Jakes Gerwel, 1946-2012

December 20, 2012

A leading academic, anti-apartheid campaigner and close colleague of Nelson Mandela has died.

Gert Johannes (Jakes) Gerwel was born in rural Somerset East, South Africa in 1946, and attended the University of the Western Cape (UWC). After graduating, he was awarded a scholarship to the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, where he was to study for a doctorate in literature and philosophy before returning to lecture at UWC.

In 1980, he was appointed professor in the Afrikaans department, and three years later published his most significant academic work, Literatuur en apartheid: konsepsies van "gekleurdes" in die Afrikaanse roman tot 1948 (Literature and Apartheid: Conceptions of "Coloureds" in the Afrikaans Novel until 1948).

Professor Gerwel rose through the ranks at UWC, becoming vice-chancellor and rector in 1987. From that post, he led the rejection of the apartheid principles on which the university had been founded. The institution was originally a teacher training college for students who were not eligible for entry into "White" universities, but early in his term as vice-chancellor, Professor Gerwel defied government segregation policy and opened its doors to all races.

In 1994, he was recruited by Nelson Mandela to become the first cabinet secretary of the democratic government, and became a trusted sounding board for the president. He went on to chair the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Mandela Rhodes Foundation, which awards postgraduate scholarships to talented students.

In 1999, Mandela bestowed the Order of Good Hope on Professor Gerwel for his prominent role in negotiating the surrender of two Libyan nationals accused of involvement in the bombing of a transatlantic jet above the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988. It was also in 1999 that Professor Gerwel became chancellor of Rhodes University; a post that he held until his death.

Saleem Badat, vice-chancellor of Rhodes University, described Professor Gerwel as a "courageous, gifted and pioneering South African intellectual".

Writing on the university's website, he said that Professor Gerwel "will be fondly remembered and greatly missed as chancellor of Rhodes University. A humble, gentle man of great integrity with a lively mind and intellect, he was always a source of good judgment and wise counsel."

Brian O'Connell, rector and vice-chancellor at UWC, said: "We have lost a great intellectual at a time when our country sorely needs critical voices of reason and steadfast optimism like Jakes'."

Professor Gerwel died on 28 November, aged 66, of complications following heart surgery. He is survived by his wife, Phoebe, son Heinrich, daughter Jessie and four grandchildren.


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