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January 6, 2023
By Bronwyn Davids
A unique writing community thrives.

Located in the small oasis town of Somerset East in the semiarid Karoo midlands of South Africa, there is a house for writers: Paulet House, where emerging and established writers come to give their stories wings.

The Jakes Gerwel Foundation came to transform a 197-year-old English manor house into a house for writers in multiple languages due to a family’s commitment to the legacy left by a husband, father, educator, anti-apartheid activist, patron of the arts, author, and editor.

Gerwel, who was born on a farm near Somerset East, was a professor of Afrikaans and Dutch language and literature, as well as the rector and vice chancellor of the University of the Western Cape. He served as the director-general during Nelson Mandela’s term as president from 1994 to 1999. Gerwel was widely respected for his negotiating and diplomatic skills during South Africa’s transition from the apartheid era to democracy.

Gerwel always intended to retire to his home district. To this end, the family bought Paulet House in 1993 and rented it out until moving in part-time in 2007.

"In 2019, Paulet House opened its doors, and 20 writers benefited from the first four programs launched in that inaugural year."
After Gerwel’s death, in 2013 his wife, Phoebe Gerwel, formed the Jakes Gerwel foundation to honor her late husband and continue the professor’s lifelong devotion to education, arts, culture, sport, and welfare. In 2018, she donated Paulet House to the foundation with the request that the property be used for the “benefit of the community.”

The trustees eventually narrowed the mission to focusing on literature, especially in Afrikaans and its many dialects, as this was Gerwel’s field of expertise. The foundation works at enriching South African literature, assisting with new perspectives and sharing of new experiences, supporting emerging writers and new voices, and encouraging reading and promoting literacy among youth.

Since his appointment in August 2017, the foundation’s executive director, award-winning author Theo Kemp, has been designing projects rooted in the literary spheres in which Gerwel played a key role, always with the impetus to “give the voiceless a voice and support children with educational programs—to bring hope precisely where hopelessness is overwhelming.”

In 2019, Paulet House opened its doors, and 20 writers benefited from the first four programs launched in that inaugural year. After mentorships, six emerging writers had plays premiered at the Suidoosterfees theater festival in Cape Town and three published their debut books. The 10 more established writers who participated in residency programs published a total of six poetry anthologies, two short story anthologies, one biography, and three novels. All but five of the works were in Afrikaans and dialects.

Since its inception, the foundation has reached out to writers from beyond South Africa, notably partnering with a literary organization based in Brussels, where Gerwel received his doctorate in literature from the Vrije Universiteit. The Jakes Gerwel Foundation and the Brussels-based literary organization Passa Porta run the Dialogue Programme for Writers from the Low Countries and South Africa, which encourages the cross-pollination of ideas between two Belgians and two South Africans, thereby striving to enrich the body of literature in South Africa and abroad.

In 2020, the Brussels program was suspended due to pandemic lockdowns, and two programs were added: one for short story writers and the other for songwriters. To date, 101 writers have benefited from four mentorship programs, which are all run in conjunction with genre-related partners; a residency in Belgium; and a residency with PEN Afrikaans.

Kemp is eager to expand the foundation’s international relationships. He wants to connect with “leading and like-minded organizations that work on a global platform,” thereby giving emerging writers new perspectives.

Kemp visited New York in October and met with individuals from the School of the Arts at Columbia University, the New School, and the Tisch School of the Arts at  New York University. In the future, he’s hoping to form relationships with the New York Public Library, the New York State Writers Institute, PEN America, and other groups for publishers and writers. “Although our focus is on the development of South African writers, it is imperative to create a platform for our writers where the exchange of expertise, knowledge, and talents across all kinds of borders becomes a reality,” Kemp says. “The idea is to connect the local with the global, to bring the world to Somerset East and vice versa. Imagine what it will mean for emerging writers—who really have the talent and the commitment—to be able to connect with upcoming writers from New York. What amazing opportunities for collaborations will be created if experienced writers from New York come and act as mentors at Paulet House? Writers are their own ‘instruments’ and, therefore, the more exposure, the more equipped you become in writing.”

Bronwyn Davids is the author of Lansdowne Dearest, a narrative nonfiction account of apartheid- era forced removals in Cape Town. She works in communications for the Jakes Gerwel Foundation.