Professor Jakes Gerwel’s name is indelibly inked in the story of the University of the Western Cape (UWC), a story that adds another beautiful chapter today as UWC’s Main Hall is renamed the Jakes Gerwel Hall.
The venue is hugely significant. It is the first place new students encounter during orientation and the last they’ll see as students when they graduate to become UWC alumni.
UWC Rector and Vice-Chancellor, Prof Tyrone Pretorius, says the renaming event is an opportunity to reflect on Prof Gerwel’s leadership of the institution.
“Resistance at UWC took a different direction from where it was, not only vigorously political but also very consciously intellectual,” he says.
A long-time friend of Prof Gerwel and former Rector of the neighbouring Peninsula Technikon (CPUT), Prof Brian Figaji, has commended UWC’s decision to rename the hall.
“The university should take a lot of pride in its step and I hope more universities will follow this example. At historically black institutions, there is no real tradition of honouring our own leaders and trailblazers. So this is a very significant example being set by UWC to honour one of its own students who rose to the highest level, both at the university and in civil society,” Prof Figaji says.
As a student, lecturer, Rector and Vice-Chancellor, the late Gert Johannes ‘Jakes’ Gerwel’s roots at the institution ran deep. He obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree from UWC in 1967 and his Honours in 1968. A scholarship award enabled him to obtain a licentiate in Germanic philology at Vrije Universiteit Brussels in 1971 (and a doctorate in literature and philosophy at the same institution in 1979). Prof Gerwel returned to UWC in 1972 to lecture in the Afrikaans en Nederlands Department, rising to head of department in 1980 and Dean of the Arts Faculty in 1982. He became the Rector and Vice-Chancellor in 1987 and served until he was appointed the Director-General in the Office of President Mandela in 1994.
Commenting on his legacy, Theo Kemp, the Executive Director of the Jakes Gerwel Foundation, says: “It is known that Prof Gerwel coined the slogan ‘Home of the Left’ for UWC. I think that summarised his legacy to a great extent. During a time when the apartheid regime marginalised UWC on all levels – not only academically as a sub-standard university of ‘non-whites’, but also financially – Gerwel was bold enough to transform the university to become the home of the intellectuals, of those who also openly opposed the government’s inhumane politics.
“He steered the university through troubling times, and although it was sometimes difficult to keep focusing on the academics with all the political turbulence, the university became more and more a leading institution in research.”
Current Minister of Public Works and Infrastructure, Patricia de Lille, who was the Mayor of Cape Town in 2015 when the former Vanguard Drive which runs from Mitchell’s Plain to Milnerton was renamed Jakes Gerwel Drive, describes what motivated that honour.
She says: “I had a conversation with Trevor Manuel (the former Minister of Finance) because he was also very close to Prof Gerwel. And I said to him, ‘this is such a giant, I want a long road to be named after him to reflect his long journey’. And then we agreed, let’s rename Vanguard Drive.
“For me, Prof Gerwel was one of those people who inspired us during the darkest days of apartheid, inspired the students of UWC and across the country to fight for a better education. He only wanted the best for our children. And we must never stop saying thank you to people like him for that leadership.
“Prof Gerwel was a real son of the soil. He always said to me that he was so grateful that he was able to fight for this freedom. And today we are enjoying that freedom. So that is why I named that road after him. It’s a small gesture, but I think public spaces must be used to remember our great heroes and heroines.”