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In Memoriam: Professor Jakes Gerwel

Jakes Gerwel

Professor Jakes Gerwel

28 November 2012 - It is with deep sadness that Aurecon mourns the passing on of its Global Chairman Professor GJ (Jakes) Gerwel who passed away last night after failing to recover from a recent heart bypass operation.

Many titles can be attributed to Jakes – he was a renowned academic, liberation leader and champion for civil society. Likewise, his curriculum vitae lists countless degrees, including Distinguished Professor and Honorary Doctorates from some of the most respected educational institutions globally. Perhaps even more significant, however, was the absolute dedication and passion with which he lived out those titles of less decree . . . those such as ‘friend’; ‘confidant’ and ‘leader’.

Jakes’ 13 year history with Aurecon began in 1999 when he joined one of the group’s South African heritage companies as chairman, later going on to fulfil the role of global chairman since 2009.

His time with us was impactful not only for the profound effect it had on our business in terms of strategic direction, but also for the immense wisdom and presence he brought to each and every event, interaction and meeting he attended.

Jakes was decorated by the likes of President Mandela for his exceptional service to South Africa, and in line with our group’s aim of building a vibrant and brighter future for all, many have said of Jakes that his passion was people. A leading light in terms of South Africa’s journey to democracy, his most famous roles were that of Director-General in the office of President Mandela during 1994-1999 and Secretary of the Cabinet in the Government of National Unity. In this role, he was deeply involved in local and foreign politics, playing the role of advisor and confidant to the then South African President Nelson Mandela.

He was instrumental in guiding Aurecon’s transformation journey during years marked with overwhelming strife. He had the ability to look beyond cultural challenges, beyond present realities, and envisage a tomorrow unencumbered by bias. This leadership ensured Aurecon was able to successfully navigate to a position of embracing diversity, and later to that of global positioning which doesn’t only ‘make the most of’, but indeed leverages and celebrates the smorgasbord of diverse thinking, and of culture, that a staff complement of 7,500 implies.

He was a visionary who reached immense heights in terms of position, yet he understood that being humble to superiors is a duty, to equals a courtesy and to inferiors noble. It was this same humility that created in others the capacity for the closeness and trust that marked all of his interactions. 

He wasn’t a man you simply ‘met’, and he didn’t have ‘acquaintances’. He made it his business to encounter people, to discover the thing that makes them unique and to draw that talent out. He was a man who impacted on people’s journeys and who, once you’ve met him, you were unable to forget for the positive effect of the encounter.

Aurecon’s management can attest to this fact. In his tenure with us, he wasn’t obliged to concern himself with people, yet ‘going beyond’ is a hallmark of his legacy. From the boardroom, to fireside discussions in the remote Karoo, his keen wit endeared him to those he made it his business to understand, support and encourage. His genuine concern, his compassion and his ‘common touch’ never faltered, despite the lofty heights his position implied. Words such as ‘integrity’ weren’t just goals for Jakes. He lived by them, and actively pursued these qualities in others.

He could often be found off-center to the limelight, somewhat reluctant to take to the stage, yet when he was called upon to act, to deliver a message or to mediate, he did so with skill, and his words and actions were incisive, impactful and brought immediate resolve.

Jakes grew up on a sheep farm in the district of Somerset East. Although his trajectory far exceeded these humble beginnings, he never departed from an understanding of one simple truth: People are not interested in what we do for a living . . . what they are interested in is what we have to offer freely – hope, strength, love and the power to make a difference.

Jakes will be sorely missed. His passing is not only a loss for Aurecon, but also for South Africa as a whole.

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