Rhodes pays tribute to ‘exceptional’ Gerwel

By David Macgregor


FAMILY, friends and colleagues of the late Rhodes University Chancellor Professor Jakes Gerwel, gathered in Grahamstown yesterday to commemorate the life and work of an intellectual giant who died two weeks ago.

Gerwel’s son Hein urged all South Africans to critically think about issues affecting society.

He said he hoped his father’s legacy would encourage nation building, non-racialism, reconciliation and uncovering the real truth behind the truth and reconciliation commission.

Dressed in a black suit, black shirt and tie and a badge of Rastafarian icon Haile Selassie pinned to his lapel, the dreadlocked academic lightened the mood at the memorial service when he admitted to being a dagga smoking Rhodes student in the early 1990s.

“I was a member of the reggae appreciation society in the early 90s when myself and a few other reggae loving, ganja smoking students decided to start an ANC branch on campus,” he explained – to giggles from the academics gathered at the last farewell for Gerwel.

He said there had been opposition from some quarters, despite the ANC being unbanned years earlier.

During his short tribute to his father, Gerwel, who would be a splitting image of the famous academic if he cut off his dreads, said it was important that the legacy of his father’s thinking be used to improve the country.

“I am very honoured to be here today,” the university economics academic explained.

Gerwel’s cousin Dayne Gerwel said the entire family were still mourning the loss. “We did not know him as an academic, politician or businessman. We simply knew him as Uncle Jakes.”

Dayne recalled how his uncle was born on a Kommadagga sheep farm and overcame the odds despite extremely hard conditions that included sharing a room with six brothers.

He explained how Gerwel’s achievements inspired others.

“For him to rise up from where he came from to become one of the country’s greatest academics is truly an inspiration to me.”

Dayne Gerwel said his uncle’s love of tortoises – which included several live specimens in his garden at home and hundreds of statues in his office – made him realise later in life how similar in character they both were.

“As I grew older I realised my uncle actually had a lot in common with this animal.

“The tortoise is quiet, humble, has great memory, always aware of his position and thinks before he makes his move. This is so true of my uncle. In addition, the tortoise also does not smile.”

Vice-chancellor Dr Saleem Badat described Gerwel as an “exceptional, courageous and pioneering South African intellectual, scholar, activist and citizen with a deep commitment to equity, social justice and democracy”.

He said the fact that Gerwel was a rural boy who achieved so much success under adverse conditions must serve as an inspiration to young people who struggled under the burden of dismal educational opportunities.