‘Greed is a fat demon with a small mouth ...’

Jeremy Gordin reviews Jacques Pauw's 'The President's Keepers'

The President's Keepers: Those keeping Zuma in power and out of prison by Jacques Pauw (Tafelberg, October 2017).

By Jeremy Gordin

This is a first-class, long-overdue book of investigative journalism. I salute the author and thank him. Viva Jacques Pauw, viva!

It’s not necessary to say what the book’s about: pretty much everyone I have encountered seems to know, whether he or she has actually read it, that it deals with, in Pauw’s words, President Jacob Zuma’s

... parallel state – the state within the state – with its felonious and complicit bands of cronies, thieves, derelicts, brutes, conspirators, fraudsters, insurrectionists, vagrants and gypsies ...[who are] are propelled, [as] Marianne Thamm [has said], by an ‘ill-wind of grand corruption, plundering and no consequence’ (E-book, 4735-380).

In particular it deals with the onslaught, launched by Zuma or by those connected with him, against the South African Revenue Service (SARS) and the destruction of the law enforcement agencies, with the aim of keeping “Zuma out of prison and in power” (69-76). Those responsible for these onslaughts and destruction are Zuma’s keepers “who have brought our beautiful country to the brink of a mafia state” (ibid.), for under their reign

... crime has spiralled, thugs have walked free, prosecutions and convictions of organised criminals have disintegrated, tax collection has dropped and state revenue has decreased” (ibid.).

Pauw writes: “[L]long before his rise to the presidency, Zuma had been infected by the most noxious disease of politics: greed. And we all know that greed is a fat demon with a small mouth, and whatever you feed it is never enough” (1090-1094).

Does Pauw’s boat float? Can one trust his findings and accusations? These seem to be the first and most important questions any reader ought to ask, even if in many circles merely raising those questions is enough to have you sent to the corner without any supper.

There are doubtless a number of reasons why Pauw is credible but for me the salient ones are these. First, Pauw has an excellent track record: he’s never, as far as I know, told a lie professionally or gotten anything factually wrong. His In the Heart of the Whore (1991) is one of the best books of investigative journalism ever published in this country. Second, he’s never, as best as I know, been for sale. Third, he’s an old (and fearless) soldier and is not likely to go off half-cocked; and nor would his publishers.

Fourth, the reactions of SARS and the intelligence “authorities” – the State Security Agency told Pauw to “cease and desist” publication, SARS said it was considering criminal and civil action against him – speak volumes. I could rest my case right there. Fifth, Pauw was my predecessor at the Wits University’s Justice Project and so I know from personal experience that his investigative work and nose for a story are exceptional.

But why spend 164 words underlining Pauw’s credibility and reliability? Because I think it would naïve to forget that the human and many of the written sources in this book are anonymous. We, the readers, do not know the people nor will we ever see the documents. Additionally, as this book repeatedly points out, much of the story is about frightening disinformation campaigns and documents and about factions and people “playing” each other. I.e., we have to depend on and trust Pauw to have gotten things right and not to have been played himself.

I don’t think Pauw has been played; because he’s been around the block a time or three, he’s astute enough to know what the motivations of his various interlocutors were and to treat what they had to say accordingly. But this book is not an annotated treatise presenting chapter and verse; by its very nature, it can’t be. So all I’m saying – and I hope Pauw would agree with me – is that it does no harm to have the proverbial pinch of salt somewhere in your mind’s kitchen.

A friend, who enjoyed this book thoroughly, said he thought, however, that it was badly-written. I disagree. Pauw might not be Edward Gibbon or Christopher Hitchens but this is good ol’ swashbuckling investigative journalism and it’s lucid and moves along.

But the story is complex – or, rather, joining the dots of disparate shenanigans, which is its real strongpoint, is complicated – and so reading it may not be so easy for the inattentive and unretentive brain (such as mine). At points I did wish for a flow chart or diagram to remind me of who did what to whom and why it matters. In other words, as fashionable as this book seems to be in certain quarters, it’s not beach reading – though you could carry it around anyway, just to make clear what your thoughts and concerns are.

Pauw’s an opener-of-cans-of-rotten-worms journalist, not an analyst or commentator. “Here’s what I have found out,” he says, “here’s how it ties in with that; you can see what the conclusion has to be; these are the baddies, these the goodies” – and there are a few of the latter. Moreover, Pauw has, as he explains, been out of mainstream journalism for three years. What this means is that he must to some extent patch coverage and comment culled from other people into his narrative. These people’s views (in particular) and some of their coverage – which was not always as painstakingly earned as Pauw’s is – does not always fill me with confidence. But not a big deal.

As I am writing this, the results of the ANC elective conference have been announced. At the end of this book, published a couple of months before the ANC jamboree, Pauw wrote:

A new troop of hyenas, keepers and benefactors are already circling, enticed by the lure of a promised carcass should [Nkosazana] Dlamini-Zuma become ANC president and possibly future head of state. Sponsoring and funding her campaign is an investment, much like the investment the Guptas made in Jacob Zuma, Duduzane Zuma, Ace Magashule, Des van Rooyen, Brian Molefe and Mosebenzi Zwane. I don't think the Guptas give a damn about Zuma’s policies or in which direction he steers the ANC and the country. Their investment in Zuma is purely about money. Dlamini-Zuma's sponsors are in all likelihood no different (4990-4992).

Well, Dlamini-Zuma hasn’t made it, but Magashule has – and also perhaps some others that are not named by Pauw but could have been.