Prof Jakes Gerwel. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL
Prof Jakes Gerwel. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL

PROFESSOR Jakes Gerwel, 66, chairman of Media24 and former president Nelson Mandela’s right-hand man in the first post-democratic government, died early on Wednesday at the Netcare Kuils River Hospital following heart surgery, his family said.

"The Gerwel family would like their privacy to be respected for the next couple of days. Funeral arrangements will be made known soon," said family spokeswoman Pam Barron.

In a statement on Wednesday, government expressed its heartfelt condolences to the families and friends of the late academic and politician.

Acting Government Communication and Information System CEO, Vusi Mona said, “I am deeply saddened by the death of Professor Gerwel. He played a significant role in shaping South Africa’s political history through his involvement in the Black Conscious Movement, led by Steve Biko. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the deceased.”

""Professor Gerwel will be solely missed by government, academic circles, and South Africans at large,” Mr Mona said. 

An academic, executive and multiple award winner, Prof Gerwel served as director-general in the office of Mr Mandela was the recipient of the Order of Southern Cross from Mr Mandela, the Order of Good Deeds from Libya and Freedom of the Town from Somerset East. In his later years as a board member or chairman of several large organisations and companies.

Born on January 18 1946 in the Eastern Cape town of Somerset East, he matriculated from Paterson High School in Port Elizabeth. In 1967, he obtained a bachelor of arts degree at the University of the Western Cape and completed his honours a year later.

In the late 1960s he became involved in the Black Consciousness Movement, led by Steve Biko. He acted as an educational adviser to the South African Students’ Organisation in the early 1970s.

For a short time, he lectured at the Hewat Teachers’ Training College in Cape Town and, in 1971, received a government scholarship to study at the University of Brussels, where he completed a licentiate, or academic degree, in Germanic philosophy and a literature doctorate.

When he returned to South Africa, he took up a teaching post at Grassy Park High School in Cape Town. He later moved to the University of the Western Cape and became a lecturer. In 1980, he was appointed as a professor and just two years later as dean of the arts faculty. He became vice-chancellor five years later.

Prof Gerwel’s political participation raised eyebrows at the university and before being appointment as a permanent staff member, he had already been placed on probation three times. In 1980, he was detained by police during education protests. Nine years on, he and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, together with fellow teacher Franklin Sonn, were arrested during a march in Cape Town.

In 1991, Prof Gerwel was elected as a member of the African National Congress’s Western Cape regional committee.

On its website, the University of the Western Cape said Prof Gerwel saw an "unambiguous alignment with the mass democratic movement and a new edge to the academic project". It added that under the banner of "an intellectual home of the left", space was created for curriculum renewal and for innovative research and outreach projects.

"Important social and policy issues, which had been swept under the carpet by the government of the day, thus received attention," the university said. It also formalised its "open" admissions policy, providing access to a growing number of African students.

In 1994, Prof Gerwel was appointed to the office of the Mandela presidency.

In a series of interviews with writer and researcher Padraig O’Malley, published on the Nelson Mandela Centre for Memory website, Prof Gerwel talked of the crucial years ahead of South Africa’s transition to democracy.

He also recalled the tough negotiations at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa, and the first years after the election of Mr Mandela as the country’s first democratically elected president.

"We often forget the miracle of our transition, the fact that a country so deeply divided managed to negotiate a settlement and establish a democratic order and a government of national unity … among the diverse, cultural, ethnic but particularly political groupings we have in the country," he said in an interview in August 1998.

"So really one doesn’t need to be very profound, actually, to make the statement that what has changed fundamentally in South Africa is that it got a democratic government; South Africa has a government, has a polity in which all of its people and all its political tendencies hold together."

During his own time in the government, he saw crime and unemployment as two areas of concern. "So one would have wished that the combination of social factors and capacity for law enforcement was such that the crime situation was less critical than it is," he said.

His awards include the Order of the Southern Cross by Mr Mandela, the Order of Good Deeds from Libya and the Freedom of the Town from Somerset East.

He served as chairman of Media24 and the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation, and chairman of the board of trustees for the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory. He was also previously chairman of South African Airways and a chancellor of Rhodes University.

A rugby and cricket fan, Prof Gerwel also chaired the policy committee of the 2003 Cricket World Cup.

He was married to Phoebe Abrahams. They had two children, Jessie and Heinrich, and four grandchildren.