Learning from the Jacques Pauw imbroglio

Jeremy Gordin suggests that journalists take themselves less not more seriously

It was 20 years ago today/ Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play ...” Actually, no, it was about 44 years ago today, in circa May 1977, if I have the timing right.

I was in the middle of my treasured seven days’ leave (sewe dae verlof) from the army, I was 24, having managed to dodge my national service for longer than most – when I took it into my head to walk into the offices of the Rand Daily Mail (RDM).

How I knew to be at 171 Main Street in downtown Johannesburg in the late afternoon, I cannot remember. Nor do I know why I imagined anyone would be interested in hiring me. I had nothing much to offer, other than that a few years previously my brother Joel had flourished as a sub-editor and reporter on Joel Mervis’s Sunday Times, part of the SA Associated Newspapers (SAAN) stable, as was the RDM.

Nor can I recall why I particularly wanted to be a journalist. I suppose it made sense to me then. I was unqualified to do anything else and didn’t want to be an electrician or plumber (Si jeunesse savait ...); my brother had been a journalist; and I fancied myself as a writer. (Some days, I still do.)

Brian Ross-Adams, the chief sub-editor on duty that night (sitting in for the official chief sub, John Leask), said, “Sure, you can have a trial,” and sent me “down table” i.e., to the other end of the subs room, far far away. He told me to sit next to one Diago “Ike” Segola, who would show me the ropes, which long-suffering Ike proceeded to try to do.

Those were the (last) days of hot metal. Reporters typed their stories on, and the subs then worked on, “copy paper” with pens, using copyediting marks. Copy paper was a “newsprint” off-cut, about A5 in size, in texture not dissimilar to bad quality toilet paper. The subs were required to check spelling, grammar, sense, put on a headline, and also cut the story to requisite length – the chief or deputy chief sub indicated the length, type size, etc. on top of the copy. This subbing and production process has now become, and became so soon after those days, electronic/digital [1].

Then the subbed story went back whence it had come, to the “top table”, where the chief sub, deputy chief, revise sub, and copy taster sat like the royalty they were, to be dispatched down to the typesetting and printing works via a “copy boy” – or, since “boy” wasn’t for obvious reasons a popular word, via a “messenger” (if I have this right, Segola started in the building as a “messenger”). Since I was a neophyte, I wasn’t allowed to sub anything important – only small little stories (fillers, mainly) – and Ike had to check my work anyway.

Later in the evening a short man (i.e., even shorter than I – and I’m only 1,67 m on a good day) but exuding authority and even wearing a tie (remember those?) came into the subs room and cast his bright eyes around.

He turned out to be that week’s night editor, Rex Gibson, who asked Ross-Adams either to phone him on the internal line or come to his office. Gibson – for whom I later worked (and deeply respected) on the Sunday Express and who Johnny Johnson of The Citizen would later dub “sexy Rexy” – crapped on Ross-Adams for allowing a “stranger,” albeit Joel Gordin’s brother, in from the street. He told Ross-Adams I could complete the evening shift, but I was not to come back; Ross-Adams was to tell me to try to get onto the SAAN cadet course.

So, later in the year, having klaared out of the SADF, I succeeded in doing so; and the rest is (my) history.

The thing is: on that evening I fell in love with the whole bang shoot – the milieu, the people, and newspapering. I don’t think I particularly had printer’s ink in my veins (and the pay would always be bad); but as Leonard Cohen remarked, there ain’t no cure for love.

The RDM subs room and its adjoining newsroom (where I would later work) was at that time a full-on hegdis, as they say in Yiddish, an extraordinary slum [2]. So, it wasn’t exactly the “accommodations” that were enticing, and in those days there was none of this “working from home” malarkey.

What then was the appeal for me, an attraction that would continue for 44 years (and still counting)? Well, one way of answering this question is to recall that taped onto one of the subs’ room “pillars” – the large, round things, like giant redwoods, holding up the floor above – was a large, tatty black and white photocopy of a photograph showing a male lion coupling non-missionary style (natch) with a lioness [3].

On it someone had written in large red letters: “Don’t worry, Benjy, we’re right behind you ...” This was a reference to RDM deputy-editor, Benjamin Pogrund, whose brand of “crusading” journalism had resulted in the RDM being taken to court by the government on numerous occasions.

Roland Barthes might have called that photocopy and its scrawled words an important “signifier”. It was, at one and the same time, antithetical to “crusades” and crusaders of a lefty variety, yet nonetheless wryly supportive, and above all gloriously irreverent. And indeed, the majority of the working stiffs, the folk who actually brought out the newspaper every night, including the men in “the works” [4], were wonderfully irreverent – about everything [5]. 

But let me take the names I have mentioned so far – Ross-Adams, Leask, Segola, Gibson, Pogrund, and in endnote (5) above, Allister Sparks and Helen Zille – and add other reporters, subs, and photographers whom I encountered, to a greater or lesser extent, at or around the RDM in 1977-78. I’ve not listed these people alphabetically or in terms of “rank” and I’ve not researched the matter in any detail [6]. I’ve purposely just written down the names in the order in which they’ve bobbed up in my memory [7].

Here’s the list (many of whom are, alas, dead, including Gibson and Sparks). Mervyn Rees, Chris Day, Peter Bunkell, Peter Magubane, Wilmar Utting, Lin Menge, Brian O’Flaherty, Paul Bell, Patrick Laurence, Frank Smith, Jayne Lamont, Howard Preece, Fred “flash Fred” Ingram (an inordinately fast sub), Dave Hazelhurst, Zwelakhe Sisulu, Ethel Hazelhurst, Jannie Nel, John Ryan, Ian Reid, Jon Qwelane, Ameen Akhalwaya, Vita Palestrant, Hymie “Fish” Snoyman [8], Raeford Daniel, Viv Prince, Pat Tucker, Melanie Yap, Jon Swift, Mike McCann, Steven Friedman, Riaan de Villiers, Paddi Clay (a fellow cadet), Pat Sidley, Patrick Laurence, Martin Schneider [9], Clive Emdon, Don Marshall, Carol Lazar, Les “the bush pig” Bush, Doc Bikitsha, and Vas Soni.

The above group of people, including those I haven’t listed, was unquestionably one of the most motley crews a person could ever encounter. Among them were alleged police and ANC spies and even a Frelimo informant (his name doesn’t appear); and there were probably others who were spooks but whose activities we (or certainly I) don’t know about to this day.

Among the above group were also some of the country’s leading non-teetotalers, among whom were a few dinkum fall-in-the-gutter drunks; one encountered them lying on the pavement while walking to or from the local home-from-home for the fourth estate, the Federal Hotel (“the Fed”) in Commissioner Street.

This following anecdote is hearsay because it happened before my time – but my sources were impeccable. One of the hard drinkers who was simultaneously an ace reporter (perhaps liquor and journalism are inextricably linked, who’d have thought?) was dispatched in the late 60s or early 70s to cover a freak snowfall in the then eastern Transvaal. He did not, however, want to venture into the cold in one of the unheated, ramshackle, and badly maintained Volkswagens provided in those days (as they were in mine).

He therefore “filed” his stories from the “public” phone or tickey box (remember those?) at the Fed. His detailed and painstaking descriptions of the snowfall, the mayhem it wreaked, and so on, in Waterval Boven (I think it was) were adjudged by all to be prize-winning journalism. Unfortunately for him, someone senior – perhaps John Ryan or the ubiquitous Gibson – went to the Fed in the early evening for a tincture and saw him. Whether he was fired, I don’t know (probably not). But I am sure the RDM never made a song and dance about the incident on its own pages.

Among the people listed above were also people whose private lives and behaviours would not, by any measure, then or now, be considered salubrious (I’d include myself if it weren’t boasting). One person, for example, was completely incapable of telling the “truth” – if it was day outside, she’d persuasively tell you it was night, I kid you not. Yet her written (and exceptionally fine) hard news articles never contained a porky or inaccuracy, not one as far as I know.

Qwelane, who died in December, was one of South Africa’s top journalists of the 70s and 80s [10] but in 2008, no doubt after a few too many drinks, wrote a “hurtful” column about gay people and as a result has now been cancelled forever by many.

The above group also represented a fair cross-section of SA society – fancy school chaps, men, women, gays, straights, Afrikaners, Jews, blacks, Indians, and a couple of “foreigners”. Yes, there were fewer black people working on the RDM , demographically speaking, than there ought to have been, and nearly all were corralled into working for the so-called “Extra” (read: black) edition. But times and conditions were different – which is not a rationalization; it’s just how it was.

I’d also be a dummkopf if I suggested that most black journalists felt that their lives were hunky-dory at the RDM or thought that the behaviour of the RDM owners and management (the employers) was deeply loving during the dark days of apartheid [11].

A minor anecdote. When, some months later, I worked on the RDM as a cadet reporter, we interns were required to do six months’ reporting from the Johannesburg magistrate’s courts. The brief was clear: report factually on the cases, no more, no less. I got bored one day, as is my wont, and wrote a feature on a pro tem prosecutor in the traffic court; he interested me because, while studying law by correspondence, he was also a motorbike cop.

Deputy news editor Lin Menge, a formidable person at the best of times, and by the way one of the best columnists of all time, went – “how,” as Richard Poplak put it recently, “how shall we put this?” – she went apeshit.

“Are you out of your tiny mind?” she bellowed. “You’re supposed to be reporting on court cases.” But Menge did not convene a commission of inquiry, complain to Sanef (or its then equivalent), or put a note in my file at (what would become known as) Human Resources. What she did, from then onwards, was to refer to me, loudly, as “Lord Chief Justice F------ Gordin”. As in (to the open plan newsroom): “Where’s Lord Chief Justice F------ Gordin, I have a query on this story.” Not PC – but effective.

The point of all the above is that those who worked (and drank) in the disheveled and (by today’s standards) rough and tumble environment of the RDM were far from being paragons of virtue nor did they represent a meeting of minds, nor were they politically correct. Yet every morning these people put out a highly competent, accurate, remarkable, and brave newspaper.

How come? As I’ve suggested, there were healthy dollops of irreverence, sheer cussedness, and liquor; and of course, there also existed in many a dislike for the absurdities, nastiness and stupidity of apartheid and a “belief” in the values of journalism. But, without wanting to dilute the relevance or power of the last two, as Clay said to me this week: “Jeez, what I remember is that people really, really went into top gear when you heard them saying ‘Oh f---, now this is a good story’ ...”.

For me, what stands out above all is that the crew above simply didn’t take themselves too seriously – some did of course but I’m thinking of the plurality, of the prevailing zeitgeist (if you’ll pardon a word about which Menge would have dumped on me from a dizzy height).

Those people were sceptical, not prone to self-regard, and laughed easily – including at themselves – about cockups of various sorts.

At the end of his remarkable 1939 essay on Charles Dickens, George Orwell has a paragraph about what he imagined Dickens to have looked like, part of which goes like this: “It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry ... ... a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls”.

When I consider – in the wake of the Jacques Pauw imbroglio – the smelly stuff that came out on social media but also on the pages of the Daily Maverick and other places, I weep for us, I really do.

Now then – if you’ve worked as one of the people who come around on garbage-collection day (I haven’t) to see what can be usefully filched from the bins of Johannesburg’s northern suburbs – you’ll know there are many kinds of rubbish. On social media, for example, there’s the stuff from those who really don’t seem to know it’s time to put a sock in it, those who are irked by whites, and those who are simply gross and hateful. 

But then there’s the self-serving, faux-profound, neo-woke, and super-righteous manure that emanates from journalists or purported ones. Here are some excerpts from a piece written on Facebook: “The Pauw/Daily M saga has been devastating. ... I struggle to think of a journalistic disaster more harmful than this one .... We have been quick to tell accountants and lawyers to clean up their professions. Time to catch up in our own ...” 

This was written by someone for whom I mostly have a high regard. But, geez, dude, get over yourself. Pauw got drunk and disorderly (journalists do sometimes do that, you know), was arrested, then he got highly indignant and, possibly needing to create a cover story for personal reasons, wrote a fulmination about his ordeal.

The DM, for its part, clearly bungled by then publishing it – read the post-mortem by Poplak, there were clear indications from the get-go that Pauw’s main tale was dubious. They were, for one thing, forcefully told by the restaurant management that Pauw’s recollection of events was incorrect.

The DM can apologize if that’s what it wants to do – so can Pauw if that’s what he wants to do. But it’s not been “devastating” or a “disaster”. It was, like all great cockups, the culmination of a series of small errors, by various people, beginning with the restaurant’s willingness to sell Pauw far more alcohol than he (or any human being) could be expected to handle [12]. End of story. Whole thing belongs, if anywhere, in a Tom Sharpe novel (though I suppose those are soon going to be re-banned in SA).

If Pauw had taken himself less seriously, and the Daily Maverick had done the same, the whole train crash could have been avoided. What’s required, as I might have mentioned, is more irreverence and scepticism, less self-regard, and a lot more laughter, including being able to laugh at oneself.

Remember the people who produced the RDM.


[1] This was probably just as well for me and it was probably just as well too that I would later become more of a reporter than a sub (though subbing remains my true love); I could never really get my head around type sizes, fonts, picas, and measurements.

[2] The room was full of papers, newspapers, spikes, broken pens and pencils, glue pots, discarded styrofoam plates and cups of half-eaten food and half-swallowed coffee (there was a dilapidated kettle, surrounded by spilt sugar, instant coffee, and old milk), banged-up manual typewriters, broken chairs, a filthy industrial carpet replete with cigarette burns, and old telephones dotted here and there.

[3] One assumes it was a lioness, though these days there might exist studies on gay relationships among lions – “gay prides” I guess groups of such lions might be called.

[4] There were then no female typesetters or printers – some came soon after; as I recall, one of the first was from New Zealand.

[5] One or two or three years later, when I had graduated to drinking with the printers – predominantly white, working-class, southern suburbs’ men, who worked in the bowels of the building to bring out the RDM – I did, to be sure, hear grumbles about the “lefty liberalism” of inter alios Editor Allister Sparks, Pogrund and ace reporter Helen Zille (though no complaints about her inserting microchips into anyone’s brain). But trust me: if the police had physically tried to dismantle the RDM, it is these men who’d have been the first to come out, tire irons or equivalent in hand, to battle the cops.

[6] Other than phoning Patti Sidley, who seems to remember everything and everybody in detail.

[7] This means that I’ve probably left out some people, for which I apologize. Come to think of it, though, they might be happy to be omitted. I also don’t know where some people are or even if they’re still alive. Those with whom I’m still in contact (in one form of another), or whom I know are still “out there,” are Sidley, Clay, Pogrund, Bunkell, De Villiers, Ethel Hazelhurst, Segola, Tucker, Emdon, Lazar, Zille, and Friedman.

[8] Fish Snoyman was mainly in charge of the in-house shebeen and could often be found asleep under or on a desk in the small hours of the night. He never deigned to talk to me: I bought my liquor at the Fed and anyway I was a laaitie. I subsequently discovered, however, that his family – there were 10 boys and one girl (she played goalie for the family soccer team) – had lived close to my father’s family in Jeppestown, and my father claimed that my granny often shared her famous soups with the Snoyman clan. I once tried to discuss this with Fish – his only response was a grunt, but this was for the most part his response to everything.

[9] At one of the first Info scandal press conferences, an aggressive PW Botha famously asked RDM political editor Schneider (after he’d identified himself by name) whether he was “that Kitt Katzin,” presumably because of the “semitic” similarity between their names. Neither Martin nor Katzin was (or is – if Martin is, as we hope, still with us) Jewish.

[10] Take a look at Dateline Soweto: Travels with Black South African Reporters by William Finnegan, University of California Press, 1988 (1995).

[11] There’s a good summary of their views in Samantha Keogh’s The Rand Daily Mail and the 1976 Soweto Riots (2006). The following by the way from Keogh’s thesis: “However, some of the people testifying [at the TRC media hearings], including Qwelane, praised the English press and in particular the RDM, saying English newspapers did, for the most part, perform noteworthy tasks in attempting to keep the South African public informed”.

[12] If you sell someone that amount of booze – for profit – you do bear some responsibility for the result. Whether for the customer being too pissed to put in his pin properly, or for his not remembering what happened. Remember that the restaurant was supposedly one of the main "victims" of the misreporting.