Jacques Pauw at his book launch in Brooklyn Mall, Pretoria. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi/ANA
Jacques Pauw at his book launch in Brooklyn Mall, Pretoria. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi/ANA

The curious case of journalist Jacques Pauw

By Opinion Time of article published Feb 20, 2021

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Unathi Kondile

The first time I heard his name was in the early ’90s when my grandmother relived the story of how she came to learn of her son’s (uncle Sizwe) death. It was the Vrye Weekblad’s reporter, Jacques Pauw, who narrated the details of how Dirk Coetzee’s Vlakplaas unit abducted, tortured, shot and burnt Uncle Sizwe’s body to an ash before scattering it over the Komati River.

“If it was not for Jacques we would have never known what happened to Sizwe!” she would say. They kept in touch. Met once or twice. Pauw held a special place in my grandmother’s heart.

I got to see more of Pauw’s hand at work when he was the executive editor of Special Assignment. It was quality investigative journalism. The awards speak for themselves.

Since then, he withered away into quiet existence as a restaurateur, book author and freelance to list a few that I know of.

From time to time, his name would surface on Twitter; exposing puppet masters behind Sunday Times stories, criticising the public protector and claiming books like Lost Boys of Bird Island were filled with lies. Most recently, he was suing the pants off Pretoria News editor, Piet Rampedi, for calling him a child molester.

Put simply, the Jacques Pauw my grandmother knew and the one on Twitter did not reconcile in my mind.

And that’s the thing about social networks like Twitter; especially for reputable or well-known figures who seek to be accessible and responsive on such platforms. Your torn seams become visible too.

Things really fell apart for Jacques Pauw last week, when the Daily Maverick published his lie-laden opinion piece: a heavily inebriated Pauw had credit card problems at a restaurant, was unable to settle his R1 600 bill and went to withdraw the money. He was accosted by police at the ATM and swooped into police holding cells for theft.

We have since learnt that his version of events was not entirely accurate. He has since apologised. But where he overstepped the line was in using a media platform that trusted him to advance his lies.

Now we question the credibility of the Daily Maverick’s content. How many more liars slip through its editorial stratum masquerading as opinionistas and newshounds?

Daily Maverick’s editor Branco Brkic has since apologised and advised that it would no longer publish Pauw’s content.

In journalism, we are often taught that you are only as good as your last story. Is this how Jacques Pauw will be remembered?

As a country, we are often accused of obsessing over the past and using the past to absolve current mishaps. I am not going to attempt to do that but I have often wondered about the likes of Pauw and the Jon Qwelanes of this world; journalists who were active during the height of apartheid, who also contributed to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

Some journalists never recovered from working with that kind of content. Some, like Pauw, by way of catharsis, wrote books like Into the Heart of Darkness: confessions of apartheid assassins.

It was Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, while at UCT, who sensitised me to the reality that, during the TRC, many journalists and scribes had to undergo regular debriefing or therapy sessions. Some resorted to heavy drinking, others had mental breakdowns, suffered deep depression and so on. The stories were too much.

I cannot begin to imagine what Pauw is going through and has been through. It is easier to be engulfed by a sense of entitlement and vengefulness when you have gone through hell and back, using your pen for justice.

Writing that fake opinion piece was spurred on by a similar kind of anger? “How dare they put me in a police cell!”, “How dare they treat me like apartheid police did?”, and so on.

Make no mistake, I am not speaking for Pauw. I am trying to understand how someone who has experienced police brutality at its worst can pull out the most vindictive story from a mere drunken misunderstanding. Think about it. What is the image of a police authority in the mind of someone like Pauw? What does it trigger? Add alcohol. Rethink.

Be that as it may, I write this to express my sadness in seeing one of the best go down like this. It is no wonder the good die young, to prevent us from ever seeing what they might have turned out to be.

As for journalism, we have a long way to go. Let us not celebrate the downfall of Pauw, but rather let us reflect and close any gaps that allow for any such content to seep in easily. We, as the media, have to work hard on rebuilding reader trust.

* Unathi Kondile is a concerned journalist.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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