Who was Jakes Gerwel?

Gert Johannes Gerwel, better known as Jakes Gerwel, was born on the farm Malvern, 64 km from Somerset East in the Eastern Cape, on 18 January 1946. This farm is situated 27 km from the Kommadagga Railway Station and 6 km from the farm school Bracefield Primary where Gerwel, his six brothers and three sisters started their education.

Gerwel’s parents, John (1904–1975) and Sarah (1913–1976) Gerwel, lived on Malvern where they worked as farm labourers and Bracefield Primary School was started on their initiative.

His high school years were spent on Uitenhage at Dower College and in Port Elizabeth at Paterson High School where Gerwel matriculated.

Gerwel studied at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) where he obtained his BA in Afrikaans and Dutch and Sociology cum laude in 1967. His BA honours in Afrikaans and Dutch, also cum laude, followed in 1968.

In 1971 Gerwel obtained his Licentiate in Germanic Philology at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) in Brussels, Belgium where he also completed doctoral studies in literature and philosophy (D.Litt. et Phil. magna cum laude) in 1979.

Jakes Gerwel received thirteen honorary doctoral degrees from universities in South Africa and over the world:

  • 1986: Doctor of Humanities honoris causa, Clark College, Atlanta
  • 1990: Doctor of Humane Letters honoris causa, City College, City University of New York
  • 1995: Doctor of Letters honoris causa, University of Cape Town
  • 1995: Doctor of Laws honoris causa, University of the Western Cape
  • 1998: Doctor of Laws honoris causa, Rhodes University
  • 2001: Doctor of Laws honoris causa, University of the Witwatersrand
  • 2002: Doctor of Laws honoris causa, University of Natal
  • 2002: Doctor of Humane Letters honoris causa, University of Missouri-Columbia
  • 2002: Doctor of Humanities honoris causa, Stellenbosch University
  • 2004: Doctor of Philosophy honoris causa, University of the Free State
  • 2005: Doctor of Letters honoris causa, University of Pretoria
  • 2008: Doctor of Letters honoris causa, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University
  • 2012: Doctor of Laws honoris causa, Monash University

Teaching Afrikaans provided Gerwel one entry into the world of work and it would lead to his appointment in 1972 as a lecturer and his eventual professorship in Afrikaans and Dutch literature at UWC. So, he started out teaching for three months at his Alma Mater, Bracefield Primary, while helping his father John with work on the farm. Gerwel also taught at the Dower College of Education in Port Elizabeth.

His career took off formally with his appointment as Afrikaans lecturer at the then Hewat College of Education in Athlone. Gerwel subsequently taught at the Grassy Park High School for only six months in 1972 before joining the UWC teaching staff in July as a lecturer in Afrikaans and Dutch literature. Exactly four years later, in July 1976, he was promoted to senior lecturer.

Gerwel was again promoted, in 1980, to professor and head of the Department Afrikaans and Dutch. In 1982 he became the dean of the Faculty of Arts.

Gerwel built out the UWC department of Afrikaans and Dutch to the biggest one at a South African university ‑ precisely at the time that the radical coloured community manifested strongly against Afrikaans as the ‘language of the oppressor’.

By the time Gerwel became rector and vice chancellor of his Alma Mater UWC in 1987, he had already gained prominence as proponent of Steve Biko’s black consciousness ideology in the 1970s.

As rector of the UWC Gerwel transformed the institution into the ‘intellectual home of the Left’ and the struggle against apartheid on this campus intensified under his leadership. Students acclaimed Gerwel as the man who stood between them and the Casspirs.

Between May 1994 and June 1999 Gerwel served as director general of the office of former president Nelson Mandela and as secretary of the cabinet. To Madiba he was also chief speechwriter, influential friend, advisor and confidant.

Gerwel played a huge role in the transition from apartheid to establishing a constitutional democracy and was respected in government circles locally and internationally. Gerwel was member of several government and cabinet committees, chairperson of the Standing Committee of Senior Officials of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and presidential envoy on various international missions. He was, for example, Mandela’s envoy to negotiate the extradition of the two suspects of the Lockerbie plane bombing. For this service Madiba awarded Gerwel the Order of the Southern Cross: Gold in 1999.

Gerwel was a significant role-player in academic circles. He was, for example, chancellor of Rhodes University, honorary professor of humanities at the University of Pretoria as well as distinguished professor and occupant of the Nelson Mandela Chair of Humanities at UWC.

His presence was also strongly felt in the private sector where Gerwel occupied influential positions. He was non-executive chairperson of Media 24, Aurecon, Brimstone Investment Corporation, Life Healthcare, the South African Airways (SAA), Africon and the Export Credit Insurance Corporation. He further acted as non-executive director of Naspers, Old Mutual, Goldfields, Distell, Educor, Viva Afrika, OMGA Conversion Trust, Ipostel Ltd, Cricket South Africa and the Western Province Cricket Union.

He also served on the international advisory board of the Independent Group, at the time chaired by the Irish businessman Tony O’Reilly. This board included people such as the former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney, former mayor of New York David Dinkins, former British cabinet member Peter Mandelson and Ben Bradley, editor of The Washington Post during the Watergate scandal.

Esteemed for his fine judgment, Gerwel’s dynamic leadership was widely felt. He was chairperson of the board of trustees of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the Mandela Rhodes Foundation, the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD), the Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa (IDASA, later the Institute for a Democratic Africa), the Equal Opportunities Foundation (EOF), the Careers Research and Information Centre (CRIC), the National Education Policy Investigation (1990-1992) and he was vice-chairperson of the Peace Parks Foundation (PPF).

He was a trustee of the Mauerberger Foundation Fund, Kagiso Trust, Community Agency for Social Enquiry (CASE), Phoenix Settlement Trust, Die Suid-Afrikaan, the South African Publication Trust and the Centre for Education Policy Development, Evaluation and Management (CEPD).

Gerwel was member of the Maatschappij der Nederlandse Letterkunde (MdNL), the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) and he served on the advisory editorial board of Siyaya and the National Education and Training Forum (NETF) as well as on the international academic committee of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies (OCIS).

He was founder and chairperson of the Suidoosterfees as well as chairperson of the Blue Crane Development Agency in Somerset East.

Between 1992 and 1993 Gerwel was vice-chairperson and later chairperson of the Committee of University Principals.

On the political front Gerwel was elected as member of the ANC’s regional executive committee (REC) for the Western Cape. Between 1991 and 1993 he served on the education committee of the ANC and he was also educational advisor for the South African Student Organisation (SASO) between 1972 and 1977.

In 1987 Gerwel was member of the historic delegation to Dakar in Senegal to hold talks with members of the ANC that were at the time in exile. High profile people from both sides attending the conference included Thabo Mbeki, Pallo Jordan, Frederick van Zyl Slabbert, Franklin Sonn, Breyten Breytenbach, André Brink and Randall van den Heever.

In 2001 Prof. Kader Asmal, then Minister of Education, appointed Gerwel as chairperson of the Gerwel commission investigating the status of Afrikaans as tertiary language of instruction at universities. Well-known people who served on this informal committee included professors Hein Willemse, Willie Esterhuyse, Njabulo Ndebele, dr. Christa van Louw and the poet Antjie Krog. The commission’s recommendations that two universities (one in the north and one in the south) should be assigned to build out and develop Afrikaans as an academic language have never been implemented.

In 1999 the transitional local council of Somerset East awarded Gerwel the Freedom of the Town of Somerset East. However, he turned down the honour of having Charles Street renamed after him when this proposed name change was met with negative reactions from some quarters.

In 2015 the City of Cape Town officially renamed Vanguard Drive Jakes Gerwel Drive.

As authoritarian literary critic Gerwel distinguished himself as a reader and analyst with a very fine sense of complex literary texts when he expressed himself in book reviews and articles about writers’ works. So much so that the late André Brink remarked, ‘Jakes was one of the keenest literary experts I’ve ever come across.’

Gerwel believed in bringing a sense of social awareness to one’s aesthetic engagement with literature, especially in order to shed light on the manmade suffering of ‘the other’, the previously disadvantaged.

Between 1999 and 2012 Gerwel wrote a monthly column for Rapport. His columns were always well reasoned and broadminded. Tim du Plessis, former editor of Rapport, described Gerwel in a column as the primus inter pares of Rapport’s columnists: ‘He is an admirable person. Even more admirable is his command of words. Every one of his columns contains a few sentences or words in the order of “I wish it was me who crafted that sentence or who had found or coined that word”’.

A recurrent theme of his columns was our public conversation about and with each other. He would always emphasise that ‘the way in which we speak of and with each other is illustrative of the patterns of our life together that it also forms in this changing society that must in so many ways still find and define itself’.

Gerwel’s awards include the following:

  • 1995: Flemish Community Prize: Johan Fleerackers, for outstanding cultural achievement, together with Prof. Elize Botha
  • 1999: Order of the Southern Cross: Gold, presented by Pres. Nelson Mandela
  • 1999: Order of the King Abdulaziz: Minister’s rank, presented by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia
  • 1999: Colonel Muammar Ghaddafi of Libya’s Order of Good Deeds
  • 1999: The Freedom of the Town of Somerset East, from the transitional local council of Somerset East
  • 2003: Order of the Disa: Officer’s class, from the Province of the Western Cape
  • 2007: Honorary membership of the South African Academy for Science and the Arts (Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns)


  • Literatuur en Apartheid: konsepsies van “gekleurdes” in die Afrikaanse roman tot 1948. Kasselsvlei: Kampen.
  • Swart Afrikaanse skrywers: Verslag van ’n simposium gehou by die Universiteit van Wes-Kaapland, Bellville op 26–27 April 1985. Bellville: University of the Western Cape. (As editor together with Julian F. Smith, Alwyn van Gensen and Hein Willemse)
  • Crossing over: Stories for a new South Africa. Cape Town: Kwela. (As compiler together with Linda Rode)
  • Keerpunt: Stories vir ’n nuwe Suid-Afrika. Cape Town: Kwela. (As compiler together with Linda Rode)
  • In the rapids: New South African stories. Cape Town: Kwela. (As compiler together with Linda Rode)
  • Stroomversnelling: Nuwe Suid-Afrikaanse stories. Cape Town: Kwela. (As compiler together with Linda Rode)
  • Eindes, eindigheid, einder: Gedagtes by N.P. van Wyk Louw en Karel Schoeman (D.F. Malherbe commemoration lecture no. 23). Acta Varia. 1:1–9.
  • Grape: Stories of the Vineyards in South Africa ‑ From slavery to BEE 1652-2011. Cape Town: Tafelberg. (As compiler together with Jeanne Viall and Wilmot James)

Jakes Gerwel passed away on 28 November 2012 at the age of sixty-six after a heart bypass operation in the Netcare Kuils River Hospital.

Written by Jason Lloyd, 2018

Jason Lloyd – who regularly acts as socio-political commentator on radio, freelances as Op-ed writer and columnist – is a public servant and former journalist. He previously served as Communications Manager (2009–2013) in the Eastern Cape Department of Roads & Public Works and as Deputy Director: Media & Parliamentary Liaison (spokesperson) for a previous Eastern Cape finance minister (2004–2005). He studied at Nelson Mandela University.

You can read more about Jakes Gerwel’s life and work in the writers’ album on LitNet.