Tribute to Professor Jakes Gerwel

By Dwight Triegaardt


A cartoonist has limited space (10cm) to tell a story, which on the face of it appears to be humorous, but hides a profound message for the leader to decipher.

The Business Day of 29th November 2012 features a cartoon by the celebrated Brandan Reynolds.  The picture appears under the caption “Hamba Kahle, Professor Jakes Gerwel”.  The picture shows Jakes (with a halo above his head) about to enter the Pearly Gates of Heaven.  Jakes is carrying his familiar satchel in one hand, and a few books in the other.

He glances to his right where an angel is about to fix an advertisement to the clouds.  The advertisement reads: “Vacancy – Right-hand man; strong admin skills; Academic and Intellectual; Leader; Diplomat. Enquire within.”

Jakes possessed all the qualities required and more.  I wonder who the angels would have sitting on the selection panel. Would it be the late Johnny Issel; Percy Sonn; Henry Isaacs; Steve Biko; Strini Moodley?  If so, then Jakes would certainly get the job.  Since time is not a factor in heaven, the appointment could be delayed until some of our current politicians and officials get there, in which case they would declare Jakes overqualified for the post.

Jakes and I have been close friends for of 47 years.  Only a few months separate us in age.  When you have more years behind you than ahead of you, then such friendships become dear to you. I do not have another 47 years ahead of me to again form a friendship like the one I enjoyed with Jakes.  It then becomes clear that one must work on and treasure those relationships which you find meaningful.  As Jakes always said, “ julle moet in vrede met mekaar leef”.

In the late ‘60s, Jakes and I realised that the Student Representative Council (SRC) was by its very definition working in the interest of the authorities rather than the students.  I served on the council then, and moved that the SRC resign.  Jakes felt that I was more vulnerable than him, and that he should move and I rather second him on this motion.  This is how it transpired then and in so doing we brought about the demise of the SRC.

This action thus paved the way for the introduction of the South African Students Organisation (SASO) to the campus. It was the late Johnny Issel, Henry Isaacs, Ben Palmer, Jakes and myself who introduced Black Consciousness (BC) to the Western Cape.  The Ultra Left in the Western Cape accused us of being racist by excluding Whites from participating in SASO activities, while the ‘Coloured’ political entities and the Security Police were ever mindful of the threat the movement posed.

When the Security Police increased their crackdown on the BC activities, Jakes and I clandestinely smuggled Jerry Modisane, then President of SASO, out of the Western Cape late one night and drove him to Jakes’ Family home in the Eastern Cape.   From there Jakes’ brothers moved Jerry further to safety out of the Country. A few months later, Jerry’s body was found floating in the swimming pool of the Holiday Inn in Lesotho.

I then left the Country for Canada, and later the USA, and for the next decade or so, Jakes and I kept in touch by exchanging letters once a month.  During these years, Jakes then furthered his studies in Brussels, and I in the USA.  Jakes visited us in St Louis once and after spending a few memorable days with us, I took him to the airport.  After checking in, we had enough time to find the bar and enjoy a few drinks.  We were so engrossed in our conversation that we barely heard the lady who called over the intercom: “Will Mr Gowell please board the flight to Brussels Now!”  Jakes retorted, “Hell Dwighty, daai ou het a kak van.” We laughed and ordered another round of drinks. Once more the lady informed us that Mr Gowell will be downloaded.  Jakes respond, “Haai dis vir my wat sy roep.” We scampered to the check in counter where Jakes was let in to board the flight.

In 1985, the post of Rector and Vice Chancellor of UWC became vacant.  I was then President of Convocation and Chairperson of the Alumni.  As a collective, we decided to campaign for Jakes to be a candidate.  I had to persuade Phoebe (who was then scared that Jakes would lose) that we would work hard to ensure that he did not lose.  It is well known that he became Rector Designate with effect from January 1987.

In 1998 the CEO of Africon (now Aurecon) asked me to assist him with his search for a non-executive Chairman of the Consulting Engineering group.  I introduced Thys Cilliers (CEO) to Jakes.  Jakes was keen to take up the post, but felt that he needed to discuss the matter with the then President Mandela. The following day, Jakes informed me that President Mandela urged him to accept the post since Africon was a resource for Africa and in the process, Jakes should help the Organisation to transform itself to a truly South African Company.  Jakes informed Thys in his letter of acceptance that the day that Dwight leaves Africon, so will he.  I will retire from Aurecon as at the end of December this year, but never in our wildest dreams did we envisage that Jakes would leave the organisation through his premature death a few weeks before my retirement.

By now I am overcome with emotion, and have decided to cut my talk short.

Go well Jakes, Go Well.  I will miss you sorely.  Your death has left a void in me.  Hamba Kahle my friend, go well.