A politician who doesn’t suffer fools – joining the dots on Pravin Gordhan
Acclaimed journalist and author Jonathan Ancer (and journalist Chris Whitfield) recently published the unauthorised biography of Pravin Gordhan, titled Joining the Dots. The SA Jewish Report asked him some questions.
Why did you agree to write this book?
Pravin Gordhan has been at the centre of many watershed moments in South Africa’s history, and though he’s a household name, not much is known about his background and history in the liberation struggle. He’s an enigma, and I was curious to know more about one of South Africa’s most mysterious personalities. I wanted to understand where he comes from, how he ended up as one of the country’s most powerful politicians, and what motivates him.
You were commissioned to do this, but was there a specific reason in choosing to bring it out now?
There was no specific reason as to the timing other than that the publisher felt it was about time that Gordhan’s story was told.
Describe Pravin Gordhan to us.
He’s a private person, and in spite of his high profile and political prominence, he’s also extremely shy. Every single person we interviewed who has worked with him – from the time he was a student activist to colleagues in cabinet – spoke with admiration (and maybe a hint of envy) about Gordhan’s strategic ability. He’s able to get into the tiny details as well as see the big picture. If I had to choose one word to describe him, though, it would be “principled”.
What kind of research went into this book? Who did you speak to?
We went through press cuttings, testimony before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Zondo Commission transcripts, and the (Padraig) O’Malley archives, but most of our research consisted of interviewing a wide range of people Gordhan had encountered over the years. We spoke to Natal activists from the 1970s, his former comrades in the underground, people he campaigned with against the Tricameral Parliament, colleagues who worked with him at the South African Revenue Service (SARS), fellow cabinet ministers, anonymous government sources, economists, and, of course, Gordhan himself.
What role did he play in the research and formulation of the book?
This was an independent project. In other words, it’s an unauthorised biography. It wasn’t a collaboration. Gordhan co-operated with us in the sense that he granted us interviews and allowed us to ask any questions we wanted, but he had no say over the direction of the interviews or the content of the book. He didn’t see what we wrote, and didn’t tell us who to interview and, more importantly, who not to interview.
What did you think of him before starting your research?
I admired him as someone who was prepared to risk everything to stand up to state capture, but – like many South Africans, I guess – I didn’t really know much about him. Fellow author Chris Whitfield and I, both cynical journalists, expected to find some dirt on him, after all, is there such a thing as an honest politician?
How has your opinion changed since writing the book?
After the better part of a year researching and writing this biography, I can say with a lot of confidence that Gordhan is that very rare beast – an honest politician. I also got a glimpse of the depth of his courage and insight into what drives him.
What did you learn about Gordhan and South Africa’s history that really surprised you?
The huge impact that he has had on South Africa’s history: how he pioneered the concept of mass mobilisation; the influential role he played in the formation of the United Democratic Front; the strategic role he played in helping to shepherd the country through the negotiation process; how as SARS commissioner from 1999 to 2009 he turned SARS into a world-class tax authority, one studied by the world’s top business schools. Then, of course, there is more recent history – his fight against the Guptas and the forces of state capture. I also learnt about Gordhan’s role in the underground and how he was detained and tortured. What surprised me the most was the remarkable history of the Natal activists in the 1970s and how it has gone mostly untold. I also didn’t know that the Umgeni River played a crucial role in the toppling of apartheid.
Born on the same day – describe Gordhan’s relationship with Jacob Zuma then and now.
When Zuma came off Robben Island in the mid-1970s, members of Providence – the African National Congress (ANC) unit headed by Gordhan – transported him to meetings with his MK (uMkhonto we Sizwe) handler, Harry Gwala. Gordhan and Zuma continued to work together in the ANC underground after Zuma went into exile and more closely during the ANC’s Operation Vula in the mid to late 1980s. They were once comrades; they are now bitter foes.
Gordhan took on huge and difficult roles in government, positions many would have run from. Why? What does he believe about South Africa?
Gordhan’s mantra is “higher purpose”. He’s committed to improving people’s lives. You may not agree with his methods, but you can’t fault his integrity. He’s aware of the country’s problems but remains optimistic about its future.
He subsequently disapproved of what was going on, and stood up to leadership. How did he get his head around doing that when he had supported the ANC for so long?
Gordhan has always supported the ANC. I don’t think – and I’m surmising here – that he saw corruption as a problem with the ANC itself but rather as a problem with corrupt ANC members even if some of them were/are very senior ANC members. We interviewed Vani, Gordhan’s wife, who was also an activist, and she had interesting things to say about the betrayal of their former comrades.
What does Gordhan think and feel about our government today?
He’s an ally of the president and, while I’m not his spokesperson, I think it’s fair to say that he believes the government is on the right path.
No matter what people believe about Gordhan, he doesn’t suffer fools and has often taken people down with one liners. How did that work for him in government?
He clearly has support, but he also made enemies within government – specifically from the ANC’s “RET faction”. Nevertheless, he always stood his ground.
How did Gordhan react to the book?
We haven’t heard from him yet.
Janine Lazarus: the story that took its toll
Media consultant Janine Lazarus has just published a book that was inspired by her experience as a Sunday Times journalist covering a serial killer who operated in Norwood, the suburb in which she lived. The SA Jewish Report speaks to her.
Give us the background to this book.
The thread throughout the book is my 27-year link with Norwood serial killer Kobus Geldenhuys. But it’s much more than that. It deals with a volatile South Africa in transition, the hot metal newsrooms of yore, and the inevitable racism in news reportage. A central theme is also my dance with the dark, and some of the sinister and sensational stories I covered during the heydays of the early 1990s.
How was your life impacted by the Norwood serial killer?
It was without doubt this story that made my name as a crime reporter. To get this close to a serial killer was the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters. Are people born to become killers, or does their environment mould them into the monsters they become? But what I grapple with most of all is that I believe we’re all capable of going over the edge. Ordinary people can commit extraordinary acts of violence.
What inspired you to write this book now?
Everyone has a book within them. I’ve wanted to try my hand at writing a book for a long time. Without giving the game away, an approach by a television production company on the back of the killer’s parole application gave me pause for thought. My head is still spinning around the fact that a television series is in preproduction on my first book, or even that a radio station wants to do a serial podcast on it. It feels surreal.
You were a crime reporter, so this was one of many crime stories you told. Why does it still haunt you?
Because I got up real close and personal with a man who raped and killed several women. I looked into his eyes just after he was sentenced to death. I crossed the line. I had broken a quintessential credo of journalism to stay out of the story. But in those days, the story was everything. Each investigation devoured me and spat me out, and I just rolled onto the next one. Landing headlines is what defined me.
Describe the killer you met then?
Vanilla plain and awkwardly ordinary. But then, serial killers are never the vengeful behemoths we conjure up in our nightmares. He seemed tired. In fact, when the police finally arrested him, he said as much. But what shook me to the core was that I unearthed a tarnished shard of humanity in his twisted soul. No-one in my newsroom could ever understand how this could be possible. After all, the rapist/killer had cut a swathe of terror through my neighbourhood and destroyed families.
What do you think of this man now?
That would be giving the game away. It’s central to my book. What I can say is that as much as I’ve borne witness to man’s inhumanity to man, I still believe intrinsically that there’s good even in the worst of people. I’m a deep empath, which for a crime reporter is an obvious flaw.
Norwood is traditionally where many young Jewish people live. Describe how it was then.
It was where I lived and loved. Restaurant owners knew my name and what my favourite meal was. Coffee shops knew how I liked my fix, and many first dates were shared over a glass or two of wine. Norwood was trendy, upbeat, and had a heady kind of rhythm. And it was safe. I would walk home down Grant Avenue from a late-night spot without a care in the world. It was my medinah (land).
During the killer’s reign of terror, it became like a ghost town. Razor wire and burglar bars, so uncommon to the neighbourhood, became permanent fixtures. Single women moved out en masse.
In terms of being a crime reporter, did this story change how you felt about what you did?
It defined me. Cracking the front page week after week was the stuff of pure adrenalin. I had set the bar high. It was a difficult act to follow. And, in spite of how close I had come to evil, I never slammed on the brakes. I kept chasing the headlines.
What was it about crime that you found fascinating?
Most people I know have this morbid fascination with crime. I’ve read so much about how people delve into this genre, perhaps as some form of odd escape or an interest in good versus evil. Perhaps it makes them feel lucky not to have become one of the statistics.
There was a stage during my news reporting life when I considered studying criminology part time. I just don’t think I’m clever enough.
Looking at the crime situation today, would you say it’s worse or better?
Crime is crime. Victims are victims. There’s no better or worse. For those left behind, each tragedy leaves an overarching void that can never be breached. What I do know is that the justice system is deeply flawed, our police services are over-stretched and lacking, and our prisons are bursting at the seams. It seems too easy to get away with violent crime.
You now run a successful media consultancy. What made you decide to leave your life as a journalist?
Seven cameramen died in the space of 16 months before our first democratic elections. One of them was The Star’s chief photographer, Ken Oosterbroek. Then, Pulitzer prize-winning photographer Kevin Carter took his own life. His iconic photograph of the vulture eyeing a starving child in the Sudan is seared into my brain forever. These were my colleagues, my friends. I had worked with them on so many stories. The grief in our newsroom was palpable.
I also didn’t want to become a jaded old hack. I still wanted to delight in the rainbows across the skies after a Highveld thunderstorm, and in the entirely enchanting sound of a child’s laughter. I needed to turn my back on news. It was the hardest decision I have ever made.
Why did you choose media consulting as your second career?
I’d dabbled in lecturing journalism. I worked as Johannesburg bureau chief on a women’s magazine. I landed my own talk show, albeit at the bum end of the week. It was still my spot.
But it was three abysmal months in a stereotypical public relations agency that was the last straw. I couldn’t stomach the candy floss in a world which was hardly the stuff of butterflies and sunshine.
When the agency made me its so-called head of media, I thought, “Stuff it. I can do this on my own. I can wear two hats quite comfortably: the client’s and as a former news hack.” It’s an insight that has served me well.
Do you ever miss being a reporter or working on a newspaper? If so, what do you miss?
With every cell in my being. It was an adrenalin rush. No day was ever the same. I watch breaking news now and rail loudly against the television or radio reporter for not asking obvious questions. And I know exactly what stories in the news would have had my name all over them. I’ve never been in short supply of chutzpah, but covering violent crime takes guts and I’m not sure I have that edge anymore.
Any thoughts on another book? If so, what would it be about?
Eish! This one was akin to giving birth (or so I’m told since I don’t have a child of my own). It literally was birthing a book. Blood, sweat, and tears. I sobbed at my keyboard, I fought to find the right words, and I ploughed through acres of research. I cried when I finally hit the send button on my manuscript. And I wished with all my heart that my beloved late parents could be part of this.
Could I do it again? Perhaps. But if there’s a next time, maybe I’ll do something on my line of work right now. So many brands are ignorant when it comes to dealing with the media.
Maybe I’ll call it, “How not to put your foot in it.”
Debating life’s meaning at a time of existential crisis
If you’ve been wondering about the meaning of life, you’re not alone. Mark Oppenheimer and co.’s new book, Conversations about the Meaning of Life, has some answers from world-renowned experts. Asking “What do Mother Teresa, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the exploration of Mars teach us about the meaning of life?” they discover the answer isn’t 42.
The SA Jewish Report asked him more questions.
What inspired you to bring out this book?
Now is a pivotal moment to engage with life’s biggest question: what’s the meaning of life? So, we approached Professors David Benatar and Thaddeus Metz, world experts in the field. Benatar is professor of philosophy at the University of Cape Town. His books include Better Never to Have Been and The Human Predicament. Metz is professor of philosophy at the University of Pretoria. He has often been credited for having helped develop life’s meaning as a distinct field in Anglo-American philosophy over the past 20 years. They have very different views on what makes life meaningful.
Benatar is sceptical. He thinks that if you zoom out and consider each of us as a speck on a pale blue dot in a cold universe, our lives have truly little meaning. Metz takes quite a different view, which is that we can each pursue truth, beauty, and goodness in our lives and find meaning in these.
Why is this book necessary right now?
Now more than any time in the past few decades, humans have had to isolate. With isolation comes reflection about the nature of our existence, and questions about whether this new isolated existence is meaningful at all. Asking what we need to lead meaningful lives is particularly important at a time when we are struggling to find any meaning at all.
This book is a group effort. Explain how it came about and why these particular people are involved.
We (Jason Werbeloff and Mark Oppenheimer), the interviewers in this book, have long-standing friendships with Metz and Benatar, the experts in this field. Jason studied under Metz and Mark under Benatar. We felt that Metz and Benatar were obvious choices for the book because of our personal connections to them, but also because they are so widely published and recognised for their work on meaning.
What did you hope to achieve?
We wanted to write an accessible guide to life’s most important question. And we think that the authors are perhaps the most knowledgeable on earth about this topic.
Who do you wish to appeal to?
Readers of the SA Jewish Report – all four of the authors are Jewish – and Jews have a long history of thinking about life’s deepest questions. More broadly, the book is designed for anyone who has a yearning to know more about what life is about.
At this moment in South Africa, what are the challenges to leading a meaningful life?
Because South Africa was late with its COVID-19 vaccines, we’ve had to suffer a long series of waves that have shut down our lives.
On the one hand, we try to find personal meaning at a time when we’re having to choose between isolation and risking our health. On the other, we also live in a country with enormous political and socioeconomic volatility. So, we’re trying to find meaning in this embroiled landscape.
What do you hope your readers will take home from this book?
The underlying idea of the book is to inspire people to reflect on their lives and take action to lead a meaningful existence. Part of that exercise is to think about the kind of person that you can be and the kinds of activities you can engage in to find meaning: the search for truth, beauty, and goodness. We explore these in some detail so that people can walk away ultimately leading better, richer, more meaningful lives.
The style of the book (interview format) is unusual. Why did you choose it?
Dialogue is helpful because it doesn’t present just one position. Each of the individuals involved in this discussion has a different position on the meaning of life. So it seems more likely that the reader will resonate with at least one of us. The four authors had a chance to argue and respond to one another, and you can really get into the nuts and bolts of each person’s position and stand behind at least one of the speakers. Who knows, perhaps after reading this book, you’ll change your mind.
- Conversations about the Meaning of Life is available on Amazon: http://smarturl.it/MeaningOfLife
Speaking out against the government – right or wrong?
Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein wrote a piece in Business Day on 29 June criticising the government for its slow vaccine rollout. It got a mixed response, but some felt strongly that he shouldn’t have done it. The SA Jewish Report questioned him about it.
1. What inspired you to write an op-ed in a mainstream newspaper about vaccines?
Government’s negligence in vaccinating this country goes beyond politics. It’s a moral issue, a matter of life and death that touches on one of the cornerstone values of the Torah – the sanctity of life. We know that pikuach nefesh, saving lives, is paramount, and that “to save one life is to save a world”. Every day of delay means more people die. It’s that simple. Had the government vaccinated South Africans at the rate it should have, we wouldn’t be suffering the death and widespread serious illness of this third wave.
2. Why did you blame the government for it?
The government insisted on running the procurement and rollout. Responsibility for its failure lies with it. At the same time, this isn’t a blame game, that was never my objective. I wrote it to add my voice to the public pressure while there’s still time to prevent further suffering and death from a fourth wave, which may be only a few months away.
3. What purpose did you believe an opinion piece like this would serve?
When public pressure around an issue increases, in a vibrant democracy, it can shape and influence government action. My article adds to that public pressure. Since publication, various other public figures have come forward to criticise the government, including Professor Shabir Madhi, one of the country’s top experts in this field, who echoed my accusation that the government has blood on its hands for bungling the vaccination campaign. Public pressure is building.
4. What reaction did you get?
The article has resonated with many people within and beyond our community who fear serious illness and death and feel utterly vulnerable to government’s vaccination failures.
5. Professor Barry Schoub, a leading virologist, took you on publicly in the media for the piece you wrote. Why do you believe he did this?
He obviously disagrees strongly with the views I put forward in my article. He believes the government’s vaccination programme has progressed well.
6. How do you feel about him doing this?
The open exchange of ideas and airing of different perspectives can only be a good thing for our country. People can then make up their own minds about whether they agree with Professor Schoub that the government’s vaccine rollout has been well-executed.
7. He pointed out numerous points you made, claiming they weren’t true and correcting them. What’s your response?
Nothing in my article was untrue. I had two professional researchers check my facts. Not a single fact in my article has been successfully challenged or overturned. Actually, since publication, various national experts, in letters to the newspaper, have defended the facts in my article and refuted the points raised by Professor Schoub. And Professor Madhi, an internationally recognised virologist and former president of the World Society of Infectious Diseases, has reaffirmed a number of the points I made, especially the government’s terrible mistake in selling off our supply of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Contrary to Professor Schoub’s support for the government’s decision, Professor Madhi, who in fact led the AstraZeneca trials, said “there was a complete blind spot to the critical evidence” regarding the vaccine’s efficacy and safety, and that the government ignored the recommendations of the World Health Organization, directly causing untold extra hospitalisation and death.
8. How do you feel now about the vaccine situation?
The vaccination rate remains desperately low. Unless we dramatically speed up vaccine procurement and rollout, we will suffer further serious illness and death. More pressure must be put on the government. Lives are at stake.
9. Have you had any response from the government?
No formal response, but senior politicians from within the African National Congress have told me in private that they support the position I’ve taken. It’s important to realise that there are many in the government who aren’t happy with the state of affairs on vaccines – or, for that matter, government’s stance on Israel. If we keep silent, how can they speak up? We must be bold, and stand up for what’s right so that we inspire others to do the same and strengthen the hand of the many good people in government.
10. Why do you believe it’s important for you to be vocal about issues of government that you believe are wrong?
Silence is acquiescence. This was true during the days of apartheid, when our official community organisations were silent right up until the end. It was Chief Rabbi Rabinowitz who had the courage to challenge the apartheid government. It was true, also, during the Zuma presidency, when state capture and government corruption were almost normalised. Official community organisations were again silent, and I was the one who publicly called on President Jacob Zuma to resign, joined the protest movement, and even amended the prayer for government that we say on Shabbos so as not to pray for the president. I believe it’s important to speak up for truth and justice, whether the issue is a racist regime, a corrupt government, or a negligent vaccine rollout in the midst of a deadly pandemic.
11. Many in our community might say that, as Jews, we shouldn’t rock the boat in this country. What’s your reaction to this?
We cannot adopt a ghetto mentality of defensiveness and fear. What do we have to fear? This isn’t Putin’s Russia or Communist China. It’s a free country with freedom of speech, a free press, robust, independent courts, and those rights and freedoms are enshrined in our Constitution. My public challenge to the government is rooted in an optimism and faith in South African freedom and democracy.
With the right approach, we can make a difference. Many of the critics have a misguided strategic understanding of how to influence the government. They believe we need to tread lightly, talk softly and meekly. But when it comes to government relations with Israel, we’ve seen how ineffectual this approach really is. Indeed, in spite of years of gentle, non-boat-rocking diplomacy, the government’s approach to Israel remains unchanged, as demonstrated by its deeply hostile and one-sided comments on the recent Gaza conflict. Clearly, the quiet, behind-the-scenes strategy has failed, and will continue to fail. It’s incumbent on leaders to speak up, to be bold, and make our views clear to the government. Seeking to appease and placate the government isn’t just a betrayal of personal integrity, it’s not even a successful strategy. In any robust democracy, governments expect robust criticism. That’s how a free society works. If we have the self-respect to tell the truth and stand up for ourselves, there’s more chance the government will learn to respect us
12. Many have criticised you for being so vocal against the government in this regard. How do you feel about the criticism?
My speaking out is good for our community because the interests of the Jewish community and South Africa as a whole are aligned. A negligent vaccine rollout is, equally, a threat to South Africa and the Jewish community, as was state capture and apartheid. To speak out on these issues is, therefore, in the ultimate best interests of the Jewish community. We aren’t an island unto ourselves. Our destiny is intertwined with South Africa. If this country thrives, then we as a Jewish community will thrive. And if it fails, then so will our community. We cannot be silent when the future of our country depends on making our voices heard. We must fight for a better country. And we do that by joining the public debate. I’m optimistic. We can make a difference. Change is possible.
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