Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

Prof Gerwel believed in me…

Edited and compiled by Suntosh Pillay

Many sterling tributes and obituaries have already been written, drawn, spoken and reminisced for the late Professor Jakes Gerwel.

In addition to his many other roles he served as chairperson of the board of trustees of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation (MRF), which annually selects the Mandela Rhodes Scholars. Some of these scholars reflect on their interactions with Jakes and pay tribute to him.

Athambile Masola, a teacher in Cape Town, remembers her first encounter with Prof Gerwel during graduation at Rhodes University:

“He sat in his designated throne overlooking the auditorium with a dead-pan face. As an undergrad student who was still trying to figure out the university system I concluded that part of the chancellor’s job description was to sit in the marvellous chair at graduation with no expression thus my friends and I soon dubbed him as ‘the old man that doesn’t smile’. Little did I know that years later I would be confronted by Prof Gerwel as the head of the scholarship interview panel in 2009.

“When I walked into the interview I was shocked when ‘the old man that doesn’t smile’ would greet me and reassure me that the interview was simply to get to know me better. I was dumbstruck: how could the man who sits on the throne at Rhodes University’s graduation ceremony want to know me better? I survived the interview because I noticed a glint of a smile in his eyes in his attempts of listening to my nervous ramblings in an interview that went on longer than it should have.

“When I met him again, he was speaking to the new 2010 cohort of scholars at our first workshop. In his explanation of why the scholarship is important he encouraged us ‘to be good’. That as young leaders in a new South Africa where political leaders are morally bankrupt, being good and ethical citizens and young leaders matters now more than ever.

“Whenever I grapple with the idea of non-racialism I am always reminded of a conversation with Prof Gerwel where he was dumbfounded at the backlash of apartheid racism some young people still embody even though we are the privileged generation where race ought not to matter. While having lunch — yes ‘the old man that doesn’t smile’ does eat and drink and even cracks a joke — he posed a simple question that will remain etched in mind: ‘When you wake up in the morning, do you think of yourself as black? I tend to think of myself as a writer, a thinker, a husband, a father but race is not forefront in my mind.’ As a teacher who has been battling to talk about the dangers of racial prejudice or ‘labelling people’ to my students (with little understanding of apartheid even from their history books) I often quote this conversation with Prof Gerwel as an example of what non-racialism could mean, because I no longer wake up in the morning thinking I’m black. I wake up as a thinker, a lover and a teacher.

“The few encounters with ‘the old man that doesn’t smile’ means I have a better understanding of the world around me. His commitment to education allowed me to pursue many opportunities including being a teacher and educating others about democracy, citizenship, the love for reading and literature.”

Anton Botha, currently working at the United Nations, reflects on the privilege of having known the “Prof”:

“Besides having come to know Prof through the Mandela Rhodes Foundation I was fortunate enough to see him speak after receiving an honorary doctorate from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. It was on this occasion that I was lucky enough to see a man who was famous for never smiling.

“Having grown up in Port Elizabeth he shared joyful tales of sneaking a smoke while the prefects weren’t looking and of stolen kisses with his first girlfriend in the moonlight of the bay. All the while grinning from ear to ear as he spoke of years gone by.

“You will be missed Prof Gerwel. Our country is a poorer place without your wisdom to guide us. I hope we can live up to a fraction of the legacy you now leave for us to follow. May you rest in peace … ”

Nande Mabona, a master of science student writing from a geoscience conference in Germany:

“I will forever be grateful to him because he saw something in me. He seemed very scary at first but was the kindest old man. I am where I am today because he believed in me.”

Andy Carolin, chairperson of the Community of Mandela Rhodes Scholars (CMRS) organisation:

“He will be remembered for, among other things, his sharp wit, his commitment to a moral and just society, his ethical leadership and his unwavering commitment to education and passionate intellectualism. Through his involvement on various MRF selection committees, workshops, and the CMRS Conference in Pretoria in 2010, many scholars have developed a deep respect for Prof Gerwel and he will be sorely missed by many.”

Hamba kahle Prof!