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The President’s Keepers: The book that brought the House down


My phone started ringing at nine that morning. It hasn’t stopped since. It took state security four days to respond in the form of a letter in which they demanded that we remove the book, failing which they would bring an urgent court application. I am no lawyer but even I knew that something can’t be urgent if you give the respondent five days to respond. We told the SSA to go to hell.

Last week, I received my six-monthly audited book sales report of The President’s Keepers.

In September last year, a few weeks before publishing The President’s Keepers, I explained its content to then Exclusives Books CEO Benjamin Trisk over a Springbok shank and red wine in my restaurant in Riebeek Kasteel in the Western Cape.

He thought the revelations contained in the book were of crucial importance and promised to pull out all the stops to sell it. He said he was convinced that I could sell at least 25,000 copies.

I thought it almost impossible. I had then written five books and none came close to that figure. In South Africa, selling 5,000 print copies and a handful of ebooks of a title is regarded as an excellent seller.

My publishers, Tafelberg, decided on a courageous 20,000 copies for their first print run. I thought it unwise because we couldn’t do any pre-publicity for the book.

If word had leaked about the book prior to publication, one of the law enforcement agencies could have approached the High Court to ban the book or remove substantial parts of it.

Once the book was published and copies had been sold, it would have been much more difficult for them to remove it from the shelves. It is known as the “horse has bolted” defence.

We knew that the SARS (SA Revenue Service) and the SSA (State Security Agency) would react with vehemence against the book, which was a legal minefield. The Official Secrets Act. The Intelligence Act. The Tax Administration Act. Defamation. Libel. Name it – it appeared in abundance page after page.

I accused then President Jacob Zuma of being a tax evader and of breaching the Constitution for receiving a private “salary”, Tom Moyane for destroying the revenue collector in order to protect Zuma and his cronies, spy boss Arthur Fraser of being complicit in fraud, corruption and wastage of a billion rand, and former NPA boss Ngcobo Jiba of being an agent of crime intelligence boss Richard Mdluli.

Just before publication, friend and author Max du Preez asked me: “What are you going to do if Ramaphosa loses the December ANC presidential election? What if Dlamini Zuma wins and Zuma remains president?”

That would mean that we’ve all failed,” I responded. “In that case, we fight on.”

On 29 October, the Sunday Times screamed on its front page: Gangster Republic. There was another full page inside with revelations of fraud, corruption, nepotism and conniving at the highest level.

My phone started ringing at nine that morning.

It hasn’t stopped since.

It took state security four days to respond in the form of a letter in which they demanded that we remove the book, failing which they would bring an urgent court application.

I am no lawyer but even I knew that something can’t be urgent if you give the respondent five days to respond. We told the SSA to go to hell.

Five days later, the bright sparks at state security wrote a similar letter, this time to the book’s editor, Russell Martin. The spooks thought that books and newspapers are alike, and that the editor was the person in charge and determined what gets published.

Martin merely prepared my manuscript for publication by polishing, refining and enhancing the copy. He had nothing to do with publishing the book but was nonetheless told to remove it from the shelves.

The state security letters were the match that ignited the jet fuel that fired up the afterburners and propelled The President’s Keepers into the record books. It quickly became the fastest-selling book in South African history and towards the end of last year, the book sold more than 10,000 copies per week.

It’s bizarre that the actions of two of the main targets of my book, SSA director-general Arthur Fraser and SARS commissioner Tom Moyane, became probably its most valuable promoters.

Didn’t they learn anything from the apartheid years that as soon as you attempt to ban, everyone wants to know what the commotion is about?

Sales were helped along by Cyril Ramaphosa saying in Parliament he was reading the book while opposition leader Mmusi Maimane confronted Jacob Zuma with the content of The President’s Keepers while waving it in his hand.

I suspect that people didn’t just buy the book for its juicy content, but saw it as a act of defiance and outrage against the Zuma regime.

Within days, the initial print run was sold out. Then emerged a PDF version of the book, distributed from computer to computer and Facebook friend to Facebook friend.

The publishers lost thousands of sales; my reaction was that recipients of the PDF copy should read it but buy a book afterwards. However, if you couldn’t afford a book, read it in any case.

At the time, Tafelberg was printing on two different presses. We depleted the South African stock of creamy bulky paper. One of the print runs ended up on white bond paper while another consignment of creamy bulky paper was imported.

Then the SSA laid criminal charges against me for being in possession of classified material, followed by SARS that alleged that I had contravened that Tax Administration Act.

Zuma crony Roy Moodley said I had defamed him after which his “pet cop”, Col Reuben Govender, obtained a warrant for my arrest under false pretences and tried to lure me to KwaZulu-Natal to detain me. In the process, he lied under oath.

As we prepared to launch a High Court application to remove Govender from the case, the cops themselves went to court to cancel the trumped-up warrant. The magistrate found that there was no substantial evidence against me.

A deluge of death threats followed the publication of the book. It was unnerving; I own a restaurant and bar where anyone can walk in and confront me.

The publishers hired me a bodyguard. He came in the form of Jabu, a block of a man with a wicked sense of humour and a loaded gun.

At my Johannesburg launch at Hyde Park Exclusives Books, attended by hundreds or even thousands of people, the electricity was cut at a crucial moment. The centre’s generator failed to cut in – and to this day Benjamin Trisk is convinced it was state-sponsored sabotage.

As darkness engulfed the centre and people milled around, Jabu grabbed me and ushered me through alleyways into a car and sped away.

The next night, I had a launch at Exclusives Books in Brooklyn in Pretoria. When Jabu fetched me at my hotel, he had his gun and a flash light. I’m not taking any more chances, he said and ordered me to get in!

I received some very interesting calls from top ANC leaders. Most wanted to know: do you have information about this or that? And are all the things in your book true? We never knew it was this bad.

I responded: have you never read the Public Protector’s Secure in Comfort (about Nkandla) or Derailed (about Prasa) reports? Or the Constitutional Court’s Nkandla judgement? Or the revelations contained in the Gupta emails? Or Crispian Olver’s How to steal a city or Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s The Republic of Gupta?

The book’s first month on the streets elicited more than 30 newspaper headlines while my television interview with Joanne Joseph on ENCA in November last year prompted 131,000 viewers – the highest of the year.

The President’s Keepers made international headlines. The Financial Times said it was ‘one of the consequential books on South Africa since the end of white rule’ while the Washington Post called it “the book that could change South Africa”.

Offers of financial and other support streamed in. Some of the country’s finest legal minds offered their services pro bono – for free – while others put at my disposal their holiday homes to hide in.

There were almost daily attempts to discredit me and the book. The disgraced former editor of the Sunday Independent, Steve Motale, splashed an “expose” on the front page claiming that former finance minister Pravin Gordhan was the real author of the book and that a “prominent Stellenbosch businessman” (no doubt a reference to Johann Rupert) gave me permission to publish the allegations.

ANN7 had several programmes about the host of “untruths” and pasted a banner with the words “Pauw’s lies” across the screen. The station’s owner, Mzwanele Manyi, said I’m “white monopoly capital”.

I’ve also been called a paedophile and a “Stratcom agent” on Facebook and Twitter.

The book elevated me to minor celebrity status, something I never wanted and dreaded. People streamed into my restaurant to talk to me and have their books signed. I’m stopped wherever I go for “selfies” and signatures. People have paid for my meals in restaurants and I have been showered with cases of wine and brandy.

Many believe that The President’s Keepers was ultimately responsible for Zuma’s demise. I’ve explained numerous times that the book merely contributed to the mountain of evidence that had accumulated against Zuma.

His downfall was engineered through the resolute efforts of former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, chief justice Mogoeng Mogoeng and his justices in the Constitutional and high courts, civil society, investigative journalists and ordinary people that had enough of his disastrous rule.

It doesn’t matter what I say; they continue to believe that it was The President’s Keepers that broke the camel’s back.

The real heroes of The President’s Keepers are my sources – most of them dedicated and skilled officials inside the law-enforcement agencies – that provided me with the information and documents to write the book.

I broke all communication with them the day of publication and haven’t seen or spoken to them since then. I knew that state security would listen to my phone and intercept my emails.

I’m often asked if I’m scared. No, I’m not. I’m not brave but have never had a sleepless night about those vying for my blood. I feel as though millions of South Africans are looking after me.

When the Hawks, armed with a search warrant, descended on my restaurant and guest house in February, staff members and villagers rallied. While I kept Colonel Joe Makua and his two cronies busy, a friend threw my one computer over the wall on to the neighbour’s compost heap while the chef tossed the other through the window.

While two policemen searched my office, another called me around the corner to sign his book!

The team left empty-handed but a few days later, Makua wanted a witness statement from my publishers that “Jacque Pauw (sic) is the publisher of the book”, that the book “was actually published and sold to the public” and that ‘authorisation has been received from the relevant authorities to publish the book’.

I don’t know what the good colonel had smoked, but the unit investigating me is the “Crimes Against the State Unit” of the Hawks. This is a supposedly elite bunch within the Serious Organised Crime Unit of the Hawks.

And you wonder how come the Guptas got away and the state capturers are still on the loose?

The President’s Keepers was the best seller of all books in South Africa for around four months and remains in the top 10.

Talented filmmaker Neil van Deventer is turning The President’s Keepers’into an 18-part television series while a London-based publisher has purchased the international publishing rights.

According to the audited figures, I had sold 193,895 copies of ‘The President’s Keepers’ (*). Around 26,000 of these were ebooks.

These figures are about six weeks old and according to the publisher, around 197,000 books have now been sold.

That means that South Africans have spent around R50-million in buying the book.

The biggest selling book in South African history is/was The Secret, a 2006 self-help book by Rhonda Byrne. The book sold 190,436 books in South Africa. Globally, it sold 20-million copies and has been translated into 50 languages.

Tim Noakes’ controversial Real Meal Revolution sold 174,798 copies, Fifty Shades of Grey’166,149 copies, Spud 161,354 copies, The Da Vinci Code’133,949 copies and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 107,131 copies.

No other non-fiction book is the top-20 sales of all time.

I’m hesitant to say that ‘The President’s Keepers’ is the biggest selling book in South African history as the other book sales exclude ebooks.

I don’t know if Noakes has sold any ebooks as cookbooks usually don’t sell this many copies of this format.

But it is safe to say that The President’s Keepers is in the top three or four; maybe the biggest ever.

But that doesn’t matter.

What matters is that The President’s Keepers has withstood the test of time. Tom Moyane is gone. Arthur Fraser is gone. Richard Mdluli is gone. Shaun Abrahams is destined for the rubbish heap.

I’ve survived for another day.

Maybe I will even write another book.

If I never have to pose for a selfie again. DM

(*) Nielsen has measured book sales for the past 15 years. It excludes the sales of for example the Bible, the Qur’an, dictionaries and learner driver manuals


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