The Jakes that we Loved

By Albie Sachs

Former justice of the Constitutional Court ALBIE SACHS reflects on the life of Jakes Gerwel, a contrarian who welcomed critiques of his own leadership

What to do about my Mozambican art collection? After the bomb that nearly took my life in Maputo in 1988, I was flown bandaged and semi-comatose to London, leaving behind my collection of Mozambican art. During the years of what we called the Mozambican Revolution, it had been impossible to buy a teaspoon or curtains, but easy to acquire quality paintings and sculpture by artists such as Malangatana and Chissano. It didn’t make sense to leave my art works in Mozambique, nor to exile them with me in London. I must send them home as an advance guard: watch out regime, we’ll be back soon!

Art piece by Malangatana

But where to in apartheid South Africa? Even though there was significant contestation within the art environment at that stage, I didn’t fancy them going to the ambiguous space of a state museum… And then I knew – they would be in the right place at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). Jakes Gerwel was its Rector and Vice-Chancellor and he epitomised everything I had come to love about the University. It had emerged as possibly the major centre of intellectual challenge to apartheid, overtly dedicating itself to the creation of a non-racial democracy. But more than that, Jakes had consciously helped to break its original Coloured-persons-only mould by enrolling Black African students and staff. Progressive whites, many from Afrikaans-speaking homes, had also been welcomed. The cherry on top had been that he had encouraged open debate and critical thinking; and the cherry on top of the cherry was that he also possessed profound literary and aesthetic sensibilities. If my art works had had a voice of their own, they would have said: yes, that’s where we would want to be.

Comrades in arms, Jakes Gerwel second from the right

Under the mantle of its first Rector of colour, Dick van der Ross, working with Jack Barnett, a struggle architect, the campus had undergone a huge physical makeover, giving it the style, aura and pizazz of a sprightly University. So a vibrant home of struggle it would be in South Africa for the beautifully anguished artwork produced at a time of war in Mozambique.

I forget who I wrote to, but the response from UWC was enthusiastic. What I didn’t realise was that Mozambican Customs would be slower than the South African political process and for years my art works would remain trapped in crates in Maputo harbour. Meanwhile in 1990 when the ANC and PAC were unbanned, I received a phone call in London from Dullah Omar asking on behalf of Jakes Gerwel if I could return to Cape Town.

A few weeks later I am back on South African soil as the guest of the UWC Community Law Centre. My first public appearances after 24 years of exile are at UWC. And I meet Jakes Gerwel in person. One consequence of exile is that you get to know people at ‘home’ only by name. The physical reality never seemed to correspond to the imagined person. ‘Jakes.’ I expected a fiery, somewhat bohemian intellectual, wearing a beret, with something of a swagger. Instead I find myself being greeted by an eager, utterly courteous and softly spoken person, surrounded by an administrative team who obviously adore him.

University of Western Cape

Desmond Tutu had been appointed Chancellor and the University had an excitement, resonance and non-racial character that made me feel immediately at home. Whereas before I had refused to attend my own graduation ceremonies at the Universities of Cape Town and Sussex, at UWC it was a delight to join in a procession led by Tutu dancing and swaying in his gown and encouraging a sense of joy rather than formality. And, happily, the artwork eventually arrived and were exhibited in spectacular fashion in the atrium of the Library.

Yet I noticed a quiet restraint about Jakes Gerwel who was at the centre of this process of changing the whole institutional culture. The process went beyond simply transforming the syllabus and creating a venue for critical debate on the hottest issues facing our country. It affected the manner and style of relationships on the campus. Jakes was impressive because he never tried to be impressive. He saw himself as a team leader. He was a good listener. He took ideas seriously. Having at times been a contrarian himself, he was not bothered by colleagues who challenged his own positions. On the contrary, he welcomed critique. And although the currents of thought at UWC might have been largely supportive of the ANC, there was complete freedom for PAC, Unity Movement, AZAPO and other quite distinctive positions to be expressed.

Working closely with Dullah Omar, Gerwel enabled UWC to become the intellectual engine room for the development of a non-racial and non-sexist vision when negotiations for a new constitution for South Africa started at CODESA. (Interestingly enough, the major university input from the National Party’s side came not from Stellenbosch or Pretoria, but from Potchefstroom, with Professor Francois Venter providing particularly thoughtful contributions.)

A number of key participants on the ANC’s negotiations team, including Zola Skweyiya, Kader Asmal, Brigitte Mabandla and myself, were employed as researchers and teachers at the Community Law Centre. Together with the ANC Constitutional Committee, UWC organised workshops in various parts of the country on issues such as the electoral system, whether to have a Constitutional Court, land redistribution, devolution of the regions and the enforcement of social and economic rights. Scholars and activists from all over the country and many parts of the world participated. Although Jakes himself was not directly involved, he ensured that university personnel would be able to make both organisational and intellectual contributions. Ideas, debate, thinking, an integral part of the national project.

When, in the afterglow of our first democratic elections on 27 April 1994, the news got around that Nelson Mandela had appointed Jakes Gerwel to be Director General in the Presidency, we were thrilled. I don’t know whether Jakes ever had an ANC membership card. I don’t recall him ever  speaking at any of our meetings. He certainly would not have been appointed by Mandela as a party loyalist. But by any criteria, Jakes had all the requisite qualities for the position – a powerful intelligence, experience in managing an institution in a time of transformation, a deep feeling for the profound emotions of a country in transition and a people-friendly nature. He was neither obsequious nor conceited, but conveyed the calming assurance of a thoughtful and confident problem-solver.

One of the results of the separation of powers was that judges were not cozy with the Executive so I didn’t have any direct dealings with him, but his office got a reputation for being well-organised and responsive to the many demands being placed upon it.

In the late 1990s, our curiosity was evoked when we learnt that Jakes Gerwel and Franklin Sonn, who’d served as Rector of Peninsula Technikon, had taken up an invitation to serve on the board of Naspers, the major media group, which now includes Media24. What, some of us were asking, was he doing in the land of the wolves? We knew of his love for Afrikaans, which was his home language. One of his life missions was to counteract the manner in which the language had been hijacked by white racist Afrikaners and been converted into an instrument of domination.  Many years later I learnt that Naspers had issued an apology  for its role in apartheid. For many it was far too little, far too late and far too convenient, timed to reposition Naspers in the world. But it occurred to me that Gerwel’s tenure on the Board might have had something positive to do with this gesture.

These days when I travel along Jakes Gerwel Drive, I am reminded of ongoing tensions between two big themes in his life. One is the urgent need to increase access to universities for black students, many of whom do not speak Afrikaans. The other is to promote the development and enrichment of the Afrikaans language. What counsel would he have offered toward resolving these tensions at Stellenbosch and other universities today? What I am sure of is that he would have aimed for maximum inclusivity both in process and result, sought to find a principled and sustainable way forward, and given his reasons in a clear, thoughtful and balanced way. How we miss his special qualities today.

And yet throughout the country, both inside and outside government, I meet graduates of UWC of the Gerwel days. I don’t think I’m imagining it, but to a person they seem to have at least a touch of the quiet but resolute thoughtfulness that was so characteristic of the Jakes that we loved.


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