South Africa: Gerwel Dies At 66

Photo: Old Mutual
Professor Jakes Gerwel died at the age of 66.

Johannesburg — The Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory sent condolences on behalf of Mandela, the board of trustees and staff to the family of their chairman Professor Jakes Gerwel, who died at the Kuilsriver Hospital on Wednesday morning.

"We will deeply miss ‘Prof' as we fondly refer to him," the centre said.

"Our founder (former president Mandela) worked with Prof for many years, throughout his Presidency and during and beyond his retirement.

"When Madiba stepped down in 1999 after serving one term as President of South Africa, Professor Gerwel his Director-General, left the Office of the President to join Madiba in his post-presidential work.

"Prof led the Nelson Mandela Foundation Board of Trustees and staff through our recent transition to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory.

"As the chief executive of the Centre of Memory, Mr Achmat Dangor, said: 'We will miss his wisdom and calm guidance'."

The 66-year-old had been in a critical condition on Tuesday after he underwent heart surgery and on Monday incorrect posts on some media houses' Twitter feeds said he had died.

Family spokeswoman Pam Barron said: "The Gerwel family would like their privacy to be respected for the next couple of days. Funeral arrangements will be made known soon."

Gerwel was a well-known figure in South Africa's political history and in his later years, he chaired and was on the board of major organisations and corporations.

He grew up on a sheep farm and little did he know that one day he would become the right-hand man of South Africa's first democratic president.

Gerwel -- an academic, executive and multi-award winner --served as director-general in Mandela's office when he became the first democratically elected president.

He was born on January 18, 1946 in the Eastern Cape town of Somerset East and matriculated from Paterson High School in Port Elizabeth.

In 1967, Gerwel graduated from the University of the Western Cape with a Bachelor of Arts degree and completed his honours a year later.

In the late 1960s Gerwel became involved in the Black Consciousness Movement, led by Steve Biko. He became an educational adviser to the SA Students' Organisation (Saso) in the early 1970s.

For a short while, Gerwel lectured at the Hewat Teachers' Training College in Cape Town and in 1971, he received a government scholarship to study at the University of Brussels.

Here he completed a licentiate [academic degree] in Germanic Philosophy and a literature doctorate.

When he returned to South Africa, he took up a teaching post at Grassy Park High School in Cape Town.

He later moved to the University of the Western Cape and became a lecturer.

In 1980, Gerwell was appointed a professor and just two years later a Dean of the Arts Faculty.

He was appointed vice-chancellor of the university five years later.

Gerwell's political participation raised university eyebrows and before his appointment to permanent staff he received three probations.

During the 1980 education protests, Gerwel was detained by the apartheid police.

Nine years later, he and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, together with fellow teacher Franklin Sonn, were arrested during a march in Cape Town.

In 1991, Gerwel was elected a member of the ANC's Western Cape regional committee.

The University of the Western Cape on its website, said Gerwel saw an "unambiguous alignment with the mass democratic movement and a new edge to the academic project".

It said that under the banner of "an intellectual home of the left", space was created for curriculum renewal and for innovative research and outreach projects.

"Important social and policy issues, which had been swept under the carpet by the government of the day, thus received attention," the university said.

It also formalised its "open" admissions policy, providing access to a growing number of African students.

In 1994, Gerwel was appointed to the post of director general in the office the Mandela presidency.

In a series of interviews with writer and researcher Padraig O'Malley, published on the Nelson Mandela Centre for Memory website, Gerwel talked of the crucial years preceding South Africa's transition to democracy.

He also recalled the tough negotiations at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa, and the first years after the election of Mandela as the country's first democratically elected president.

"We often forget the miracle of our transition, the fact that a country so deeply divided managed to negotiate a settlement and establish a democratic order, and establish a government of national unity and managed to establish national unity amongst the diverse, cultural, ethnic but particularly political groupings which we have in the country," he said in an interview in August 1998.

"So really one doesn't need to be very profound actually to make the statement that what has changed fundamentally in SA is that it has got a democratic government; SA has a government, has got a polity in which all of its people and all its political tendencies hold together."

During his own time in government, he named crime and unemployment as two areas of concern.

"So one would have wished that the combination of social factors and capacity for law enforcement was such that the crime situation was less critical than it is," he told O'Malley.

His awards include the Order of Southern Cross from Mandela, the Order of Good Deeds from Libya and Freedom of the Town from Somerset East.

He also served as chairman for Media24, the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation, was chairman of SAA and a chancellor of Rhodes of University.

A rugby and cricket lover, Gerwel was the chairman of the policy committee of the 2003 cricket World Cup.

He was married to Phoebe Abrahams and they had two children, a daughter Jessie, a son Heinrich, and four grandchildren.

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InFocus

Respected South African Academic Dies

Professor Jakes Gerwel died at the age of 66.

Professor Jakes Gerwel, an academic and politician, passed away after being in a critical condition following heart surgery. Read more »