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Wed Jul 30 13:10:30 SAST 2014

THE BIG READ: Never Prof, just Jakes

Trevor Manuel | 29 November, 2012 00:34
COMRADES IN ARMS: Professor Jakes Gerwel (second from right) with (from left) Frank van der Horst, Lionel Louw, Allan Boesak, Desmond Tutu and Mary Burton at a Defend Democracy campaign at a the height of apartheid repression in the late 1980s Picture: GALLO IMAGES/ORYX MEDIA ARCHIVE

There are very few among us who are so distinguished by their contributions that titles and the many acknowledgements and accolades are just extra.

Jakes is one of those rare individuals. If I were to speak of Emeritus Professor Gert Johannes Gerwel, few would know whom I was actually referring to. Just plain Jakes was adequate - never Professor, Mr, Sir or Dr: just Jakes. It speaks volumes about the man, his demeanour and his integrity.

Jakes was a towering intellectual for whom simplicity, language, culture, cricket, loyalty and friendship were the hallmarks of his life.

His relationships were characterised by the ability to listen and to quietly persuade. His unique gifts included the ability to rise above the pettiness of many issues that dominate political life: he was a true democrat, and as fiercely non-racial as he was non-sectarian.

I have known Jakes since the 1970s, essentially as a fellow traveller on the fringes of the Black Consciousness Movement. Many of us were deeply inspired by his intellectual growth, initially in the discourse on language and culture across all of society.

We brimmed with pride as he took over as vice-chancellor of the University of the Western Cape and placed it at the centre of political discourse and action, and as "the home of the left", in the 1980s.

It is from this platform that he persuaded both faculty and students to be directly involved in the struggle to dismantle apartheid.

We learned from him about the true meaning of non-racialism and how to take on issues such as the Coloured Labour Preference Policy that prevailed in Western Cape.

He was an integral part of the transition from the United Democratic Front to the ANC.

We witnessed how quickly and deeply the affection and trust grew for Jakes from Madiba. We engaged him as the director-general in The Presidency and as cabinet secretary, where he bore this immense responsibility to help shape a fledgling democracy without needing publicity or recognition.

It was to Jakes that Madiba turned to broker relations with Libya as part of a larger effort to build peace in Africa and the world. My real joy was when the late Kader Asmal invited Jakes and I to share his house in Pretoria.

Our house was a place of good wine and excellent discussions: politics, philosophy, language, culture and cricket. The nights were long and filled with the conversations of comrades working in different capacities to contribute to building democracy. What an amazing learning opportunity this was for me. Even during times when society was deeply divided and the ANC was desperately resented by the old establishment, when rooi gevaar was still dominant.

Many of us still grappled with the new "rainbow" nation and even at these times Jakes could write his column in Rapport.

He would never disguise his stance as a supporter of the ANC and as a Marxist, yet he would still be read by the many who were "unthreatened" by his intellectual persuasiveness.

His view was simply that if we do not talk to people who disagree with us we will not succeed at nation building.

Jakes did not need to live the high life of flashy cars and excess. He continued to live in the same house in Belhar, Cape Town, that he acquired in the early 1970s.

It truly was the simple things that mattered to him. His link to his past was his house in Somerset East, Eastern Cape. Both these houses were full of the reminders of his simple childhood - a donkey cart and tortoises of the Karoo.

In the values that Jakes lived by lie the basis for trust in him and by him. Jakes's style was devoid of any preaching or pontification - he lived the values that he expected from the rest of us.

So friend, comrade, confidant and teacher - we will miss you dearly.

It might not be every day, in the same way that Phoebe, Hein, Jessica and the grandchildren will. Our needs are different, so we will miss you when times are toughest and we need your sharp and perceptive intellect and your calming reassurances that things have to get better.

Rest in peace, qhawe lama qhawe!

  • Manuel is the Minister in The Presidency: National Planning Commission

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