A leading player on all fronts

Jakes Gerwel shuns publicity, but Rhodes University’s new chancellor played a key role in the Lockerbie agreement, writes Chiara Carter

It is a long way from Somerset East to Tripoli and almost as far a distance, metaphorically, from the “home of the left” University of the Western Cape (UWC) to the liberal portals of Rhodes University.

Professor Jakes Gerwel has undertaken both trips in the past week in his inimitable low- key style, but with a certain zest.

Gerwel’s breakthrough role in assisting the United Nations reach agreement on the trial of two Libyan suspects accused of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing came in the same week that Rhodes University announced he would be its new chancellor.

Gerwel, who undertook half-a- dozen trips to Tripoli during the past few months, is keen to emphasise that he was merely acting as President Nelson Mandela’s emissary and that South Africa’s involvement was part of the country’s commitment to international bodies such as the UN. He worked alongside Saudi mediator Prince Bandar ibn Sultan.

The director general in Mandela’s office said the impasse over the suspects and sanctions imposed against Libya had troubled Mandela for a long time. He first raised the Lockerbie issue soon after his release from prison and had consistently placed it on the table during a series of meetings with United States and British leaders, as well as during his visit to Libya.

“We have very good relations with the US, Britian and Libya, which meant the good office of President Mandela was used to help the two sides reach agreement,” said Gerwel.

The initial stumbling point was one of conflicting views of jurisdiction, with Libya wanting the suspects tried at home, and the US and the United Kingdom insisting the trial take place in Britain. The first step was to get the US and UK to agree the trial would take place in a third country. The suspects, Abdel Basset Ali el-Megrahi and Al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah, will now be tried by a Scottish court, without a jury, sitting in the Netherlands.

Gerwel said his role was not as a negotiator, but as an aide helping Libya clarify aspects of the proposed accord which, once finalised and accepted by the UN, will see sanctions against the North African country end.

He said his major task had been to build mutual trust and confidence between the two sides. Libya’s pariah status in the West has seen its leader, Moammar Gadaffi, caricatured as a fanatic. Gerwel said the man was very different from this stereotype. He enjoyed Gadaffi’s sense of humour and self-irony which often saw the Libyan leader parodying himself.

Gerwel declined to be drawn on the latest breakthrough. However, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said earlier this week that Britain – while insistent that the suspects, if convicted, would serve jail sentences in Scotland – was willing to look at the involvement of the UN in supervising the imprisonment.

This movement has left UN Secretary General Kofi Annan hopeful of a resolution, and an announcement is expected later this month. Sanctions, imposed in 1992, would be lifted as soon as the suspects were sent to the Netherlands, allowing Libya to re-enter international affairs.

Gerwel says if the matter is finally resolved, it would underline the importance of South Africa’s approach to foreign relations, maintaining dialogue with parties in the hope of finding common ground.

Gerwel, who shuns publicity, said much of the credit for an accord belonged with Mandela.

“If I have learnt one thing from the president, it is his directness. Often he approaches heads of state and speaks straight, rather than beating around the bush,” he said.

Gerwel’s diplomatic foray stems from his work for the president but his new position at Rhodes is recognition of his stature in the world of universities.

Gerwel said his unanimous election came as a “complete surprise”. It had a sense of “poetic closure” for him because he had grown up in Kommadagga in the Somerset East district, about an hour’s journey from Grahamstown.

“All things being equal, Rhodes would have been the university where I studied,” said Gerwel. Instead he went to UWC, where he completed a BA honours in Afrikaans-Nederlands.

He returned to UWC as a lecturer in July 1972, and in 1979 received a doctorate in literature and philosophy (magna cum laude) from the Vrije Universitiet of Brussels for a pioneering thesis titled Literatuur en Apartheid (Literature and Apartheid), which dealt with the way the Afrikaans novel from 1875 to 1948 had been a crucial carrier of the racial ideas that would eventually culminate in the apartheid state.

Gerwel became rector and vice-chancellor at UWC in 1987 and his leadership was synonymous with the declaration that the university would be a “home of the left”.

He said he regretted that financial problems had hindered UWC from fulfilling its mission.

He did not see a contradiction in serving as chancellor at a historically white and liberal university.

“When we said UWC would be a home for the democratic movement, it was in the context that universities had within them a dominant ideological position and there was a need for a home for left views. It didn’t mean all universities should become that.

“I am a council member of Stellenbosch University,” said Gerwel. “Hopefully, all South African universities are now national assets.”

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