Jakes Gerwel – a Tribute

By  Goolam Aboobaker


I first met Jakes in the heady days of 1985: the struggle against apartheid was reaching new heights; the United Democratic Front (UDF), as a Coloured petrol attendant in George put it, ‘spooking PW Botha,’ and inspired resistance in all parts of our country to new heights; the University of Western Cape like in 1973, 1976, and in 1980 was a hot bed of student mobilisation and resistance. He did not shirk his responsibility as an educationists, academic and political activist, and in that tumultuous period he too was at the front of the marches. Sometime in 1987, I, an activist newly out of detention with a wife and child, who had a couple of years earlier lost his job as a medical physicist at Groote Schuur hospital, received a call from him if I were prepared to work with him as an assistant to help him transform his university into “A Intellectual Home for the Left.” It was a job any self-respecting activist and himself a ‘left intellectual’ would do without remuneration!

My first encounter though was at the launch of the Lansdowne branch of the United Women’s Organisation (UWO) by Virginia Engel. She belonged to a BC group with Jakes at UWC and was involved in cultural activities at the university. She held him highly and asked that I attend to hear him.

Mine was a privileged position to sit next to him as we engaged with students and academics what it meant to give substance and meaning to create this home of the left. It allowed me the opportunity to get to know a remarkable human being: an academic activist, a left political intellectual who was refreshingly honest, humble and respectful, courageous and heroic!

The University of the Western Cape allowed us an opportunity to grapple with the challenges of transformation in “apartheid time”: how to build non-racialism in the context of the Western Cape where the Coloured students and academics (in the majority), while being consistently anti-apartheid, were nonetheless anxious of democratic majority rule, how to consolidate the support of the middle ground consisting of largely whites and Afrikaners to the democratic project, how to transform an apartheid institution to nurture critique to undermine apartheid and at the same time initiate new projects in the context of a serious budget constraint!

His lasting legacy will remain the University and the many projects that were initiated there during his time and later inspired by his indomitable intellect: the Schools of Government and Public Health, the first Worker’s College, etc.

Whilst reflecting on Jakes’ immense intellectual capacity, it would be considered amiss for me not to remember his humanity. Jakes reminds me of the teachers of old who were so prominent in communities of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The type of leaders who knew their communities well, who had their interests at heart and in the process commanded the kind of respect as a result of the role they played. Jakes never let down his community nor forgot his roots as a Coloured, Afrikaner intellectual committed to non-racialism and radical change. He remained as a true child of the Karoo and the Cape Flats commuting between Somerset East and Belhar!

By the same token he lived these values in the way in which he maintained his friendships and loyalties and commitment to long-term friendship.

One of Jakes’ great qualities was the respect he always displayed towards others. I remember the time he was invited by the student leadership at the University of the North to address a mass meeting. It was during the national state of emergency, the university was surrounded by riot police and the army and yet he took up the invitation to speak. Lifted shoulder-high by the students as they led him to the hall where he was to address them, he first asked to be taken to the Rector’s office so as to greet him first!

Jakes was a family man: he often had to balance the demands of his community, the University and the struggle at the expense of his family obligations and responsibilities. At the same time, he was the main “male figure” for his extended family.

Jakes never forgot the role played at UWC by his predecessor, Prof Dick van der Ross and always paid tribute to the role he had played in creating intellectual space for radicals like himself to develop and even protected them from the authorities.

Like his family, children and grand-children – Phoebe, Hein, Jessica, Amelia, Gerhard and many others, I too will miss him.