‘A tri­umph’ over apartheid

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE -

SALEEM BA­DAT Vice-chan­cel­lor, Rhodes Univer­sity BORN on Jan­uary 18, 1946 in Som­er­set East in ru­ral East­ern Cape, Pro­fes­sor Gert Jo­hannes Ger­wel was a prod­uct of his­tor­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged schools in the East­ern Cape.

Like most black South Africans of ru­ral back­grounds, he had to tri­umph over the apartheid and Ver­wo­er­dian dic­tum that there was no place for blacks be­yond be­ing hew­ers of wood and draw­ers of wa­ter.

In a coun­try deeply chal­lenged to im­prove school­ing so as to re­alise the po­ten­tial and tal­ents of all our youth, his ex­am­ple of a ru­ral boy who achieved re­mark­able suc­cess un­der ad­verse con­di­tions must serve as a source of in­spi­ra­tion for young peo­ple who strug­gle un­der the bur­den of dis­mal ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Ger­wel was an ex­cep­tional, courageous, gifted and pi­o­neer­ing South African in­tel­lec­tual, scholar, leader, cit­i­zen and per­son with a pro­found com­mit­ment to cre­at­ing a just and hu­mane so­ci­ety.

Through a long and dis­tin­guished as­so­ci­a­tion with the higher ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor, as an aca­demic, dean, vice-chan­cel­lor, chair­per­son of the Com­mit­tee of Univer­sity Prin­ci­pals in the early 1990s, chan­cel­lor, and chair­per­son of the Man­dela Rhodes Foun­da­tion, Ger­wel was an out­stand­ing cham­pion of higher ed­u­ca­tion.

As chan­cel­lor, he chal­lenged Rhodes to be­come so­cially con­scious and think crit­i­cally and imag­i­na­tively about ac­cess, eq­uity and trans­for­ma­tion, and about its role in so­cio-eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment is­sues in South Africa, es­pe­cially in the East­ern Cape. On ac­cept­ing an hon­orary doc­tor­ate from Rhodes, Ger­wel said: “Uni­ver­si­ties are both cen­tral agents for change and steady bea­cons of con­ti­nu­ity and tra­di­tion.” His lead­er­ship en­sured that th­ese twin and para­dox­i­cal goals re­ceived con­stant close at­ten­tion. He was a strong ad­vo­cate of Rhodes Univer­sity pur­su­ing, in a prin­ci­pled man­ner, eq­uity with qual­ity and qual­ity with eq­uity.

He took pride in the univer­sity’s aca­demic achieve­ments and per­for­mance in re­search and teach­ing and its in­creas­ing in­volve­ment in com­mu­nity en­gage­ment.

The Jakes Ger­wel Rhodes Univer­sity Schol­ar­ship Fund is tes­ti­mony to his own life of achieve­ment and supports East­ern Cape stu­dents from so­cially dis­ad­van­taged back­grounds to at­tend Rhodes Univer­sity and grad­u­ate from one of South Africa’s lead­ing uni­ver­si­ties.

He did not, how­ever, es­chew ac­tion. He stood shoul­der-to-shoul­der with pro­test­ers in Cape Town dur­ing the de­fi­ance cam­paign marches of the late 1980s. And dur­ing protests at UWC that of­ten spilled onto the streets he shielded stu­dents and academics con­fronted by riot po­lice armed with rub­ber bul­lets and tear gas. Ger­wel’s Liter­tuur en Apartheid pub­lished in 1983 re­mains a key text in the Afrikaans and south­ern African lit­er­a­ture dis­course.

He also pub­lished a va­ri­ety of mono­graphs, ar­ti­cles, es­says and pa­pers on literary, ed­u­ca­tional and so­cio-po­lit­i­cal is­sues. Another first was when Madiba re­cruited Ger­wel to be­come demo­cratic South Africa’s first di­rec­tor gen­eral and cab­i­net sec­re­tary in the Of­fice of the Pres­i­dent. Later he chaired the Nel­son Man­dela Foun­da­tion and the Man­dela Rhodes Foun­da­tion, which awards post­grad­u­ate schol­ar­ships to ta­lented stu­dents. The nu­mer­ous hon­orary doc­tor­ates awarded to Pro­fes­sor Ger­wel and his ex­ten­sive lead­er­ship roles in civil so­ci­ety, busi­ness and sport or­gan­i­sa­tions are all tes­ti­mony to the re­spect that he en­joyed in all quar­ters of so­ci­ety.

Ger­wel is a mag­nif­i­cent sym­bol of in­tel­lec­tual, aca­demic, so­cial and per­sonal in­tegrity, pro­fes­sion­al­ism and spe­cial­ist ex­per­tise, courage and hu­man good. He leaves a pow­er­ful legacy of bold lead­er­ship, crit­i­cal schol­ar­ship, com­mit­ment to so­cial jus­tice and a hu­mane so­ci­ety, and so­cial ac­tion to­wards th­ese ends.

Jakes Ger­wel can rest con­tent in the knowl­edge that he lived his life as ad­vo­cated by an out­stand­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary: a per­son’s dear­est pos­ses­sion is their life; and since it is given to live but once, live as to feel no tor­tur­ing re­grets for years with­out pur­pose; so live that dy­ing one can say: all my life and all my strength was given to the finest cause in the world – the lib­er­a­tion of hu­mankind.

MENU WITH A VIEW: Clas­sic cui­sine and proven chefs bring culi­nary ex­cite­ment back to Cape Town’s V&A Water­front.


A GLIMPSE IN THE PAST: May 13, 1994 – out­go­ing rec­tor J akes Ger­wel and Arch­bishop Emer­i­tus Des­mond Tutu af­ter mov­ing to Man­dela’s of­fice.

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