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8 December 2021
Cultivator of hopes and dreams
Despite the original Greek meaning of his first name, George Gibbs is not a farmer. But he is certainly a cultivator. In a lifetime of service, George tirelessly and patiently nurtured people with the same care as that of a farmer tending his crops, planting seeds of hope in poor communities, coaxing them to life, guiding their growth and fiercely protecting them from the eroding elements of apartheid and capitalism. The fruits of his labour can be found in communities across South Africa, where many of the development projects he was involved in not only still exist, but thrive. 

Unassuming and humble by nature, George attributes much of the success of his pioneering community work to the inspiration and leadership of powerful mentors at key moments in his life, including his father (also named George, although known as Jock), and the support of his wife, Eunice. George’s marriage to Eunice in 1971 bore two children: daughter Jacqueline Adriaans (BA Honours in Political Studies, UWC, 1995) and son George (what else!).

His early social consciousness was shaped by his father, who was secretary of the Cape Town Municipal Workers Association - a precursor of the South African Municipal Workers Union - and worked as a housing superintendent for the City of Cape Town. At the age of fifteen, George lost his father to sudden illness and his guardian and uncle, Peter Langeveldt, died the following year. Despite the hardship that followed, he matriculated well enough at Athlone High to study at the University College of the Western Cape, as it was then known, and began a diploma in social work in 1963. 

He was almost immediately drawn into student politics and, particularly, the struggle to get the university to recognise the student leadership. He was one of the authors of the original Student Representative Council constitution and served as SRC treasurer. In response to his activism, the then Rector Gans Meiring ‘invited’ him to leave and his studies were disrupted for three years before he was allowed to return and finish his diploma.

After graduating, George intended teaching, but his former principal, the poet SV Petersen, introduced him to Richard van der Ross, who was then a circuit inspector in the Department of Education (Coloured Affairs).

Influenced by the Headstart project in the USA, van der Ross was convinced that successful education should be founded on intervention in early learning. Van der Ross persuaded George and a few other social workers to join him in 1972 at the new Early Learning Centre in Kewtown, Athlone, which he ran until 1974 when he became Rector of UWC. Among their then-revolutionary ideas was to train mothers in homeschooling and to be teachers’ aides. The Early Learning Resource Centre (Elru) that grew from this project, which was run for many years by van der Ross’s daughter, Freda Brock, has trained thousands of ECD educators throughout South Africa since 1978.

Also in 1972, a grant from Mobil Oil enabled van der Ross and George to establish the Build a Better Society (BABS) organisation in Athlone. George was a key driver in the growth of BABS, which developed a multi-purpose community centre and one of the first affordable social housing projects in the country, funded by Mobil Oil SA. BABS itself was supported by Mobil Oil and Anglo American. 

Ever the pioneer, George was appointed the first corporate social investment manager of colour at Mobil Oil and was involved in establishing the Mobil Oil Foundation. During his work there in the 1970s and 1980s, the foundation funded many community projects. 

The birth of democracy brought new opportunities to contribute. In 1994, George began working with the Equal Opportunity Foundation (EOF) which was funded by Coca-Cola, alongside luminaries such as Jakes Gerwel, Allan Boesak and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. George served on the boards of BABS and EOF for many years. From 2000 to 2009, he was the Absa Group’s regional manager for communications and was also involved in the Western Cape activities of the Absa Foundation. 

After he left Absa in 2009, George continued his community work at EOF and BABS and served on the board of the Aids advocacy organisation, Wola Nani. Even in his ‘retirement’ years, George has assisted numerous organisations with fundraising. 

Reflecting on his many years of growing community organisations and service, George says:  “It’s amazing, and I think I am undeserving, but I am grateful and deeply appreciative of this recognition that I am getting from this newsletter. I am grateful for the years I spent at UWC and how it influenced my life. As an alumnus, I imagine the financial contribution that I am making now will be of far greater benefit to people who are academically more suited than I ever was. 

“I am contributing towards supporting people who can bring about change in the world of tomorrow. I just wish that other people [whose success was built on the foundation of their UWC experience] would do the same. If they could only do that, I think that our university would really be a much better place.”