La Trobe journal offers rare insight into Nelson Mandela

Posted on July 23, 2013


A 'Thesis Eleven' seminar in Johannesburg earlier this year. From left, Dr Hogan and Professor Beilharz with Professor Peter Vale, University of Johannesburg, guest editor of the special issue on South Africa.

A ‘Thesis Eleven’ seminar in Johannesburg earlier this year. From left, Dr Hogan and Professor Beilharz with Professor Peter Vale, University of Johannesburg, guest editor of the special issue on South Africa. Photo: Yoly Estomata

There are journals and journals….

In the world of historica sociology and big ideas Thesis Eleven – nurtured and edited at La Trobe University for some three decades – has stood as a beacon, shedding light on all manner of things.

Its latest coup is publishing an interview with Gert Johannes ‘Jakes’ Gerwel. The former South African social scientist, University of Western Cape Vice-Chancellor and Chancellor of Rhodes University was for many years Nelson Mandela’s right-hand man and confidant.

He served as First Secretary of South Africa’s post-apartheid cabinet and Director General when Mandela became president and formed his National Unity government and famous Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

'If he (Mandela) had bitterness ... he buried it away'

‘If he (Mandela) had bitterness … he buried it away’

Gerwel was a prolific writer, but he did not write a memoir about his time in politics before died late last year.

Renewed interest

With Mandela in perilous health as South Africa celebrates his 95th birthday and reflects on his achievements, Gerwel’s account of life and work with one the great political figures of the 20th century has gained new currency.

And it seems the only place in which he has canvassed his 18-years of close association with Mandela at some length is an extensive question and answer session published in the May issue of Thesis Eleven.

In discussion with Professor John Higgins from the University of Cape Town just before his death, Gerwel describes how he left academe to join South Africa’s historic post-apartheid government.

Parts of the Thesis Eleven report have also been republished in the Pacific Standard, a leading socio-political on-line magazine.

‘It’s quite a coup for Thesis Eleven,’ says its co-editor, La Trobe sociologist Dr Trevor Hogan. While few academic journals manage to survive such a long time, and many are struggling financially, Dr Hogan says Thesis Eleven continues to be self-supporting with an influential readership in the thousands.

Bridge between key thinkers and students

He says some of its notable features have been on people like Gore Vidal and Robert Hughes. Its themes have ranged from capitalism, Marxism and fascism to post-modernism, the welfare state, even the motor car, the new media and popular music cultures.

Its contributors range from leading international thinkers such as Zygmunt Bauman, Cornelius Castoriadis, and Agnes Heller, who once taught at La Trobe, to Craig Calhoun, new Director of the London School of Economics, and Jeffrey Alexander, Director of the Centre for Cultural Sociology at Yale University, both of whom hold honorary doctorates from La Trobe.

The journal also gives its name to La Trobe University’s Thesis Eleven Centre for Cultural Sociology. The Centre builds bridges between key scholars and students, the arts and sciences, and helps the careers of graduates working in the fields of social and political theory, especially at post-doctoral level.

'Thesis Eleven': from Marxism to modern music

‘Thesis Eleven’: from Marxism to modern music

The journal was co-founded in 1980 by La Trobe Professor of Social Theory, Peter Beilharz. A former occupant of the prestigious Chair of Australian Studies at Harvard University, Professor Beilharz has published 24 books ranging from fabianism, feminism, socialism and totalitarianism to the welfare state.  He, Dr Hogan and Associate Professor Peter Murphy from Monash University are the journal’s joint editors.

Remarkable man, hard politician

In this special South African edition of Thesis Eleven, Gerwel discusses his five years in government working with Mandela and the African National Congress, the National Party and Inkatha.

These three political groups, he says ‘were historical enemies, and enemies in the real and not just metaphorical sense.’ He also notes: ‘we were all a bit over-optimistically proud of ourselves and what we had achieved.’

‘What I remember most about Mandela as decision-maker is his ability to project himself from the present – the moment in which he had to make a decision – into the future, and almost being able to stand at that future point and look back on the effect of a decision.’

He describes Mandela as a remarkable human, good politician, ‘rightly cherished and lionised as a leader’. But he had a sense of collective leadership. ‘He always raised the issue of how does the individual relate to the collective,’ Gerwel adds.

‘He understands party politics and politics to the finger-tips. He is not a saint, and he often made that point. He is a hard politician. But he uses power, he uses his political agency for the good.’

Gerwel says during the 18 years he worked closely with Mandela in and out of government ‘he never expressed a word of bitterness’ about his treatment and imprisonment during the apartheid regime.

Core values

‘Mandela often said that “to be bitter would be to allow yourself to be kept imprisoned”.

‘If he had bitterness,’ says Gerwel, ‘he worked with it, he internalised it, and buried it away. He would sometimes say to me “some things are better not to dwell on”. That is the way he dealt with it.’

On the questions of the core values we can take from Mandela, Gerwel says:

‘I remember him teaching me “Jakes, never let your enemy choose the terrain of combat by reacting in anger. If you act in anger to anybody, even if it’s your friend, you are allowing that person to choose the terrain”. So all this was a combination of genuine principled morals with a great tactical sense.’

• Among the themes in the May issue of Thesis Eleven is the role played by South African Marxism in the struggle to end apartheid and the place of education, and its failure, in the post-apartheid years. The role of universities before and after the end of apartheid is also analysed. – Ernest Raetz

Thesis Eleven: Critical Theory and Historical Sociology Journal (Issue 115, May, 2013) is available from La Trobe University Library online services.

See also:

Professor Jakes Gerwel: Mandela’s unsung hero – ‘…. few have given so much to so many with less need for glory or fame’  (The Independent, UK)

Beating the drum for social sciences in Australia (La Trobe Bulletin)