Tribute to Jakes Gerwel, Memorial Service, UWC Great Hall, 1 December 2012

By André Odendaal


Thank you, family and friends, for the opportunity to pay a short tribute here. It is done on behalf of the Western Province Cricket Association and not (as the programme says) Cricket South Africa. I have no mandate to speak on behalf of CSA – and maybe that’s a good thing, given what has been going on at the top recently. But I know that large parts of the cricket and sporting community are in mourning with us as well today and that many sportspeople including our WPCA President Beresford Williams are present.

Play is an essential part of our humanity and ‘a social impulse, older than culture itself’, the historian Huizinga has reminded us. Therefore, it is not surprising that Jakes Gerwel, the thoughtful humanist, who crossed with ease the boundaries between literature, education, politics, concern for community and leadership, also loved sport, especially cricket

Jakes made a big contribution to the non-racial sports movement, in addition to his many other accomplishments, playing a typically quiet but effective behind-the-scenes role over many years. For example, through his participation in the SACOS festivals in the 1980s, dubbed the ‘Olympics of the Oppressed’; his place next to Madiba during the unforgettable honeymoon period in the ‘rainbow’ 1990s; his change-management advice to people like his long-standing friend Percy Sonn in times of crisis; and, through his exemplary leadership during the Cricket World Cup 2003.

More than that, though, he delighted in the simple pleasures of the game … I remember vividly his enjoyment at opening the batting with his young son Heinrich in a UWC staff game. It was good to be with him while he was working out the rhythm of a slowly unfolding test match, dryly jibing or “chirping” colleagues in the opposing team, socialising with them afterwards or discussing last week’s highlights – or the intricacies of non-racial approaches to sport, and the insights of CLR James and Ramachandra Guha on the sociology of the game in other contexts.

People have commented that Jakes’s big-ness and intelligence went hand in hand with a simple humility. This was so in his sports involvement as well. The (slightly adapted) memories of Des Barnes and his teammates at Tygerberg CC make this point more eloquently than I could. They said that while the world knew Jakes as a luminary and pictured him ‘as always being this mature, serious looking individual’ to them he was ‘the young man from his university days, involved with Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness movement … the ordinary people’s person who loved his community and gave thousands of thankless hours to them,’ and a cricketer who loved the game.

He became involved with Tygerberg CC when his son, Heinrich, joined the club’s juniors and, “He not only dropped and fetched his son but he became actively involved with the management of the club’s junior sides”.  Hein played with the likes of the young Alphonso Thomas and Jakes managed the juniors from the under 14 team in 1984 to the under 19s:

He was interested in every youngster at the club.  Many like Alnico Adams, Benito McKenzie and others benefitted from Jakes’s knowledge and his generosity, as well as his guidance and his encouragement for them to improve in their respective fields, and more importantly to educate themselves, which would not only improve their positions but also that of their families.

They recall, an important part in understanding Jakes the cricketer was his involvement in the Ravensmead Teacher’s team, which was Tygerberg Cricket Club’s 5th team, with the likes of Archie Vergotine:

Who can forget Jakes getting onto the back of a truck with the rest of the players to go and play at an away venue. Returning after the game Jakes would join in the celebrations on the back of the truck while Sammy Jensell played the guitar with, Louis Bastiaan, Gordon van der Merwe and Dirk leading the chorus.  This is the man that we will remember.  The down to earth individual who loved his community, his people, his club, his team and respected everyone irrespective of class, religious affiliation, educational background or status in life.  To us he was Jakes … just plain Jakes and that is how he wanted to be known.

His teammates add another memory: even though he ‘dined with the who’s who of the world’,  no one will forget’ how the two guys with very different physiques – Jakes and Hansie van Oordt – loved their gatsbys.

These are the memories which we have of Jakes Gerwel … the father, the uncle, the grandfather, the motivator, the person to whom we looked up to, but also the world leader who had no airs and graces.

Chairperson, heroism is often displayed through the ordinary, small things of life. And this testimony confirms what a special person Jakes Gerwel was.

Hein knew and loved his father and he was right when he said, ‘My pa is ‘n Afrikaan’. Just as with different and batting and bowling styles, Jakes truly revelled in the multiple meanings and contradictions the definition of being African carries. Look at his pride in his African Khoisan and farmworker past,  his love for literature and the language of Afrikaans, and his already-mentioned fascination for an English colonial game given new meanings on the Cape Flats and on the back of bakkies.

A member of an out of touch intellectual class? No, he had the ability to understand how things related to each other and, out of this knowledge, to create balance and forward movement in real situations. He was a leader and a builder of exceptional skill, trusting where he came from.

Jakes’s boldness in locating this university as a  distinct institution which sought to bring critical intellectual thinking into alignment with the real-live societal struggle to improve people’s lives, is still extremely relevant to us today, also in terms of making that vexed thing called ‘delivery’ happen.

I think he would have counselled us, in parting, to stay true to the path of non-racialism and the inclusive vision for South Africa that he held so dear. I think he would have said to the organisation that he was loyal to: build unity and consensus, re-connect with the ideas and values that made you great, and respect and give content to the constitution. And, from that platform, really start addressing the inequalities and terrible legacies of the past in purposeful, effective ways that bring dignity.

He would have encouraged self-reflective, self-critical leadership that draws outside voices closer – listens to them, learns from them – rather than builds walls that create a false sense of safety.

We in cricket feel a profound sense of shock and loss at Jakes’s passing. And to me, personally, he was also a mentor in the deepest sense of the word. I count myself lucky to have shared with him many things on and off the field, not least of all the rousing speeches we listened to in this hall, and the marches past the Casspirs on campus.