Jeremy Gordin – journalist, poet, writer and an all-round mensch
Gruff, pugnacious, broad-chested and bearded, with a barrelling gait, he could be mistaken on the newsroom floor for an old merchant mariner, but his bark was far worse than his bite, and concealed a depth of compassion and a keen affinity with the underdog and a passion to right injustice.
Jeremy Gordin, who was murdered by unknown attackers at his Parkview Johannesburg home on Friday, was an old-school journalist – as adept with the long-form journalism for which he was justly acclaimed as he was with his effortless ability to provide flawless dictates to copy takers off the cuff without recourse to his notes during breaks in court proceedings..
Gruff, pugnacious, broad-chested and bearded, with a barrelling gait, he could be mistaken on the newsroom floor for an old merchant mariner, but his bark was far worse than his bite and concealed a depth of compassion and a keen affinity with the underdog and a passion to right injustice.
Born in Pretoria and educated at Brakpan High School after a brief stint in Southeast Asia with his family while his pharmacist father worked for the UN, Gordin finished his matric at Damelin in downtown Johannesburg. He got a scholarship to study in Israel where he completed a BA, smoked a lot of pot, talked a lot and was picked to play rugby for Israel as a prop forward. Returning to South Africa, he did his year’s national service, volunteering for the South African Defence Force’s elite 1 Parachute Battalion, completing the infamous jump course.
In 1976, he began his journalism career when he was selected for the cadet course at the then South African Associated Newspapers (Saan), based at the old Rand Daily Mail in downtown Johannesburg. He would go on to work on the Rand Daily Mail, the Sunday Express, the Financial Mail (rising to an assistant editor under Stephen Mulholland) and Frontline magazine.
He left journalism for a foray into book publishing and selling, and partnered with Benjamin Trisk as co-managing director of Exclusive Books as it prepared to break out of its Hillbrow home. When that ended, he spent time in the US, writing and reporting for different media outlets including the Northern California Jewish Bulletin.
When he returned to South Africa, he was hired to launch the South African edition of Playboy magazine, to which Times Media Limited (the successor to Saan) had acquired the rights. In typical style, he posed as his own centrefold – nude with only a magazine to protect his modesty.
It was a fun tenure that he would often remember by recounting the time a very young and still undiscovered Charlize Theron marched into his office one day in 1993, wanting to be considered as the magazine’s first South African Playmate.
When Gordin tried to explain the magazine’s policy on bust size, Theron whipped off her top and stood braless in front of Gordin and his deputy editor, Shona Bagley, which led decades later to the memorable “I saw Charlize’s Golden Globes” news poster for The Star when the now-established actress won her first serious award for her craft.
In between editing and leading publication launch teams, Gordin had also begun to write non-fiction books – from the Bob Aldworth story The Infernal Tower (1996), to the story of Eugene de Kock in A Long Night’s Damage (1998), but he would be best known for his unauthorised biography of Jacob Zuma published 10 years later in 2008, to date the only biography of the former president.
After his time at Playboy, Gordin joined Independent Newspapers, following former British Lion Tony O’Reilly’s successful purchase of the Argus Group in 1995. He had been headhunted by the new group editorial director Ivan Fallon to be the launch managing editor on the brand-new Business Report, a national financial daily to be carried by the Star, the Pretoria News, the Cape Times and the Mercury in Durban.
After the launch, Gordin was let go only to be recruited by the newly appointed managing director of Independent’s Gauteng division, Deon du Plessis, himself a former newspaper editor.
Du Plessis wanted to create a UK-style tabloid and hired Gordin to lead a small team of designers, writers and a photographer to produce a mock-up of what was provisionally titled the SA Mirror. The C-suite at Independent had no appetite for a mass market tabloid, so Du Plessis quit, sold the idea to Media24, which partnered with him to create the Daily Sun.
Gordin was then offered a job as assistant editor for news on the Sunday Independent, literally the diametric opposite of the project he had been working on.
After a couple of years there, he was appointed managing editor of Independent News Network (INN), an editorial synergy unit set up to coordinate the editorial output of the group’s five morning newspapers, three afternoon papers, four Saturday titles and three Sunday newspapers, as well as the group political bureau and foreign service.
At INN, Gordin began to re-invent himself as the group’s big story writer, being assigned to the most important stories of the day, leading younger reporters in processing singular news events such as the Schabir Shaik corruption trial and the rape trial of the then axed deputy president Zuma. His work was exceptionally good, recognised almost annually by the Mondi Shanduka Newspaper Awards across the different categories of news, feature and creative writing, culminating in him being named Journalist of the Year in 2007. He was also the WWB Legal Journalist of the Year that same year.
After becoming editor of INN, he hankered after writing and became associate editor for Independent’s Sunday newspapers, normally teaming up with photographer TJ Lemon for stories that would hit the front pages, fill the inside pages and become the stuff of newsroom legend.
He left Independent in 2008 and was hired the following year to head up the brand-new Wits School of Journalism Justice Project, leading a team of journalists and academics to expose the underbelly of South Africa’s prisons.
After Wits, he worked for Du Plessis on the Daily Sun on contract before Media24 approached him in 2012 to take over full time the year after Du Plessis’s death. He achieved significant success in his three-year tenure as publisher.
As a young man, Gordin won the AA Mutual Life/Vita Poetry Award in 1987 and the Vita/Arthur Nortje Memorial Poetry Award in 1992. Even then, he was an inveterate letter writer and a natural columnist, making the Sunday Independent’s weekly satirical Karen Bliksem Out of Africa essential reading. In retirement, he continued this passion by becoming a weekly contributor to PoliticsWeb.
Gordin was a man of great passion and a temper that was like a magnesium flare; lightning fast and ferocious in full blaze, but invariably followed by deep contrition and kindness. He didn’t suffer fools gladly and had a pathological abhorrence for cant, but it was all leavened with an irrepressible puckish sense of humour.
When he heard that the legendary Dave Hazelhurst, the then creative director of the Star, who was a major champion of Gordin’s writing, was holding a masterclass in narrative writing for the young reporters, Gordin – his pipe jammed between his teeth – uttered “narrative writing? Christ, can’t Hazy teach ’em to do declarative first?”
He was the scourge of management too, his email tirades legendary because he would invariably become so enamoured with a particularly pungent turn of phrase addressed to whichever Jobsworth had irritated him that he would be unable to resist the compulsion to forward his latest missive to the closest 100 people in his email address book, exponentially compounding the crisis, making the resolution that much harder for the urbane founding editor of INN, Alan Dunn, to mediate.
Once, when Gordin was editor of INN himself, and entitled to park his beaten up Alfa Romeo alongside the luxury late-model German sedans of the executives in the basement of the Star building, he managed to verbally accost one of the directors who had the misfortune to arrive at the same time. Gordin followed him into the lift, haranguing him on a point of policy that had particularly peeved him, hounding the hapless executive all the way to the (literal) mahogany row of the sixth floor where he locked himself in the executives’ toilet and waited for Gordin to run out of steam (and argument) and return to his office on the first floor – greatly satisfied by the response he had triggered.
Jeremy Gordin was a writer’s writer, a journalist’s journalist and an all-round mensch, in every sense of the word. He was someone who would find a bird on the ground with a broken wing, pick it up, painstakingly nurse it back to health and then help it to fly off – as he did for me.
Jeremy Gordin (1952–2023) is survived by his wife Deborah Blake, his son Jake and his daughter Nina. DM
Kevin Ritchie is a former editor of The Star. He was Jeremy Gordin’s assistant at INN.