IN a battle which neither side was conclusively going to
win, small victories were much vaunted during the heady days of apartheid at
the University of the Western Cape (UWC).
The death this week of Jakes Gerwel, the former
vice-chancellor of UWC, reminded me of one such incident when apartheid police
were beating up students and Gerwel came to their rescue.
This was a sign that he was a gallant fighter against the apartheid
system and for the freedom of his people.
It was during one week in a cold winter night in 1989 that
students from the adjacent male hotels, Basil February and Erduardo Dos Santos
hotels started singing and toyi-toying. They had just attended a highly-
charged political gathering at the university’s Main Hall.
Soon the singing got emotional and very melancholic that
other male students from these hotels joined in and the numbers grew.
About 45 minutes later, police arrived and started chasing students,
releasing teargas and beating up those they could reach.
This was the beginning of lengthy battles with the police
during the dark cold winter night. Luckily, no property was damaged and no one
was injured or killed but police wanted to inflict serious injuries on
NY1, the sheltered foot path that led to the dining hall and
divided Basil February, Dos Santos, Coleen Williams and one ladies’ hostel I
forget, was a hive of activity with male students trying to escape police
brutality that night. The path was named after a main road in Gugulethu, Cape
Town’s sprawling black township.
What happened that cold wintry night 23 years ago is so
vivid in my mind as though it happened last night. What remains etched in my
mind is the role that Gerwel played on the night.
I think he got a message during the middle of that night
that students at his campus were under siege. Like a leader he was, he did not
hesitate to come himself and speak to the police.
He communicated with a police commander who was so livid he
did not want to listen to anything Gerwel was saying.
But Gerwel calmly explained himself to the point that the
unit commander asked his team of policemen to leave the scene.
I was far from the argument between Gerwel and the
commander. But I suspect Gerwel told the unit commander that their presence
there could worsen the situation.
Such was his leadership style, clever and persuasive.
Currently there are few vice-chancellors, or other leaders for that matter, who
will wake up in the middle of the night to solve a violent crisis.
Winnie Madikizela Mandela would wake in the night to
confront police that were forcefully removing people from squatter camps.
Nelson Mandela once braved a cold and rainy night to go and address striking
But today’s leaders are more concerned about their big
houses and huge German cars. This makes me think that the divisions within the
ruling party are really not about who is wrong and who is right (moral issues).
But this is a battle over resources.
The sad thing about the leaders of the calibre of the late
Gerwel - and no doubt there are many in the ANC - is that they do not say
anything about the current crop of leaders. They need to warn them against
looting. This could make a lot of difference.
Some of the looting leaders have great struggle credentials
no doubt. But they seem to have forgotten all what they stood for when they
were activists with the likes of Gerwel.
Gerwel, who died this week from a heart attack (66), was an
inspirational activist, organiser and leader with some of these guys.
He was a central figure in the United Democratic Front (UDF)
movement more than 25 years ago.
I liked his personal toughness and the fact that he
instinctively sided with the underdog, and always sought to give people,
especially black people (African, Indian and Coloured) confidence in their own
Remember, under his leadership, UWC started admitting
students which were declined by other universities because of the colour of
their skin and their life circumstances in huge numbers.
For Gerwel, black people’s liberation was not abstract. It
had to be somewhat militant and linked to the wider struggle.
Extremely well-read in the Marxist tradition and the
liberation movement, he threw himself into countless struggles.
- A memorial service will be held on Saturday 1 December 2012 at 15:00 in the Main Hall of the University of the Western Cape.
*Fin24 columnist Mzwandile Jacks is a freelance journalist. Views expressed are his own.