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28 November 2022
Jakes Gerwel’s legacy lives on
“Welcome to the house that Jakes built." On 1 December 2012, my predecessor, Professor Brian O'Connell, welcomed guests to the Main Hall of the University of the Western Cape (UWC) with these words. The occasion was the memorial service for UWC's most eminent alumnus, Professor Jakes Gerwel, who had died three days earlier. 

I remember that Saturday afternoon so well - an occasion that was sensitively managed by former finance minister, Trevor Manuel. In addition to the extended Gerwel family, Graça Machel and former president FW de Klerk, the afternoon brought together friends, neighbours, academics, alumni, Gerwel's business associates, and his colleagues from his time in government. Those who were there will never forget David Kramer's rendition of So Long Skipskop.
Prof Jakes Gerwel served as UWC Rector and
Vice-Chancellor from 1987-1994

It was fitting that on 21 July 2022, we renamed UWC's most celebratory space, the Main Hall, as the Jakes Gerwel Hall. Here, in the heart of the university, new first-year students are welcomed to UWC annually. It is also the space in which we celebrate the achievements of our graduates. The Jakes Gerwel Hall is one way in which his name and legacy will continue to inspire all who visit, work, and study at "the house that Jakes built". 

Gerwel was associated with UWC for most of his adult life and was instrumental in its transformation from an apartheid-established institution, with academic offerings limited to meeting the needs of the lower and middle class echelons of the civil service, into a leading intellectual resource for the country.

He enrolled at UWC in 1965, graduated cum laude in Afrikaans and Dutch and obtained an honours degree in the same discipline. Following a period of teaching Afrikaans at Hewat Training College in Athlone, he obtained a Belgian scholarship and attended the Vrije Universiteit of Brussels, where he completed a doctorate in literature and philosophy for a thesis titled, "Literatuur en Apartheid". He returned to UWC, became a professor in 1980 and became dean of the Arts faculty in 1982. 

I was privileged to be one of many students who had Gerwel as a lecturer. In his quiet and unassuming way he was an inspirational university teacher, carefully selecting our prescribed texts and offering new approaches to literary studies. In 1987, at age 41, he was appointed as Vice-Chancellor, and under his leadership UWC became the first nonracial university in South Africa. 

Exactly 22 years before his death, on 28 November 1990, he officiated at the event in the Main Hall at which UWC conferred an honorary doctorate in law on Nelson Mandela. In 1994, after our first democratic elections, it was fitting that Gerwel was appointed director-general in the office of president Mandela. At Gerwel's memorial, Joel Netshitenze, a senior colleague of his in the presidency, said his approach was "a study in the calm management of a transition".

We also remember Prof Gerwel as a prominent public intellectual and businessman, thoughtful in all his contributions.
Prof Jakes Gerwel and Nelson Mandela at the
latter's honorary doctorate conferral in 1990. 
Image: Rashid Lombard

His association with higher education continued through his association with UWC as a distinguished professor of humanities and as Chancellor of Rhodes University.

Throughout his life Prof Gerwel was deeply rooted in the Eastern Cape, where he was born in 1946 on a sheep farm in Kommadagga, close to Somerset East. In addition to the unique landscape and vegetation of that area, I always have a sense that there is a humbleness and an unpretentiousness about the Eastern Cape, and maybe this is partly what shaped Prof Gerwel into the unique leader and human being that he was. 

A colleague told me she once asked him what he always carried in his briefcase, and he answered: "Many things, depending on circumstances, but always an atlas of the world and a copy of NP van Wyk Louw's anthology, Versamelde Gedigte, because there is enough in Van Wyk Louw's work to keep one busy for an entire lifetime." 

Prof Gerwel's love for the work of Karel Schoeman and Van Wyk Louw is well known. I do, however, wonder about the atlas. Maybe one carries an atlas of the world to explore what is new and unknown, but also to make sure that you can always find your way home. For UWC, Prof Gerwel's legacy is an integral part of what we constantly come home to, because he taught us that: "The integration of academic and intellectual life with, and the development of it out of the reality of people's social experience ... is essential both for the order of our functioning and, more importantly, for the vitality and quality of our intellectual environment." 

Professor Gerwel, 10 years later, you are still acutely missed. 
Prof Tyrone Pretorius and Phoebe Gerwel, Prof Jakes Gerwel's widow, at the renaming ceremony of the Main Hall at UWC. Image: Ruvan Boshoff
*This article was originally published in the Sunday Times, 27 November 2022.