In a wide-ranging interview before his death a year ago, Jakes Gerwel – academic, vice-chancellor and chief aide to Nelson Mandela – spoke among other things about working for Mandela, issues of race and class, the role of universities and the rise of technically-inclined forms of education.
Jakes Gerwel was one of South Africa’s most respected citizens: a public intellectual, an academic, a retired bureaucrat and a businessman. Born in 1946 and raised on a sheep farm in rural Eastern Cape province, he studied at the University of the Western Cape, or UWC, which was then an institution for ‘coloured’ (mixed race) people, majoring in the Afrikaans language and literature.
He took his doctorate at the University of Brussels. Literature and Apartheid. Conceptions of ‘coloureds’ in the Afrikaans novel until 1948 (1983), his first book, was based on his thesis. He published several other books, many papers, and wrote a monthly column for a mass-circulation Afrikaans newspaper.
After a decade at the chalk-face, which ended as professor of Afrikaans at UWC, Gerwel was appointed as the university’s vice-chancellor. He was responsible for a shift in that institution’s direction by calling, in his inaugural address, for it to become ‘the intellectual home of the Left’.
On apartheid’s ending, Gerwel was appointed director-general (chief-of-staff) in the office of South Africa’s first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela. He stood down at the end of the Mandela presidency in 1999.
Subsequently, Gerwel was active in South Africa’s public life, especially in the field of education, and in business. He was awarded several honorary professorships, received honorary doctorates from universities at home and abroad, and became chancellor of Rhodes University.
John Higgins interviewed him in the offices of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation in Cape Town in August 2012. Gerwel was chair of the foundation’s Board. This article comprises excerpts from that interview, which was published earlier this year by Thesis Eleven, a journal based at La Trobe University in Australia, in an edition focused on South Africa.
JH: As everyone knows, South Africa has enjoyed, since 1994, an extraordinary and extraordinarily peaceful transition from apartheid state to democratic nation. In your view, what are the factors that made this unprecedented transition possible?
JG: I have been criticised in the past for being too deterministic about these things, but I am of the view that it was South African history that laid the ground, or established the foundation, for us to come to a remarkable resolution of apartheid and the colonial conflict.
The concept of South Africa as ‘one nation’ is an old one. It’s not one that we only discovered during the [pre-democracy] negotiations, though it was one that was realised and concretised during the negotiations…
We produced the idea of ‘non-racialism’ that appears to be a singularly South African concept. The idea is a particularly South African extrapolation coming from that core concept of South Africa as ‘one nation’.
Another term that was central in the push towards democracy – though often criticised by some – was Harold Wolpe’s (1988) idea of South Africa embodying a ‘colonialism of a special type’. This also gave expression to the fact that the struggle was always among ourselves; it was not about some South Africans having a real home somewhere in a metropole beyond.
And this came through in many of the other key concepts that drove the struggle against apartheid. The ‘democratic struggle’ was never directed outwards, was never about the extinction of something: it was about the country’s people coming together.
Just remember how a substantial element in [African National] Congress politics – naively at some points – thought that we were moving from a racial society to a multi-racial society, and towards a non-racial society, and that apartheid was an aberration within that movement.
There was a great deal of that kind of inclusive thinking, so that even in the fiercest moments of struggle, what was going on was not typified as a racial struggle. We had a theory of contradiction that, while the principal contradiction was the class one, the dominant one in the sense of the one that showed, was the racial one.
But the struggle was never conducted as a racial struggle. I always had the sense that our history was conditioning us to the point where we could resolve our conflicts in the way we eventually did.
The race issue
JH: Today, and particularly in the current wave of populism, one has to ask whether the idea and practice of non-racialism really holds such a central position in current national and political discourse as it should, and as it did in the Mandela years.
JG: I think today there is a lot more overt racial talk; there is a lot of racial noise. But I still think the non-racial concept is an informing one. It is not always lived out; and it is not always talked about by different groupings.
But I still have the sense that on the world scale, South Africa is actually a pretty reconciled nation. We still live out our differences and our tensions and our divisions within a solid political and constitutional framework.
The ANC was the main driver of the old non-racial concept, for both tactical purposes and moral and principled reasons. I think today the ANC faces challenges: it has allowed material or materialistic factors to influence the concept of non-racialism.
It was Stephen Gelb (1991), if I remember correctly – drawing from what was happening in the world and in the so-called ‘actual socialist states’ – who made the point that it was becoming clearer that South Africa could not become a worker’s state or a socialist state (at least not in our time) and that the most one could look forward to was a de-racialised South African capitalism.
He asked: “If you have that, who will be the greatest rent-seeking or rent-gaining groupings or classes?” and predicted that it would be the black middle class or the black bourgeoisie, and went on to probe a number of related questions: “How do you then discipline that process?”; “How do you discipline the rent-gaining classes in order for there to be reciprocity, for the entire society to benefit?”
Today it looks to me like we failed in just those ways – unable to discipline the rent-gaining classes towards reciprocity. Gelb spoke about the need for a strong state to achieve that, but also asked: “What does it mean to have a strong state without becoming an authoritarian state?”
It seems to me that we have failed to answer that question too, and that rent-seeking and rent-gaining have become a driving force in society. We are not living out or pursuing those other principled ideals that we, as opponents of apartheid, had talked about.
JH: And much is happening under the cover of that re-racialising discourse: for even the rentiers you speak of need the support of the masses!
JG: I often contend that there is a kind of rationality in this trend, a perverse rationality perhaps. Africans, in the South African sense of the word, had been the most discriminated against, and the most exploited and the most suffering group in our society, by and large.
Of course discriminations or exploitation can be calibrated in different ways. But, even if only subjectively and in the rationality that goes along with that, one can understand why there is that rent-seeking trend among black South Africans.
But it is also clear that this trend is not good for society, and needs to be regulated and governed in a particular way which doesn’t become non non-racial. That is the challenge: how do you put right a past that was so racially determined, without yourself becoming racial in addressing it?
That is the great challenge for our society, and it is a great pity that the race-class couplet is little addressed in public discourse, at least as far as I can discern. What has happened is that the issue has become almost a purely racial one, and even at times an ethnic one within black groupings themselves.
This is the discursive challenge for public thinking set up long ago by the late Harold Wolpe (1988) and others, in their writings on race and class, and on the agenda again now that we face the imperative to change the society and the way that its racial and economic make-up looks.
JH: That is a significant challenge. I am wondering whether a part of the problem is perhaps the different critical resources and reference points available in the public mind to different generations. People of our generation were largely brought up to think in the terms offered by the complex interaction of race and class analysis; but, as you say, much of this kind of analysis has fallen out of use. So, what do you think make up the reference points for young thinkers today? How are they framing the issues of our time?
JG: This brings us to our pre-interview conversation about the humanities and education. I am no longer that in touch with universities. My closest contact with university life now is through Rhodes University, where I serve as chancellor.
What happens in the universities now and how we are educating in the humanities are important societal questions. It is, after all, where those debates originated in our times. It was in the humanities that we spoke about these issues, and we were taught about them, and that young people learnt about them.
Interacting with students at the Mandela Rhodes Foundation these last 10 years, I find it encouraging the way that they think, and I am quite sure that there are many more young people like them. But I don’t find that they have picked up on the class debate: Marxism and its form of questioning have gone totally out of fashion it seems.
I shouldn’t generalise…but the race-class issue was actually quite a fervent and informing debate during my time as a student and as a teacher; and we do know, of course, that material circumstances influence thinking. Perhaps today the demands for material progress are so strong and prevalent that people think of ‘class progress’ rather than ‘class war’.
JH: With degrees in literary and social studies, and as former vice-chancellor of UWC, you have had a deep involvement in humanist education for most of your life. Where do you see the place of the humanities in higher education policy today?
All the latest policy documents focus on the contribution of science, technology and innovation to society, but tend to have little to say of the humanities as such, while acknowledging the social and human challenges that the country faces. What do you make of the current marginalisation of the humanities?
JG: Look, one can understand the emphasis on science, technology and innovation because of the history of education in South Africa, and the sense after ’94 that transformation of higher education was an imperative.
In the old education system, too many black students went into areas like ‘biblical studies’ and others, and there was a neglect of advancement and the development of human capital in the natural sciences, mathematics, commerce and technology.
So it’s quite understandable why we sought to address that. The question is why the demise of the humanities, if there is indeed this demise, as a consequence of that changed focus?
In a strange way apartheid played a huge role in the vibrancy of the social and human sciences at the time. At the height of apartheid, sociology and historiography, for example, were vibrant and driving forces in the intellectual environment and public discourse.
I often ask myself the question, in our epistemology or our conceptualisation, have we not lost a kind of raison d’etre for the social and human sciences in the years that have followed? Did so much of the energy for the humanities and social sciences come from that oppositional energy that was set into motion by apartheid?
The anti-apartheid struggle was also in a large degree a battle of and over ideas, a battle of the priority of one set of ideas over another, and in this struggle the human and social sciences played a great and liberating role. Is it that we’ve not properly conceptualised what the human sciences do in, say, [a] ‘developmental state’, because that has become another cliche?
The emphasis seems to have shifted from oppositional social science to what do we do in a non-oppositional context? As you’ve said, the issues we’re facing are social ones – social cohesion, for example – and just how well are we doing with that?
These are questions that are not going to be addressed by the non-human sciences. So it’s not about being sentimental about the human sciences or the social sciences. These are crucial to the development and progress of our society.
JH: Indeed. I think that what slipped out of the picture – and what emerges very clearly in the example that you use – is that the force of ideas in society is a living and vital force. Certainly, you cannot really, for instance, look back at the successful anti-apartheid struggle and say that its force for social change was in some way due to the precepts of science, technology and innovation!
While ideas – the terms of public understanding and social belonging – are clearly of crucial importance to a society, it’s as if educating people in the tools of critical reflection – the assessment, interpretation and criticism of these ruling ideas – is just not important any more. What are your views on this?
JG: Even from my own recollection of what I learned at primary and secondary and high school, ideas were central; or perhaps we might say ‘values’, though it is an old sociological term that is perhaps overused, and sometimes misused.
If we just think about historiography in South Africa at the time, and its role in the societal battle of ideas, part of that struggle was about our conception of our history, and of the way to go forward from that history.
And one of the exciting and major intellectual developments in South Africa was the emergence of the revisionists and neo-Marxists; it changed the way people thought and eventually acted. And I think that much of this debate is now being neglected.
The plan currently is that what we need in this country is, above all, more technology and science; but we may be a poorer society for that. Again, and without being moralistic, there are a lot of things that are of concern, particularly the erosion of values and good practices, and increasing corruption.
How much of the debate around these issues and the action against them is being influenced by those kinds of debates? I don’t think that they are, or at least not in the same manner as it was done in the struggle years.
JH: I sometimes feel a terrible irony is at work here: that after years of intense struggle to overthrow the apartheid state, and to engage in the creation of an active and principled democracy, the key term and figure for our sense of social being has turned out to be the entrepreneur rather than the citizen, and it is that idea which is now acting to regulate the aims and outcomes of our education system post-apartheid.
JG: I remember UWC in those years, and think that perhaps we too were erring in a certain way, after the changes, especially because our changes coincided with the final collapse of socialism.
After 1990, there was an almost tangible feel of how approaches – even, I would say, ideologies – were changing. I remember I said to [political leader] Ebrahim Rasool – who was then a special assistant in my office – that it was strange “how you can feel how the term ‘efficiency’ is overtaking the term ‘human solidarity’”, and adding and conceding that
“I suppose we’ll have to go that way because the demand is now for efficiency”.
Who can argue against efficiency? But it did replace concepts of human solidarity. This was at a moment when we, at UWC, were admitting students who were not able to pay to study there. On one occasion I ran into Derek Bok, the well-known president of Harvard University. He jokingly – but commendingly – said: “They tell me that you guys at UWC are putting education above economics!”
I think that remark describes what actually is now happening in reverse. It is, in a sense, economics above education: individualistic entrepreneurship above human solidarity – a different conception of citizenship.
Working with Nelson Mandela
JH: Perhaps, as another dimension of contrast with the present, we could move now to discuss your time in Nelson Mandela’s presidential office. What can you tell us about that extraordinary period? How do you look back at it from the present?
JG: Let me situate it first on a personal level. I had been vice-chancellor at UWC for going on 10 years; I started off as a change-seeking – and a radical change-seeking – vice-chancellor. After so many years, you suddenly listen to yourself, and hear yourself defending positions…
I then negotiated with the university that I would step down as vice-chancellor in 1995. At that time, you were appointed to a vice-chancellorship until you fell down, so I had negotiated to go back to a research professorship – an academic’s dream. And then, in 1994, I was asked to take up the position in the government.
Those five years were in many senses more interesting than any traditional research professorship. I was secretary of the cabinet in that Government of National Unity with the ANC, the National Party [the party of apartheid] and Inkatha [a nationalist Zulu party] together: three historical enemies, and enemies in the real and not just metaphorical sense!
To be there with those parties, working together – it was a remarkable South African experience. We were all a bit over-optimistically proud of ourselves and what we had achieved, the three sitting together as one government, and really working well together as the Government of National Unity. That was indeed an exceptional experience.
But your question was more about working with Mandela himself.
Mandela is a leader that throws up epistemological questions. We all cherish him and lionise him as this leader – which he really was – but he himself had a sense of collective leadership. He always raised the issue of how does the individual relate to the collective, how is the individual’s experience and conduct influenced by the collective, and how does it feed back to the collective?
What I remember most of all about Mandela as decision-maker is his ability to project himself from the present – the moment in which he had to make a decision – into the future, and almost being able to stand at that future point and look back on the effect of a decision.
Any of his generation – that Robben Island generation at least – would probably have taken the same positions that he did; but he had in addition this uncanny ability to not just reflect but, as it were, ‘forwardflect’ on a decision.
JH: Observing from a distance and just, say, from reading Mandela’s autobiography (1995), what is so striking is his quite extraordinary depth of self-reflexivity. As you say, the capacity not only to step outside yourself, and really take in other people’s viewpoints, but also to think through how the consequent decision might look in the future – what its implications are in the real sense – and then also take those into account, is startling.
JG: Yes. And then there was his anthropology. He had this genuine belief – and he often argued with me about the provability of it – that human beings are essentially ‘good-doing beings, beings who do good’.
We had an incident in government where somebody very senior did something very silly and stupid, and had to step down from that position. But, at the same time, he had played a crucial role in ensuring the stability of the transition period. In the end we had to part ways with him, and he stepped down.
Madiba [Mandela’s nickname] said to him: “If there is anything that I can do for you, please don’t hesitate to ask me”. A day or two later he came back and asked for an appointment to another international position. Everyone we consulted said “No, you can’t appoint him”, and Mandela was actually quite upset about this, and asked: “Why don’t they trust the guy?”
I replied to him: “Actually, because he did something quite untrustworthy”. And he said to me: “That was an exception”, and he made the argument that if you are able to follow human beings from the moment they get up in the morning until they retire at night, you would find that most of them do the proper things most of the time, and that the erring is an aberration.
And he really acted on that. He is not naive, but he has a faith in the goodness of human beings, no matter how they disagreed politically or otherwise, and he always acted in line with that belief. Of course, this attitude also helped to lay the basis for the furthering of social cohesion and national unity in the country.
He is a remarkable human being. I just sit back and marvel about what makes a human being, and what are the factors, what are the conditions, that can make a human being like that. And the other thing, of course, is that he also believed that other people are like him, in that concept of acting.
But he is a good politician. If you asked me what the difference is between him and Desmond Tutu – the two icons of our transition – it is that Mandela is a politician through and through. He understands party politics and politics to the finger-tips. He is not a saint, and he often made that point. He is a hard politician. But he uses power, he uses his political agency for the good.
JH: Yes. All this makes him such an extraordinary figure. One often wonders – and I’m sure you wondered it as well – just what the psychic mechanisms are for becoming like that. What happened to all the pain and trauma that he suffered? How did that come through, was it – or how was it – transmuted, changed into something else?
JG: In all the years that I worked with him, in government and then after he left government – that’s over 18 years that I worked more closely with him than most others. And we often spent quite a bit of time together, not just on official business.
In all of those years, he never expressed a word of bitterness. If he had bitterness, he worked with it, he internalised it, and buried it away. He would sometimes say to me: ‘Some things are better not to dwell on.” That is the way he dealt with it.
One could say, for instance, that he had been incarcerated and victimised by the Afrikaners – Afrikaners having been the masters of the apartheid state – but he had great appreciation for Afrikaners, and for individual Afrikaners. I could mention examples.
JH: Partly why I ask this is because of the role in your own development of black consciousness thinking, and the great emphasis in that placed on the psychic dimensions of oppression and subjugation, and the consequent importance of facing and getting through that.
JG: There was a lot of emphasis placed on the importance of psychological liberation, as [black consciousness leader Steve] Biko would often emphasise. A part of that was not to be the victim of your suffering, and not to be the victim of those who perpetrated it against you.
Mandela often made that point: “To be bitter would be to allow yourself to be kept imprisoned.” He rose above that by the generosity of spirit…Mandela was so generous in his relationships with those who could be described as the adversary. If you talked about the enemy, which he didn’t regard as an enemy, he would say: "Be kind to your enemy, be kind to your adversary.”
People often talk about Mandela’s values, and what they learned from him. And often, when we had these long debates at the Nelson Mandela Foundation, about what are the core values of Mandela, I would say that the thing that I remember him teaching me was: “Jakes, never let your enemy choose the terrain of combat by reacting in anger. If you act in anger to anybody, even if it’s your friend, you are allowing that person to choose the terrain.”
So all this was a combination of genuine principled morals with a great tactical sense.
JH: One of the most striking – and hopeful – features of contemporary South African political life post-apartheid is the range of movements in civil society that continue to fight for social justice…How do you see the role of such groupings in post-apartheid society? Why should they seem to be so necessary after the 1994 transition?
JG: Probably one of the big agents of change that kept the idea of change alive in South Africa was the strong civil society. Just as we spoke of with regard to the humanities and social sciences, immediately after 1994 there was a lull or lack of activity in civil society; but that is ending and organs of civil society are strongly coming to the fore again.
There may be a parallel here with what might have gone wrong in the Soviet Union, where there was the absence of that counter-balancing civil society. After the ANC came to power, I said to myself – in a kind of Stalinist way – with regard to concepts such as ‘civil society’, that there was almost an ‘anti-revolutionary’ guard against the ANC.
Many of the old anti-apartheid civil society organisations responded in the same way by saying to themselves: ‘This is our government; this is our democratic government; this is our progressive government’. It is the way that the ANC-in-government has since then disappointed people that has given rise again to civil society movements.
Of course one should understand, as Jeremy Cronin pointed out in an article a few months ago, that civil society ranges from class-conservative agencies like chambers of commerce to real progressive agents on the other end, and that one should be able to make those distinctions. [Cronin, a political prisoner under apartheid and then exiled in the UK, is a stalwart of the South African Communist Party and Deputy Minister of Public Works.]
But a strong civil society is the counter-balance to governments that can become authoritarian and unaccountable, and I see that arising more and more. Trade unions, of course, are also important parts of civil society.
Education in a bad state
JH: Why do you think education in the country is in such a bad state, despite the attempts to deal with it?
JG: I largely think this is a question of management. We had a lot of things to undo about apartheid education. But I also think we went ‘fancy’ in too many ways. Take, for instance, Outcomes Based Education. OBE is a good thing…if you have the proper infrastructure, if you have the material to do it.
If I look at what my grandchildren do as part of Outcomes Based Education, and the facilities that they have to do it, then I wonder what a poor kid in the township can do. There was an unplanned way of tackling challenges; and we just don’t have the human capacity to manage it. Too many school principals are not able to manage schools, and teachers are not attending to the basic things that they should be attending to. There is a massive failure of management.
And, yes, we did a couple of silly things (I was Cabinet Secretary at the time), like the closing of teacher training colleges and other colleges, and the ending of the apprenticeship system, which has totally fallen by the wayside. There was also the changed focus of some universities, especially those that formerly taught technical subjects. We got a lot of systemic things wrong.
JH: Is it fixable?
JG: It has to be fixable.
I often wonder about the management of state institutions and state departments. We have a number of schools of government, and a number of schools of public administration. I wonder whether there isn’t a way that there can be a combined effort by them to ‘speed train’ people towards greater administrative and management efficiency and competence?
One mustn’t romanticise the past, but after the Cuban revolution, one of the things they did was to send thousands of people into the countryside to do basic literacy training. And look where Cuba stands today in the provision of doctors and teachers!
JH: Yes, it’s not as if there aren’t significant examples of countries with fewer or similar resources to ours getting their health and education systems right: Cuba immediately comes to mind, as you say, and – if we look at the new Happiness Index – Costa Rica. South Africa figures very poorly on that index, which suggests that two of the main constituents for people’s happiness are good healthcare and good education.
JG: One of the other things that Mandela frequently repeated (in the beginning, we were sometimes embarrassed by him saying the same thing over and over again, but that is part of his integrity): he always said what most people in the world want is good education for their kids, good healthcare when they need it, decent shelter, and being able to work.
And that is happiness.
Universities as agents of change
JH: In terms of higher education, it was striking that the Framework for Transformation document of 1997 explicitly stated the importance of fostering ‘critical citizenship’ in students, for the greater public good. But it is striking that policy implementation over the years has tended to encourage entrepreneurship rather than citizenship.
In your view, what exactly is the social role of university education? Is the vocational emphasis the only necessary one?
JG: I studied in Belgium in the early 1970s, and my supervisor at the time bemoaned the fact that universities were more and more becoming places that the bureaucrats had taken over from the humanists, as he put it. At that time, this wasn’t the case in South Africa, and we were booming as places of debate. But now it has come to that here.
Is this not a question of university leadership too? At some of the universities which I am acquainted with I have seen how the leadership of the institutions assertively promote the humanities in the face of current trends.
Yes, the emphasis should be on critical citizenship. Look, there are these systemic issues of funding, but I think university leadership in our circumstances should also be making a stronger case for the universities as cultural or humanistic agencies in a society that is dearly in need of that input.
So, I’m saying there is the global trend towards bureaucratisation, but I think this can also be combated or steered differently by strong leadership.
JH: Or to frame the question of the university in terms of Marx’s Thesis Eleven, do you see the role of the intellectual as understanding the world or changing it? Or, more precisely, what do you see as the relation between the two?
JG: I suppose this is also a question of orientation. Coming from where I come from, if I speak of my own experiences, I share the Marxist maxim. What I felt had to be done was not only understanding the world, but also changing it. We grew up in a world that clearly and patently needed changing so I suppose it wasn’t difficult to adopt that view.
I remember the critic George Steiner – not everyone’s cup of tea, I know – wrote in one of his essays that, in the 20th century, it is difficult for an honest man to be a literary critic because there are so many other urgent things to be done in life, and so many demands on one. [In “Georg Lukacs and his Devil’s Pact”, 1984].
But then he spoke about [philosopher] Georg Lukacs, who had ways of dealing with that problem, and argued that adopting humanist practice did not mean abdicating on having to change the world.
At UWC, when I was vice-chancellor, when we got into this concept of an ‘intellectual home of the Left’, often I had to say to activist academics: ‘Just handing out pamphlets in the township isn’t necessarily your change-seeking responsibility. An intellectual can change the world or contribute to the changing of the world through intellectual activity’.
So I always unpack that Marxist phrase. Clearly understanding the world is an important form of changing the world, and Marx himself is an exemplar of that: what is needed is clear understanding, profound understanding.
* John Higgins is a professor in English and fellow of the University of Cape Town. He is author of the award-winning study “Raymond Williams: Literature, Marxism and cultural materialism”, and editor of The Raymond Williams Reader. His current research interests are in issues in higher education and academic freedom, and in Marx as Scribbler.
* This article is extracted from the journal Thesis Eleven, based at La Trobe University in Australia, from an article by John Higgins titled “Living out our differences: Reflections on Mandela, Marx and my country: An interview with Jakes Gerwel”, published earlier this year. It is republished with the permission of the journal and the author.
* The article is also published as Chapter 8 in John Higgins’ recently published book, Academic Freedom in a Democratic South Africa: Essays and Interviews on Higher Education and the Humanities (Wits University Press), alongside interviews with Edward W. Said and Terry Eagleton.
By John Higgins
Source: University World News website