Jeremy Gordin – a time for reflection on a love affair with journalism
‘It’s getting dark, too dark to see’ – Bob Dylan from ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’.
Five months before he was brutally murdered in his home in Parkview, Johannesburg on 31 March, author, writer and journalist Jeremy Gordin wrote an eerily prophetic letter to his children – Jake and Nina – both in their early twenties, urging them to consider going to live elsewhere than in South Africa.
Headed with the ominous Bob Dylan quote about impending darkness, Gordin outlined the life of exile of the Jewish people to ease their prospect of moving.
“I know why you guys feel so attached to the beloved country. It’s a beautiful country: nothing quite like walking in the Cape mountains, the weather is generally wonderful, it’s where you come from and, above all, there are some truly wonderful people in this country, your friends, the people you studied with…
“I’m not suggesting you’re going to find yourselves in desperate flight across your own border, that your graveyard may be ploughed up and strewn with garbage.
“But there comes a time when things are clearly falling apart and a time when the general moronicism, greed and lack of care grow very annoying. It is almost as though: “It’s gettin’ dark, too dark to see.”
Gordin was a Maverick and a mensch.
Like the finest journalists he wrote what he believed to be the truth and he was not shy about speaking truth to power, as was evidenced by his biography of former president Jacob Zuma, which was published in 2008 (updated in 2010) ahead of the rest and he did not pull any punches.
He had studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and I had had two years of reporting in the region. We often had vigorous differences of opinion but we learnt from each other and made a good team.
He was a superb writer and I always counted myself fortunate to have as a deputy someone so well read, worldly wise and with such knowledge and understanding of global literature and history and, in particular, the history of the Jewish people, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Middle East.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Jeremy Gordin – journalist, poet, writer and an all-round mensch
After drifting into journalism following his military service in the mid-1970s Gordin joined the Rand Daily Mail in the twilight days of hot metal and copy paper – before the arrival of computers.
He said that on his first day at the Rand Daily Mail it was love at first sight.
“I fell in love with the whole bang shoot – the milieu, the people, the newspapering,” he wrote in a column on 25 February 2021 in Politicsweb, to which he contributed regularly until his death.
He said he felt at home in the chaos and irreverence of the RDM newsroom and liked the fact that his colleagues did not take themselves too seriously.
Gordin was the opposite of politically correct when it came to any orthodoxy and would rail against “neowoke” tendencies in his weekly columns.
But an analysis of his output over the decades finds works which are either critical of apartheid and its legacy or expose and denounce corruption in the new order.
Despite his writing and other talents, Gordin was sanguine in his approach to his work and enjoyed the human interaction as much as the work of writing.
He was patient and attentive and clearly enjoyed the role of coaching younger reporters at the Sunday Independent.
Gordin’s love affair with journalism had endured “44 years and counting” he wrote in 2021.
In a career spanning nearly five decades he became the launch editor of the first South African edition of Playboy magazine in the early 1990s.
He complained – with a pinch of irony – that although he was editor for only three issues the Playboy branding stayed with him for many years.
For many his taking on the role sealed the label of maverick which stuck with him for a long time.
But he went on to ghost-write The Towering Inferno, business tycoon Bob Aldworth’s story of how apartheid had damaged people, careers and reputations in corporate South Africa.
— Politicsweb (@Politicsweb) April 1, 2023
His next project was to chronicle the shocking story of the life of apartheid-era killer Eugene de Kock in the book A Long Night’s Damage.
Known as “Prime Evil”, De Kock was convicted of six murders and many other crimes in 1996 and sentenced to 212 years in jail.
De Kock was released on parole in 2015 after accusing President FW De Klerk and other senior officials of involvement in the orders leading to the atrocities.
One of the least known of Gordin’s many achievements was the crucial role he played in assisting Irish media mogul Tony O’Reilly’s Independent Newspapers setting up in South Africa once they had acquired ownership of the group in 1994.
He also played a critical role in the creation of Business Report, a supplement across all Independent titles which became the group’s most successful add-on after the Sunday Independent flagship was set up in 1995.
“Gordin was central to launching Business Report and to the introduction of Independent Newspapers into South Africa,” said Ivan Fallon, O’Reilly’s former right-hand man in South Africa.
“He was my first assistant and friend and introduced me to South Africa when I arrived in 1994,” said Fallon, former publisher of the Independent group in South Africa and subsequently in the UK.
Gordin subsequently became acting editor of the Independent group’s News Network and its Special Writer.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Murder of Jeremy Gordin ‘has robbed South African journalism of one of its best’
Pippa Green followed Gordin as deputy editor at the Sunday Independent and went on to write the biography of former finance minister Trevor Manuel and later became South Africa’s media ombudsman.
“Jeremy was almost always funny. He was very contrarian but always tolerant of other views,” said Green.
“I liked his writing – he always presented another side even when it was not popular to do so,” she said.
“And later in life he worked for the really important Wits Journalism Justice Project and they did really path-breaking work there with crime and prisons,” said Green.
Perhaps Gordin’s most bizarre venture was helping the late Deon du Plessis set up an extreme downmarket tabloid, the Daily Sun, which brought millions of black readers into the newspaper market for the first time.
The last word goes to veteran former editor of the Cape Times Anthony Heard.
“Gordin was a zany, quixotic guy but on the side of the angels,” he said. DM
John Battersby is a former editor of the Sunday Independent based in London.