(JTA) — Jeremy Gordin, one of South Africa’s most prominent journalists, wrote repeatedly in recent months about burglaries at his family’s Johannesburg home.
In a weekly column, he expressed dismay at the rampant levels of crime, growing urban decay and regular power outages endured by South Africans as a result of mismanagement and corruption. In one — titled “It is getting dark, too dark to see” after the Bob Dylan lyric — he addressed his two children, both in their twenties.
“I’m not suggesting that 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,” he concluded.
He added, with the allusion to his Jewish identity clear to anyone familiar with Jewish history, “And you, who have your whole lives before you (as they say), need to consider seriously going to live elsewhere. We’ve been doing it for centuries, after all.”
On March 31, Gordin’s worst fears came to pass: He was murdered during a night robbery at his home. He was 70.
South African police described the incident as “a robbery gone wrong” but did not describe the exact cause of death. Seven people were arrested in Johannesburg two weeks later; one was driving a car that had been stolen from Gordin’s residence.
It was a tragic end for Gordin’s 70-year South African story, which, as with so many of his country’s Jews, intersected sharply with both the story of Israel and with the struggle of Black South Africans. As a lifelong journalist, he had at times headed both South Africa’s version of Playboy and its storied working-class Black tabloid, and also ran an initiative that used reporting to prove the innocence of people who were wrongfully imprisoned. He won the country’s annual top journalism prize multiple times.
Gordin was also a friend to many, frequently opening his home in Johannesburg’s Parkview neighborhood to guests. (This reporter was one of them during a stint in Johannesburg for Efe, the Spanish newspaper.)
Gordin was born in Pretoria in 1952, in a Jewish family with Lithuanian and Latvian origins. After a spell in South Vietnam, where his pharmacist father worked for the United States, the family returned to South Africa. Gordin went to high school in Brakpan, a town in the industrial east of the Great Johannesburg emblematic of the country’s white Afrikaner working class to which he often referred in his articles.
Gordin obtained a scholarship to study in Israel and completed a bachelor’s degree while playing rugby at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Back in his country, he did his military service volunteering for the South African Defence Force’s elite 1 Parachute Battalion, then started a prolific career in journalism.
In a breakout moment, he published a book in 1998 based on his conversations with the apartheid government’s death squad leader Eugen de Kock. Then incarcerated, de Kock candidly told Gordin about his deeds, but most importantly about those who had ordered his crimes, for which they were hardly questioned and never tried.
Gordin authored another canonical book of recent South Africa history, his biography of South Africa’s former president Jacob Zuma. Published in 2010, a year after Zuma took power, Gordin’s went beyond the usual assumptions about the Zulu former freedom fighter who learned how to read and write as an adult and was often underestimated by South Africa’s intellectual class.
Zuma left office in 2018 after a tenure marked by charges of corruption, cronyism and incompetence. Gordin’s biography has been criticized for being excessively indulgent with its subject, but it remains essential for understanding Zuma’s psychology and the motivations behind his actions.
In the early 1990s, after a period living in San Francisco, Gordin became the launch editor of Playboy South Africa. (He posed nude, with only a magazine as cover, to promote Playboy’s South Africa launch.) In a recent essay, Gordin recounted trying to land a then-unknown Charlize Theron for the magazine’s first cover. Invoking Yiddish terms, Gordin recalled journalists who had passed away, described the actress’s unembarrassed audition, and also managed to explore changing race and class dynamics in South Africa.
(Around this time, his friend Roy Isacowitz wrote in a remembrance published shortly after his death, the pair had successfully gotten a media executive censured for calling them “pushy little Jewboys” — though he said they accepted the description.)
In 2012 he was named caretaker editor of the Daily Sun, a South African tabloid wildly popular among the Black working class. The paper lost much of its appeal after the death of its founder, larger-than-life Afrikaner media executive Deon du Plessis. Gordin brought back the pride, the punch and many of the readers to the paper. Or, as a headline made for him by his colleagues when he retired said, he “brought rock’n roll back to the Sun.”
The tabloid’s news largely relied on cases of violence, gossip and sex often featuring “tokoloshes,” fantastic creatures of popular African mythology whose encounters with the Sun’s readers were reported nationwide in the first person to its many correspondents. The readership and the paper’s foot soldiers were 100% Black. They collected the stories and sent them to the Johannesburg newsroom, where a group of experienced white male journalists including Gordin translated their texts in the characteristic Daily Sun language.
Gordin’s world couldn’t be further away from the one his newspaper reflected. But as his colleague at the paper Vincent Pienaar wrote after his death, “Not only did he understand the ethos of the publication, he embraced it.”
The tabloid took on serious stories, too. During his tenure as the paper’s editor the Daily Sun broke the story of the death at the hands of police officers of Mozambican immigrant taxi driver Mido Macias. A reader had filmed his gratuitously brutal arrest and sent it to the newspaper. Eight police officers involved in the victim’s death in custody were ultimately sentenced to 15 years in prison.
After leaving the Daily Sun, Gordin took on a role coordinating the Wits Justice Project, a journalism program focused on the plight of innocent or unfairly treated prisoners. In 2011 he helped secure the release of Fusi Mofokeng and Tshokolo Joseph Mokoena, who had served 19 years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit.
Gordin’s many friends say that his sympathy for the underdog was inextricable from the Jewish traditions and attitudes he inherited.
Although not religiously observant, Gordin peppered his articles with Jewish stories and jokes and Yiddish words and expressions. His sense of humor was strongly influenced by his Jewishness, as it was the combination of principle and humorous compassion that defined his personality. He was extremely well-read and voraciously curious, loved to share what he discovered with friends and indulged in sassy but harmless gossip both in private and in his articles.
Sometimes, his Jewish identity and his journalism entwined as when, in 2016, he reported from Johannesburg about the extradition hearing of a Hasidic rabbi, Eliezer Berland, wanted in Israel on rape charges. His final column, published the day before his death, explained, and condemned, the proposed right-wing judicial reforms in Israel.
Rabbi Sa’ar Shaked of the Beit Emanuel Progressive Synagogue in Johannesburg said Gordin as a friend and “wild spirit” who didd’t regularly attend services but was a repeat guest speaker at the synagogue to discuss weekly Torah portions and a variety of aspects of Jewish history and law.
Despite not attending services regularly, Gordin’s role in the community is described as “very active” by Wendy Ovens, a South African health professional in the NGO sector who served with him on the management committee of Beit Emanuel in 2011.
“His knowledge on Judaism and Jewish history was incredible,” Ovens said. She said his Jewish identity fueled his core mission: “He was community-minded and believed in justice and in what was right.”
Gordin is survived by his wife, Deborah Blake, and his children, Jake and Nina.
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