Professor Jakes Gerwel was born in January, 1946, and grew up on a sheep farm in the Kommadagga district of Somerset East, the seventh child in a family of 10.
His parents were determined that their children would receive a good education.
Gerwel received his primary education at a church-based farm school, his secondary schooling at the London Missionary Society institution, Dower Memorial College in Uitenhage, and went on to matriculate from Paterson High School in Port Elizabeth.
Gerwel proceeded to the then University College of the Western Cape, where he completed a BA degree majoring in Afrikaans-Nederlands and sociology, followed by an Honours degree in Afrikaans-Nederlands, both degrees being awarded cum laude.
He went on to lecture in Afrikaans at the Hewat Training College in Athlone, prior to taking up a bursary from the Belgian government to study for a licentiate in Germanic Philology at the Vrije Universiteit of Brussels in 1971.
On his return to South Africa, Gerwel taught at Grassy Park High School in Cape Town before taking up an appointment at his alma mater, the University of the Western Cape as a lecturer in Afrikaans and Nederlands in July 1972.
He was promoted to senior lecturer four years later and in 1979 received the doctorate in Literature and Philosophy (magna cum laude) from the Vrije Universiteit of Brussels for a thesis titled "Literatuur en Apartheid" (literature and apartheid).
It dealt with the way the Afrikaans novel in the period 1875 to 1948 had been a crucial carrier of the racial ideas that would eventually culminate in the apartheid state.
It is widely regarded as a pioneering work in Afrikaans literary criticism and in the sociology of literature.
He was promoted to professor and head of department and in 1982 was appointed dean of the Faculty of Arts.
Shortly after the University of the Western Cape (UWC) received its full autonomy as a university in 1984, he was elected to the post of rector and vice-chancellor from January 1987.
Throughout his academic career, he continued to publish a variety of books, monographs, articles, essays and delivered papers on literature, education and socio-political matters.
His goal was to build UWC into "an intellectual home of the Left", instigating a mindset which transformed that institution into a leading intellectual and educational centre for grappling with the questions of non-racialism, democracy and equitable development, while preparing students to assume the roles of full citizens in a post-apartheid South Africa.
Gerwel's foresight and leadership in steering UWC through controversial changes and development was recognised in 1986, when he received an honorary doctorate from Clark College, Atlanta, followed in 1990 by one from the City College, City University, New York.
In 1995, he received similar honours from both the University of Cape Town and UWC. Gerwel also holds honorary doctorates from the University of Missouri in the USA, and UCT, UWC, Rhodes, Witwatersrand, Natal and Stellenbosch in South Africa.
He taught Afrikaans and Dutch literature at the University of the Western Cape where he subsequently was Vice-Chancellor from 1987 to April 1994. From May 1994 to June 1999 Professor Gerwel served as Director-General in the Office of President Mandela and Secretary of the Cabinet in the Government of National Unity. Additional activities and functions as Director-General in the Office of the President included: Secretary of the Cabinet of the Government of National Unity; Chancellor of the Chancellery of Orders; Cabinet appointed member of the National Conventional Arms Control Committee; the President's representative on the National Intelligence Co-ordination Committee; Personal representative of the President on the G16 Group on Multilateral Reform; Chairperson of the Standing Committee of Senior Officials of the Southern African Development Community; the South African Representative on the Standing Committee of Senior Officials of the Commonwealth and Presidential envoy on various international issues.
President Mandela decorated Professor Gerwel for exceptional service to South Africa by conferring on him the Order of the Southern Cross (Gold). He also holds the Freedom of the Town of Somerset East and national orders from Saudi Arabia and Libya.
Professor Gerwel is presently (2004) a Director of Naspers, Educor, Old Mutual and Goldfields Limited and non-executive Chairman of Brimstone Investment Corporation and Africon Engineering International. He is Chancellor of Rhodes University; Distinguished Professor in the Humanities jointly at the University of the Western Cape and Chairman of the Human Sciences Research Council. He Chairs the Boards of Trustees of the Nelson Mandela Foundation and ACCORD and is also the Chairperson of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.