South Africa


When death comes violently to Johannesburg — murder in the city, and love

When death comes violently to Johannesburg — murder in the city, and love

There was a hushed shock about the mourners at Jeremy Gordin’s funeral as we walked up, up, up to the edges of the old Westpark Cemetery, where it skirts the Melville Koppies, to bury him on Wednesday, April 5.

The rabbi cried as he read Mary Oliver’s When Death Comes, its opening words resonant like the word “murder” which hung quietly in the air, etched on the faces of the bereaved. 

“When death comes like the hungry bear in autumn…” the poem begins.   

In one of his final columns, Gordin wrote about a previous break-in at his home and remarked that the intruders were hungry, the Politicsweb editor, James Myburgh, recalled. When the hungry bears came again last weekend, Gordin was murdered. The word, the shock, hangs in the air.  

“…when death comes like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,” the poem continues. 

Johannesburg puts on a fine and sunny autumn day — the leaves of the abundant trees are turning orange, russet and yellow. The cemetery is in a cradle, to the left, the Northcliff Tower stands; ahead, the skyline of Sandton; to the right, the old city. 

The community keeps it scrupulously clean; in the rest of the city, the stewards of the city’s graves have let them go to hell. In Brixton, the historic old graveyard now houses the homeless who sleep on the graves.

At Westpark, it is a long and peaceful walk through the rows of graves, among the trees that shade them, for the pugilist journalist, born in Pretoria and buried now in Johannesburg. Among the mourners is the SA National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) secretary-general Reggy Moalusi, who worked with Gordin at the Daily Sun before becoming editor-in-chief. He disbelieves what has happened, and he whispers. 

The city’s people of the subaltern are desperate and without succour or care, even in a city with a R77.3-billion budget, a country that took a net tax-take of R1.68-trillion in the past financial year, up by 7.9% in 2022. Yet people are hungry everywhere.  

Police and forensic investigators cordoned off the crime scene at Edenvale High School after a robbery and shootout on 21 February 2019 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Netwerk24 / Deaan Vivier)

A forensic team at the crime scene where a suspect was shot and killed by police officers on 24 August 2015 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sowetan / Antonio Muchave)

Forensic officers at the crime were ANC MP Sibusiso Radebe was shot and killed on 20 June 2018 in Roodepoort, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sowetan / Thulani Mbele)

It is criminal and a part of what’s driving a bloody crime wave. The murder rate has climbed back into double digits, increasing by 10% at the end of 2022, stretching painfully to a rate of 12.2 for every 100,000 people. It’s very high, like a country at war. Joburg is at spot 14 for the worst contact crimes (murder) in the country.    

When Gordin edited the Daily Sun for a time, he relished his campaigns for the “man in blue”, the talisman of the iconic working class. He took that understanding of how the government fails the citizens who need it most to his columns at Politicsweb

In Parkview, where Gordin lived and died, the active community policing forum (CPF) is usually an example of a partnership that works; its success can’t be absolute in a country of such inequality.   

The police and the community are on 24/7 duty to investigate his murder, sources say. But a CPF member said the vulnerability of older residents is growing as the crime wave crashes on.  

In the inner city – Hillbrow, Jeppe and Alex – precarity is more intense and murders by robbers are increasing. Most people who die violently do so in rage among people who know each other, in vigilantism and what the police classify as “mob justice” or “retaliation and revenge”.  

Johannesburg’s draft Integrated Development Plan released in March detailed high rates of anxiety and fear in the six million people who call the metropolis home. The police’s ability to investigate murders is going down much faster than the rate is going up, as security analyst David Bruce has written.   

It’s no wonder that Gordin’s most quoted column is titled with a Bob Dylan lyric, “It’s getting dark, too dark to see”, in which he wrote to his children, Jake and Nina, suggesting they consider leaving South Africa. It’s an option many parents, who can, are proposing to their children and in my experience, it’s a crisscross of race and even class as working parents put their next generations on planes out.  

I love News24’s counterpunch by Helena Wasserman. But precariousness and vulnerability nearly always twin with flight, as Gordin wrote only a few months ago, at least for those of means. 

Jake and Nina, his children, and his wife Deborah Blake’s eyes are streaked with tears as they grip the trolley holding the pine casket that will wheel this larger-than-life character in journalism on his final walk.  

The community also chose Mary Oliver’s poem, an instruction on how to value each life:

“And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular….”

It continues. 

“…and each body a lion of courage, and something precious to the earth.” 

The poet understands the value of life, where for the protectors (the police, the leaders), people have become statistics to be reeled off in grisly quarterlies, rhetorical responses, and hot air that goes nowhere. 

As we leave and the family goes home to start the seven-day shiva (mourning), new words hang in the air. The sun bounces off the trees, and busy city sounds come back into focus as the red earth settles over the pine casket.  

The poem ends thus: 

“When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
If I have made of my life something particular and real
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.” DM/MC/ML


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • David Walwyn says:

    What a beautiful and moving article. Thank you. You have captured how we are all feeling, and given us the words to remember Gordin.

  • Jon Quirk says:

    Farewell, my friend. I’m sorry and saddened not to be there at the end.

  • Stuart Hulley-Miller says:

    I am truly shocked at this news, which I only saw today …. Because I am on holiday and simply stopped reading any news as there is now just too much bad news. What a waste of a wonderful person of influence and Dow to earth reality.

  • Ron Ron says:

    A lovely tribute but tinged with… is it blame? “Inequality leads to murder” comes over as an undertone, they are hungry so they killed a person who was trying to make a difference. In India the poverty and the hunger outstrips ours but the crime is far less. Is the issue not the poverty but the lawlessness? The homeless living in Brixton cemetery is something that’s allowed. The “wastepreneurs” roving the streets with their trolleys who know every move of the residents and camp along the green areas when not causing a menace on the roads. It’s allowed. The cable theft, the theft of metal from the cemeteries, the fences, the letters – it’s all allowed. It makes targets of lawful residents, ducks in a gallery – except of course the fat ticks masquerading as our “leaders” frantically helping themselves with utter impunity. It’s all allowed. All that has to happen is enforcement but that would take an end to corruption and real leadership and that’s about as likely as a cruise on the Flying Dutchman

    • Willem Boshoff says:

      Agreeing with this sentiment. It’s globally true that poverty/inequality leads to more crime, but it’s equally insulting to millions in poverty who do not resort to crime (much less murder) to speak of it as something to be expected. It also doesn’t account for the developing trend of celebrity criminals who operate in nice cars and wear designer clothing on their bloody errands. The truth is that murdering an innocent is a grossly immoral act perpetrated by barbarians not fit to be in society. It seems however that some sort of inequality-guilt is used to temper the flaming outrage that should be the norm as SA is being overrun with criminals.

  • Patricia Sidley says:

    Ferial’s piece is beautiful. I was at the same funeral, and it captured the feelings perfectly. Outside of the funeral among friends, there is a resignation that this was not an isolated event and among the friends, discussion of leaving the country. More will leave in the wake of this and each similar catastrophic event like this. For those still staying talk is about property prices and how these events affect them. It is so sad to see it all disintegrate.

  • Pieter Schoombee says:

    Beautiful. Thank you.

  • Caroline White says:

    What a very tragic death – murder – of a fine person.

  • glynis hyslop says:

    Extraordinarily moving article
    (From a master of words)
    Which highlights the sadness of this utter waste of an incredible person.
    While I have encouraged my children to leave the country ( not because of crime) there is much we can all do to change our current scenario.
    Each tragedy is a call to action.

  • Christiaan de Lange says:

    The news of Jeremy Gordin’s horrific murder shocked me and stayed with me for days, even though I have been living in England for over twenty years, the umbilical cord of emotional
    attachment to events in South Africa is still there.

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