The late Professor Jakes Gerwel has been hailed as a brilliant academic and respected social icon. File photo: Leon Lestrade

Johannesburg - South Africans will be “eternally” grateful to Professor Jakes Gerwel for laying a strong foundation in the administration of a free South Africa, President Jacob Zuma said on Wednesday.

Gerwel, 66, died in the Kuils River Hospital in the Western Cape early on Wednesday morning.

His memorial service will be held in the main hall of the University of the Western Cape on Saturday at 3pm.

“We will sorely miss the tenacity and dedication of this distinguished academic and leader of our society,” said Zuma.

He said Gerwel had driven the government's vision of reconciliation by leading heads of departments during a crucial time in South African history.

The African National Congress was shocked by his death.

“The ANC will always cherish the contribution that Professor Gerwel made to the ANC and the people of South Africa in general,” it said in a statement.

Former president Thabo Mbeki considered Gerwel a valued comrade and friend, his office said in a statement. Mbeki got to know Gerwel when he became vice-chancellor at the University of the Western Cape.

“He therefore stood in the front ranks of those who helped to transform our centres of higher education into institutions which would use their concentrated brain power to contribute to the transformation of our country into a non-racial and non-sexist democracy,” Mbeki said in the statement.

The Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, which Gerwel chaired, conveyed condolences to the professor's family and friends.

“We will deeply miss 'Prof' as we fondly refer to him. Our founder (former president Nelson Mandela) worked with Prof for many years, throughout his presidency and during and beyond his retirement.

“When Madiba stepped down... Prof Gerwel, his director general, left the office of the president to join Madiba in his post-presidential work.”

The Nelson Mandela Children's Fund said Gerwel would be remembered for the different ways in which he had served his country.

“The academic, public servant, businessman and councillor who created a bridge for solid, common-ground building; for his synergistic response to the country's national development challenges, defines the hectic life of man who also served as board chairman of our sister organisation,” CEO Bongi Mkhabela said.

The United Democratic Movement said Gerwel had the right combination of philosophy, discipline, and humility.

“He was a Renaissance man... Former president Nelson Mandela recognised these qualities in him and appointed him as director general in his office,” said UDM president Bantu Holomisa.

The Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) said Gerwel played a significant role in shaping South Africa's political history through his involvement in the Black Consciousness Movement.

“Prof Gerwel will be sorely missed by government, academic circles, and South Africans at large,” said GCIS acting CEO Vusi Mona.

The University of the Western Cape said it had lost its most eminent alumni, who had been instrumental in the university's transformation from an apartheid institute into an intellectual resource for a new nation.

“He was an inspiring teacher, pioneering new approaches to his discipline of literary studies. At the same time, he was fully engaged in intellectual and practical ways with the struggle for freedom,” university spokesperson Luthando Tyhalibongo said.

Gerwel became the rector and vice-chancellor of the university in 1987.

Cape Town Mayor Patricia De Lille said he had played a significant role in establishing a professional civil service in the first democratically elected government.

Gerwel had signed the City of Cape Town's Civic Honours Book, a civic honour bestowed on people who had made a significant contribution in business, academia, and leadership.

Family spokesperson Pam Barron said the family would like its privacy to be respected in the next few days.

Gerwel was a well-known figure in South Africa's political history. In his later years he chaired and was on the boards of major organisations and corporations.

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

The Institute for Democracy in South Africa, where Gerwel was chairman of the board of directors, said: “Jakes had a profound impact on our organisation... both in terms of strategic direction and the wisdom and presence he brought to every event, interaction and meeting.”

The ANC said it would announce funeral arrangements soon. - Sapa