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A humble man of intellect, integrity

Date Released: Fri, 30 November 2012 13:00 +0200

By Dr Saleem Badat

ONE of the first messages of condolences following the death of Rhodes University chancellor Professor Jakes Gerwel came from a retired academic who said he was: “a good and great man. He will be hard to replace”.

The chairman of Rhodes’ UK Trust, Geoffrey de Jager, wrote: “What sad and devastating news. A great man, who often gave me wise counsel. His death will leave a big void in many people’s lives.”

I first met Jakes Gerwel in 1987 at the London apartment of former deputy minister of foreign affairs, Aziz Pahad. This was soon after Gerwel became vice-chancellor of the University of the Western Cape (UWC). I was excited by his commitment to make UWC the “intellectual home of the democratic left”, and was thrilled when he invited me to consider joining UWC when I returned to South Africa.

Joining UWC in 1989 was the smartest thing I have done in my life. Many black intellectuals and scholars like myself owe our achievements and positions to Gerwel’s bold and inspired leadership and the exciting intellectual environment he cultivated at UWC.

And so, it was exciting to be formally linked with him again when I became vice-chancellor at Rhodes in 2006.

He 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. He will be warmly remembered for the grace and dignity with which he officiated at the university’s graduation ceremonies, capping thousands of students.

Born on January 18 1946 in Somerset East in the rural Eastern Cape, Gert Johannes Gerwel was a product of historically disadvantaged schools. Like most black South Africans from a rural background, he had to triumph over the Verwoerdian dictum that there was no place for blacks beyond being hewers of wood and drawers of water.

In a country deeply challenged to improve schooling, his example of a rural boy who achieved remarkable success under adverse conditions must serve as a source of inspiration for young people who struggle under the burden of dismal educational opportunities.

Gerwel was a courageous, gifted and pioneering South African intellectual, scholar, leader, citizen and person with a profound commitment to creating a just and humane society.

Through a long and distinguished association with the higher education sector as dean, vice-chancellor, chairman of the Committee of University Principals in the early 1990s, chancellor, and Mandela Rhodes Foundation chairman, Gerwel was an outstanding champion of higher education.

As chancellor, he challenged Rhodes to think critically and imaginatively about access, equity and transformation and about its role in socioeconomic development.

On accepting an honorary doctorate from Rhodes, Gerwel said: “Universities are both central agents for change, and steady beacons of continuity and tradition.” His leadership ensured these paradoxical goals received constant close attention.

He was a strong advocate of Rhodes University pursuing, in a principled manner, equity with quality, and quality with equity. He took pride in the university’s academic achievements and its increasing community engagement.

The Jakes Gerwel Rhodes University Scholarship Fund is testimony to his own life of achievement. It supports Eastern Cape students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds to attend Rhodes University.

Gerwel was not only a significant figure in higher education, but also an important beacon in the economic, social and political life of South Africa.

There were many pioneering firsts. On June 5 1987 he became the first radical vice-chancellor, not only of UWC but of any South African university. He led the rejection of the apartheid principles on which UWC had been established. Noting that “Afrikaans universities stand firmly within the context of Afrikaner nationalism”, and that “the English-language universities operate within the contexts of anglophile liberalism”, he observed there was no university linked to “those people and institutions working for a fundamental transformation of the old settler-colonial order”.

He stated he could not “in conscience, in truth, educate or lead education, towards the reproduction and maintenance of a social order which is undemocratic, discriminatory, exploitative and repressive”. Universities, instead, had to promote “through example, a democratic culture”.

Gerwel was too good and thoughtful an intellectual to reduce a university to a political institution. He said that a university can never “have a corporate opinion” nor compromise its “essential identity as ‘disinterested’ searchers after truth”.

President Nelson Mandela noted: “The nation drew inspiration from (UWC’s) defiant transformation of itself from an ethnic institution into a proud national asset: from its . . . concern for the poor, for women and rural communities, and from its readiness to grapple with the kinds of problems that a free and democratic South Africa was to deal with later.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu recalled Gerwel saying, “especially at a time when it was unpopular, ‘We are on the side of the downtrodden, we are going to work for the upliftment of our people’.”

Under Gerwel, UWC rejected apartheid, and committed itself to social justice and “the development of the Third World communities in South Africa”.

Access was opened to all South Africans and UWC began to ditch its previous baggage as a “coloured” and ““bush” university.

Intellectual debate flourished and UWC became an exciting space for socially committed and engaged scholarship.

Gerwel took knowledge seriously. As he was wont to point out to the more action-oriented: “Good intellectual work entails hard work of a special type. It is as difficult, if not more difficult, than organising door-todoor work, street committees and mass rallies.”

He did not, however, eschew action. He stood shoulder-to-shoulder with protesters in Cape Town during the defiance campaign marches of the late 1980s. And during protests at UWC that often spilt onto the streets he shielded students and academics confronted by riot police armed with rubber bullets and tear gas.

Gerwel’s Literatuur en Apartheid published in 1983 remains a key text in the Afrikaans and Southern African literature discourse. He also published a variety of monographs, articles, essays and papers on literary, educational and sociopolitical issues.

There was educational innovation that was years ahead of any other university. One area of profound work was in academic development programmes, which sought to provide real equal opportunity for the poor.

Gerwel also helped to significantly advance gender equity at UWC.

The early 1990s saw UWC become a key site for policy research in support of an equitable and democratic South Africa. Gerwel brought those of us working in the arena of higher education policy development into conversation with others working on constitutional, economic, trade, health and other policy issues. Many of those involved become cabinet ministers and leaders of institutions post-1994.

Another first was when Madiba recruited Gerwel to become democratic South Africa’s first director-general and cabinet secretary in the Office of the President. Later he chaired the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Mandela Rhodes Foundation, which awards postgraduate scholarships to talented students.

Gerwel is a magnificent symbol of intellectual, academic, social and personal integrity, professionalism and specialist expertise, courage and human good. He leaves a powerful legacy of bold leadership, critical scholarship, commitment to social justice and a humane society, and social action towards these ends.

What Colin Bundy has noted with respect to the late Harold Wolpe applies equally to Gerwel: he “was one of those rare academics who give intellectuals a good name”.

Jakes Gerwel can rest content in the knowledge that he lived his life as advocated by an outstanding revolutionary (Nikolai Ostrovsky): “A person’s dearest possession is their life; and since it is given to live but once, live as to feel no torturing regrets for years without purpose; so live that in dying one can say: All my life and all my strength was given to the finest cause in the world – the liberation of humankind.”

Hamba Kahle, bold, humble and gentle man, leader and mentor of great integrity and intellect and dry and understated humour. You will be dearly missed.

Saleem Badat is vice-chancellor of Rhodes University

Source: Daily Dispatch