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The Humanities Professor at Mandela's Right Hand

When Nelson Mandela formed a National Unity government to rule the debut of a post-apartheid South Africa, he demonstrated both his magnanimity and his tactical sense, according to his late friend and chief of staff Jakes Gerwel.
Nelson Mandela and Jakes Gerwel. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Nelson Mandela and Jakes Gerwel. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

When Nelson Mandela become president of South Africa and formed his famous National Unity government, he chose as his chief of staff a professor of Afrikaans and literature. Reaching into academe and selecting a professor of the language most associated with white oppression might seem an odd choice, but Gert Johannes “Jakes” Gerwel was a master of joining opposites. With Mandela now gravely ill, and following Gerwel's own death late last year at age 66, it's worth recalling Gerwel's memories of Mandiba.

As The Independent’s John Carlin eulogized after Gerwel’s death last November:

Mandela was the star on stage, Gerwel the indispensable man in the shadows, the unsung, unknown soldier vital in the critical mission that Mandela set himself when he assumed the presidency of South Africa ... Gerwel was important because he stood always by Mandela’s side during the five years he ran the country; always by his side and always invisible.

One of 10 children born to farmworkers at a sheep ranch near Cape Town, thanks to his parents’ focus on education and his own love of books he landed at the University of the Western Cape. UWC was then a public institution for “coloured” students, mixed race young people who, while higher than blacks in South Africa’s racial pecking order, still weren’t white. Gerwel thrived here, educationally and politically, honing his mind and his anti-apartheid activism. After earning a doctorate with a scholarship to the University of Brussels, he returned to increasingly more important leadership roles at UWC, calling for it to be "the intellectual home of the left."

That was the Gerwel who Mandela tapped for director-general and to be the first secretary of the post-apartheid cabinet. Given that he’d seen his share of strife, Gerwel was no starry-eyed social scientist. He would demonstrate this after his term in critiques of such revered institutions as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which he saw as a limited success in a 1998 interview:

The point I think that [Bishop Desmond] Tutu often makes is that the job of the TRC is not to accomplish reconciliation, it's to facilitate reconciliation and that reconciliation itself is a process. So, yes, I think it's working in terms of what it was mandated by its founding law to do.

Gerwel was a prolific writer but he chose not to write his personal memoirs about his time in politics. But in a lengthy question and answer session with John Higgins, which appeared in the historical sociology journal Thesis Elevenin April, Gerwel reflected on his experiences, including his time at Mandela’s right hand. (Appropriately for Gerwel, Thesis Eleven is named for a maxim by Karl Marx: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.")

The following are some excerpts from that exchange. In the first, Gerwel describes how he’d detected himself growing hidebound after a decade as vice-chancellor at the UWC, and jumped at the chance to join South Africa’s brave social science experiment in governing.

Those five years were in many senses more interesting than any traditional research professorship. I was Secretary of the Cabinet in that Government of National Unity with the [African National Congress], [National Party], and Inkatha together: three historical enemies, and enemies in the real and not just metaphorical sense! To be there with those parties, working together – it was a remarkable South African experience. We were all a bit over-optimistically proud of ourselves and what we had achieved, the three sitting together as one government, and really working well together as the Government of National Unity. That was indeed an exceptional experience.

But your question was more about working with Mandela himself.

Mandela is a leader that throws up epistemological questions. We all cherish him and lionise him as this leader – which he really was – but he himself had a sense of collective leadership. He always raised the issue of how does the individual relate to the collective, how is the individual’s experience and conduct influenced by the collective, and how does it feed back to the collective? What I remember most of all about Mandela as decision-maker is his ability to project himself from the present – the moment in which he had to make a decision – into the future, and almost being able to stand at that future point and look back on the effect of a decision. Any of his generation – that Robben Island generation at least – would probably have taken the same positions that he did; but he had in addition this uncanny ability to not just reflect but, as it were, ‘forward-flect’ on a decision.

Gerwel then reflected on what he termed Mandela’s “anthropology,” the leader’s “genuine belief – and he often argued with me about the provability of it – that human beings are essentially ‘good-doing beings, beings who do good.’”

[Mandela] made the argument that if you are able to follow human beings from the moment they get up in the morning until they retire at night, you would find that most of them do the proper things most of the time, and that the erring is an aberration. And he really acted on that. He is not naı̈ve, but he has a faith in the goodness of human beings, no matter how they disagreed politically or otherwise, and he always acted in line with that belief. Of course, this attitude also helped to lay the basis for the furthering of social cohesion and national unity in the country.

He is a remarkable human being. I just sit back and marvel about what makes a human being, and what are the factors, what are the conditions, that can make a human being like that. And the other thing, of course, is that he also believed that other people are like him, in that concept of acting.

But he is a good politician. If you asked me what the difference is between him and Desmond Tutu – the two icons of our transition – it is that Mandela is a politician through and through. He understands party politics and politics to the finger-tips. He is not a saint, and he often made that point. He is a hard politician. But he uses power, he uses his political agency for the good.

Higgins asked Gerwel how, given the experiences of apartheid, amplified by harassment and imprisonment, Mandela could “transmute” the ugliness into something positive, a case of what we might now call "post-traumatic growth:"

In all the years that I worked with him, in government and then after he left government – that’s over 18 years that I worked more closely with him than most others. And we often spent quite a bit of time together, not just on official business. In all of those years, he never expressed a word of bitterness. If he had bitterness, he worked with it, he internalized it, and buried it away. He would sometimes say to me, ‘Some things are better not to dwell on.’ That is the way he dealt with it. One could say, for instance, that he had been incarcerated and victimized by the Afrikaners – Afrikaners having been the masters of the apartheid state – but he had great appreciation for Afrikaners, and for individual Afrikaners.

Part of that, Gerwel argued, arose from a need to not let the oppressor take the tactical high ground by making him a victim instead of a free actor, even if freedom wasn’t always on the table:

There was a lot of emphasis placed on the importance of psychological liberation, as [slain activist Steve] Biko would often emphasize. A part of that was not to be the victim of your suffering, and not to be the victim of those who perpetrated it against you. Mandela often made that point, ‘To be bitter would be to allow yourself to be kept imprisoned.’ He rose above that by the generosity of spirit.


Mandela was so generous in his relationships with those who could be described as the adversary. If you talked about the enemy, which he didn’t regard as an enemy, he would say, ‘Be kind to your enemy, be kind to your adversary.’ People often talk about Mandela’s values, and what they learned from him. And often, when we had these long debates at the Nelson Mandela Foundation, about what are the core values of Mandela, I would say that the thing that I remember him teaching me was: ‘Jakes, never let your enemy choose the terrain of combat by reacting in anger. If you act in anger to anybody, even if it’s your friend, you are allowing that person to choose the terrain.’ So all this was a combination of genuine principled morals with a great tactical sense.