A lump in my throat called GJ Gerwel

INTELLECTUAL GOLD: Professor Jakes Gerwel left us too soon.

INTELLECTUAL GOLD: Professor Jakes Gerwel left us too soon.

Published Sep 17, 2015


Adam Small

It is edifying for me to focus today on the person and work of Professor GJ (Jakes) Gerwel, who, in 2012, simply died too soon. As one who knew him well, I trust I do him justice in this remembrance.

This is not an obituary, rather a brief attendance to features of Gerwel’s work. May I say also that I cannot speak of Jakes without, unfortunately, also speaking of myself!

As a young student, Jakes was in my philosophy class. He came to know my mind well. We were always happy in each other’s company: a togetherness of intellect – the quality of life he treasured more than any other.

I am greatly indebted to this attitude of his, and it enriched my life. He also knew me at an emotional level. I certainly felt the bad hand of apartheid, and Jakes, knowing this, judged that apartheid “hurt and handicapped one of our most creative spirits”.

This only spurred me to consolidate my opposition to the regime. Jakes was an exceptional mind. Even as a student he was his “own” kind of person.

I recall classmates of his complaining: How come Gerwel often does not attend class, yet comes away with the best results?

He delighted in philosophy and literature, and became head of the Department of Afrikaans at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), and thereafter Dean of the Faculty of Arts. He advanced to Rectorship of the University.

He guided UWC through difficult years at a time apartheid was still a large reality. When Nelson Mandela became president in 1994, he asked Jakes to become his Secretary-General (Gerwel, by then, had developed a sound organisational ability).

Though this would not seriously affect our friendship, there was a time I felt anxious about Jakes’s leaning to political partisanship.

Surely, I thought, this compromised one’s independence of intellect. On the other hand, is it not better for politicians to have intellect in their midst, than merely to drift with run-of-the-mill organisers.

I had to remind myself, though, that I, too, was compassionate with politically-motivated opposition to apartheid, admiring Steve Biko’s founding of Black Consciousness. This was during the early 1970s. Jakes, younger than I, experienced things somewhat more fervently, and posted a picture of a black clenched fist above the front door of his flat in Bellville South! (There really was no other way out for us emotionally.) Gerwel was always well disposed towards me as a fellow-intellectual.

In a graciously-written article, he considers that I was not merely an academic philosopher and teacher, and refers to Professor Charles van Onselen’s remark that we have too many “mere academics” in our universities and too few real intellects. Jakes was concerned about misunderstandings of our relationship with Afrikaans.

Politically-minded critics who viewed Afrikaans as nothing more than the “language of the oppressor”, scoffed at our association with its literature. We were called “bruin Afrikaners” (brown Afrikaners). What careless thinking! Gerwel, with insight, also noticed that I was “an intensely private person”, someone who treasured his “enkelingskap” (individuality), my participation in our public life despite.

He, likewise, was an individual (an “enkeling”, in S V Petersen’s sense). In Klawerjas I describe him as a player not so much of klawerjas, which is a group game, but as a player, rather, of solitaire: How many games to your credit? You always put in a high bid.

Say: Do I err in addressing you sharply about your attachment too close to political and corporative living?

In the end life is such, however, that it cannot matter much: for the last remains of our endeavours – the final ash of our efforts – will blow away and be gone with God’s wind.

Another touch of his understanding of my work was that he noticed its devotedness to moral philosophy and its emphasis of history as a matter of biography: the idea that history is a human affair, an unfolding of the “collectedness” of individual lives.

Similarly insightful was his recognition of the relatedness of my thought to NP van Wyk Louw’s, specifically, the identification of poetry as intellectual activity – “intellectual” not in the sense of cerebral or what I call cold-fish poetry, the kind of poesy of a T S Eliot, with no warm emotional content: “In the work of Van Wyk Louw (Small) experiences the space that he mostly did not find in Afrikaans otherwise”.

He also acknowledges my creation of the name “Kaaps” for a manner and style of speaking that, from long ago, has invigorated Afrikaans. Jakes’s compliment to me, which I mention now, is in fact a comment on his own intellectuality.

He recalls how, in pre-graduate days, he “did a course with (me) on ‘the scientific value of doubt’ ’’ and, he says, he has “never been released from the effect of it”. Indeed, my attitude is that one makes judgements, but then holds back, thinks again – all of this finding expression in language, speaking and writing. Gerwel, playfully (yet seriously), comments on the way I write: often in parentheses, with bracketing and dashes!

It is the writing of someone in the act of thought! He often did likewise, despite his commitment to the ANC. Was the latter an aberration on his part? (How difficult it is to pinpoint the truth when one is dealing with a truly significant life.) Another aspect of Gerwel’s thinking was his awareness of language as expressive of poverty.

Referring to “Kaaps”, he quotes me appreciatively as saying that it is “a language in which the full destiny of the people who speak it, gets to be heard; they utter the first cry of their life in it, transact all their business in life in it and, finally, give themselves over to death in it”.

Democracy, ostensibly, concerns itself more readily with poverty than other forms of government. Gerwel believed that our transition to a democracy was a miracle.

So do I – in the knowledge, however, that such miracles are, historically speaking, not long-lived. Whatever the formal details of Jakes’s life, what is lasting, for me, is our homely friendship over many years.

I well recall his and Phoebe’s visits to myself and Rosalie. He loved some red wine. He also had a lively dry sense of humour. Once, when the municipality of Somerset East, where he was born, decided to name a street for him, he quipped: “But what if I get trapped for drunken driving on my own street!”

It was all a great joy. In later years, unfortunately, we did not see each other much. I conclude on a happy note. We are in Spring, and the wild plum tree here at home is blossoming: beautiful light purple blooms among the dark purple leaves.

The poet Opperman said, movingly, when once he was in hospital, that a lump came in his throat the morning he looked out the window and the pear tree outside had blossomed white.

A lump came in my throat also, the morning I looked out, recently, on a plum tree beautifully bedecked with purple blooms. The tree was planted years ago, one day when Jakes came visiting.

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