While still the Vice-Chancellor of UWC, Prof Gerwel officiated at the historic event in the Main Hall on 28 November 1990, when UWC conferred an honorary doctorate in Law on Nelson Mandela, nine months after his release from Victor Verster prison. After the first democratic elections, Prof Gerwel left UWC to serve with distinction as the Director-General in the Office of President Mandela.
At his inauguration in June 1987 as UWC’s Rector and Vice-Chancellor, Prof Jakes Gerwel declared that UWC would act as “an intellectual home of the left”. His speech marked a turning point at UWC where the institution joined the students, not only to reject the university being used as an instrument of apartheid, but to actively oppose apartheid as a site of struggle.
Reflecting on this period, current Rector and Vice-Chancellor, Prof Tyrone Pretorius, notes that, under the leadership of Prof Gerwel, resistance at UWC became “not only vigorously political but also very consciously intellectual”.
A defining feature of Prof Gerwel’s tenure was a concerted focus on developing policy and legislative frameworks supporting the ANC ‘government-in-waiting’. Some of this work was driven by exiles returning to the country after the unbanning of the liberation movements in 1990. Several prominent exiles were recruited into newly-established UWC centres and institutes to research and develop policies for the democratic society. Several key architects of the South African Bill of Rights and Interim Constitution who were based at the UWC Community Law Centre (now known as the Dullah Omar Institute), along with other UWC senior academics, took up positions in the new government and state institutions.
Importantly, UWC’s Mission reflects Prof Gerwel’s legacy in affirming that the “integration of academic and intellectual life with, and the development of it, out of the reality of people’s social experience and the world is essential both for the order of our functioning and, more importantly, for the vitality and quality of our intellectual environment”.
In response to the announcement, Theo Kemp, the CEO of the Jakes Gerwel Foundation, said: “The Jakes Gerwel Foundation is deeply grateful to Prof Tyrone Pretorius and all involved at the University of the Western Cape for the significant decision to rename its Main Hall (pictured) to Jakes Gerwel, especially in the year we commemorate the tenth year of Prof Gerwel’s untimely death in 2012. This gesture of the UWC is not only a reaffirmation of Jakes Gerwel’s contribution to the transformation of the university in such a turbulent period of the South African political landscape, but also of the rich legacy he left us as a nation. This name change clearly signals that we should never forget this intellectual giant, and more importantly, what he stood for. Even in these times with so many challenges in our country, we should not give up hope for the land of equality Gerwel and others fought for, and we all deserve.”