerwel attended a church-based farm school, followed by secondary school at London Missionary Society Institution, and he eventually matriculated at Paterson High School in Port Elizabeth. Gerwel then attended University of Western Cape (UWC), where he began his passionate foray into his studies of the Afrikaner language. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Afrikaans-Nederlands and Sociology in 1967 and an Honours degree in Afrikaans Nederlands the following year, both of which were earned cum laude. During this period, Gerwel became involved in the Black Consciousness Movement led by Steve Biko. In the early 1970s, Gerwel also became an education advisor to the South African Students’ Organisation.
Shortly after earning his degree, Gerwel lectured at Hewat Teachers’ Training College in Cape Town until 1971, when he received a bursary from the Belgian government to continue his studies at Vrije Universiteit in Brussels. Here, Gerwel earned a licentiate in Germanic Philology and a literature doctorate. When Gerwel went back to South Africa, he held a teaching post at Grassy Park High School in Cape Town before returning to UWC to lecture on Afrikaans and Nederlands in July 1972. In 1976, Gerwel was promoted and became a senior lecturer. In 1979 he earned his doctorate in Literature and Philosophy magna cum laude from Vrije Universiteit of Brussels for his thesis entitled, “Literatuur en Apartheid (Literature and Apartheid).” This pioneering thesis described the way in which ideas in Afrikaner novels from the period of 1875 to 1948 became agents for the racial attitudes that climaxed during the Apartheid state.
Gerwel was then promoted to professor and head of department in 1980, and in 1982 he was appointed Dean of the Faculty of Arts. When UWC received full governing autonomy in 1984, Gerwel was elected to the position of rector and eventually he was elected to vice-chancellor in January 1987. He had two primary goals during his tenure. First, Gerwel decided that the student enrolment would be opened up to the entire population rather than just the Coloured population. According to Gerwel's friend and UWC colleague, Brian O'Connell, this was a difficult hurdle because,"UWC was being funded via the Department of Coloured Affairs. The problem of having a large number of Black Africans enrolling was not an easy one to deal with." Second, it was Gerwel's desire to transform UWC into “an intellectual home on the left.” Although this move was met with criticism and support, Gerwel adamantly stood by his mission to move UWC into a position of greater opposition to tackle apartheid.
His work and success during the tumultuous period of 1987 to 1994 was lauded by Kader Asmal, the former Minister of Education, as being driven by his “intelligence and calm determination.” According to the UWC, Gerwel’s ambitious agenda ensured “Important social and policy issues, which had been swept under the carpet by the government of the day, thus received attention.” Gerwel maintained his participation on the political stage during this time, as well, evidenced by his arrest and detention along with Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu together with his colleague Franklin Sonn during a march in Cape Town in 1989. In 1991, he was elected to the African National Congress (ANC)’s Western Cape regional committee.
In 1994, Gerwel was appointed to the post of Director-General in the presidential office of Nelson Mandela. Prior to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings, Gerwel made his hesitancy known in a 1994 interview with Padraig O’Malley when he warned that “The operation could easily become the opposite of what it intends to be. It has really got to be dealt with in a very sensitive way...the intentions are quite clear that it is not a witch-hunt, it must be recording of the pain of the nation.”
“We do not pathologize a nation in relatively good health by demanding a perpetual quest for the Holy Grail of reconciliation.” - Gert Johannes “Jakes” Gerwel, 2000
An often cited essay published in 2000 by Gerwel entitled, “National Reconciliation: Holy Grail or Secular Pact?” voiced Gerwel’s concern about the appropriate mission of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as well. Gerwel worried about a “seemingly unworried crossing of genre boundaries” in which the concept of national reconciliation contributes to the discourse of division by focusing “in a theoretically deficient and empirically unsubstantiated manner on racial groups as the primary subjects of reconciliation and encourages abiding deficiency assumptions in the national self-consciousness.” Gerwel proposed in his essay that instead of “demanding a perpetual quest for the Holy Grail of reconciliation,” it may have been fruitful to produce a critically defined elaboration of the notion of national unity” in order to advance the “major post-apartheid national project.” Nevertheless, in a 1998 interview once again with Padraig O’Malley, Gerwel did consider the TRC to have been a success:
In its limitations...The point I think that Tutu often makes is that the job of the TRC is not to accomplish reconciliation, it's to facilitate reconciliation and that reconciliation itself is a process. So, yes, I think it's working in terms of what it was mandated by its founding law to do.
Prior to the end of his tenure as Director-General, Gerwel played a major role in the 1999 Lockerbie agreement, in which Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya agreed to hand over the two Libyan suspects for trials to be conducted at Camp Zeist, Netherlands. During the week that the Lockerbie agreement was announced, Gerwel was appointed by unanimous selection to serve as the Chancellor of Rhodes University. Over his remaining years, Gerwel acquired numerous positions in both the academic and business spheres, such as chairman of Media24, Life Healthcare, Brimstone, Aurecon, Allan Gray Orbis Foundation, the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the Mandela Rhodes Foundation, vice-chairman of the Peace Parks Foundation, and an honorary professorship position at the University of Pretoria and UWC.
Gerwel received numerous awards and accolades during his life. In 1999, he was awarded the Order of the Southern Cross by President Mandela in addition to the Order of Good Deeds by Colonel Qaddafi of Libya. On 11 February 2012, Professor Gerwel was awarded an Honorary Doctorate (Doctor of Laws) from Monash University at the graduation in Ruimsig.
After undergoing heart surgery on 27 November 2012, Gerwel passed away during the early hours of Wednesday, 28 November 2012 at the Kuils River Hospital in Cape Town. He is survived by his wife Phoebe Abrahams, their two children, and four grandchildren.