Jakes Gerwel and “the intellectual home of the left”

The fate of the University of the Western Cape, set up for coloureds, radicalized by black consciousness and from where the ANC prepared to govern.

Jakes Gerwel (Photo: Nelson Mandela Foundation).

In 2012 the University of the Western Cape (UWC) in Cape Town turned fifty. That milestone alone demanded retrospection and celebration given UWC’s place in South Africa’s higher education set-up. But such celebration also came with pitfalls: “Histories of universities are difficult undertakings because they open onto such complex questions of our modern subjectivity and its relations to the exercise of power, not to mention the internal dynamic which proves elusive at the best of times,” writes Premesh Lalu and Noeleen Murray, the editors in the introduction to the edited volume, “Becoming UWC: Reflections, pathways and unmaking Apartheid’s legacy.”

From the book it is clear that UWC — as the university is more generally known —struggles with its roots. It has its origins in Apartheid’s grand plan as a separate university for coloureds. “The original planners of UWC in the late 1950s hoped that, hidden from view, it would offer no views of its own,” writes Lalu, a former UWC student and now professor of history who heads the Center for the Humanities Research on the campus, in a separate chapter.

UWC’s location is significant. It is situated on the outskirts of Cape Town, close to the airport and a series of mostly impoverished coloured townships (there’s a few middle class neighborhoods in-between) bordering an industrial area. That contrasts sharply with the surroundings of the two other major universities in the area, the University of Cape Town and Stellenbosch University, both well resourced and with roots in whites-only education, nestled in former whites-only areas.

Slurs abound for UWC: for example “Colouredstan” and “the bush”. These have been since turned into badges of honor and UWC’s national role in political, social and economic life is assured. However, for some UWC is still synonymous with “lack and burden.”

The editors have ambitious aims: to engage with the racial origins of the university and the “normalizing racial discourse” it bolstered. “Specifically,” they write, “we are interested in what it meant to overturn and disavow the apartheid foundations of the university and how, in challenging these precepts, the university may unfortunately have been rendered blind to the pitfalls of nationalism” (p.19).

Though the book never provides a chronology of UWC’s 50-year history, the outlines emerge clearly. These include its austere beginnings in Apartheid higher education,  replicating the Calvinism of Afrikaner universities (students, mostly young men, were “required to wear ties and jackets”), repression of politics, and the fact that administrators, with few exceptions, were all Afrikaners. Then in the early 1970s, the pro-government university council appointed UWC’s first “non-white” vice chancellor Richard van der Ross (in South Africa university presidents are known as vice chancellors). Van der Ross’s tenure coincided with the radicalization of UWC student politics to a more left orientation: first that of black consciousness in the 1970s and in the 198os Charterism, i.e. the politics of the ANC).  In-between, in 1982, the new rector, Jakes Gerwel, who had succeeded Van der Ross, began a process to reorient the university from the “political-ideological grounds” on which it was established.

In 1987, Gerwel would declare UWC “the intellectual home of the democratic Left” (Martin, p.27), as separate from the “liberal” white campuses (UCT, Rhodes, Wits University) and Afrikaner universities with their explicit ties to Apartheid (like Stellenbosch and Pretoria) . In the early 1990s, UWC became “the premier institution” (p.93) from whence the ANC prepared to govern.

The book carefully balances the fine line between celebration and critical distance, with contributions from mostly former students or faculty. Poems (by among others the late Arthur Nortje who went on to study at Oxford University) and photographs (both from the university’s own archive and a commissioned set by photographer Ingrid Masondo of the campus architecture) complement chapters on space, architecture, personal recollections (by history professor Ciraj Rasool) and reflections on UWC’s academic legacy. More recent history appears with a discussion by Leslie Witz of controversy around an on-campus exhibition of photographs by Zanele Muholi documenting the black lesbian experience in South Africa; and Neil Myburgh’s chapter on the transformation of the dental faculty (UWC absorbed Stellenbosch’s dental school).

The book would suggest that the legacies of Van der Ross and Gerwel still need to be unpacked. Van der Ross, who is characterized by Lalu as complicated, if mostly, negative, attempted to “translate apartheid’s reason for separate education into a project of class mobility” (p.53). He later emerged as a member of parliament for a small white, reactionary opposition party after apartheid.  Gerwel is the opposite of Van der Ross. He has also had a larger role in South African public life, both as an academic (on Afrikaans literature and cultural politics) and his central role in helping to establish the machinery at the top of the new postapartheid state. In 1994, he went to work as chief of staff for the new president, Nelson Mandela. Separately, he has also worked to increase black people’s share in the economy, fronting, for example, a share scheme by an Afrikaner-owned multinational media company.

Early in the book, English professor Julia Martin captures UWC’s new challenge. She writes that UWC’s origins and development over the last 50 years “seems distant history” to the university’s current crop of students who face a new set of dilemmas. This generation of students wants “to talk about love and Palestine and the corporate branding of their clothes. About music, imagination, and the politics of food. About poverty, displacement, desire and education. About the internet, the spiritual quest, and the globalization of the mind.” Nevertheless, Martin finds that “for all their techno-cool, the present generation of students seem more tender than their predecessors were, less confident of victory.”


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