The Jacques Pauw questions

Jeremy Gordin writes on the journalist's boozy blunder, and the DM's role in the whole debacle

I know, I know. Journalists and others need to remember that – as journalists say (or used to say) – journalists are not “the story”. But Jacques Pauw’s little imbroglio has provoked a real fire storm on social media and some, er, calmer comment might be called for.

The tale – if I am able to squeeze some clarity from the welter of words that this episode has spawned – runs something like this. On Friday, 12th February a story by Pauw appeared in the Daily Maverick. This article has now miraculously (or not!) been removed from the DM but you can read an archived version here.

Headlined “I was stunned and dazed when pounced on by police, arrested, jailed overnight and charged with theft,” the story tells us that on Saturday 6th February Pauw’s credit card bounced at a V&A Waterfront restaurant, so he went off to draw some cash [1] . But three cops then pounced on him, cuffed him, took him to the cop shop, charged him with theft, slung him in a filthy cell (welcome to Seffrica, Jacques), and also filched a grand from his “pocket”.

The police refused to afford Pauw any of his purported rights, but after a visit the next morning from his wife (who seems not to have been the person or persons with whom he’d been having supper), and after a cop had asked Pauw if he was “that writer,” [2] Pauw was released “on a warning”.

The rest of Pauw’s article deals with his experience when he went to the Cape Town Magistrates’ Court on Monday 8th February to deal with the charge against him. The article also notes that Pauw was due to lay a charge “on Friday” (presumably the 12th) at the police station and submit a complaint to IPID (Independent Police Investigative Directorate) regarding unlawful arrest, assault, and theft.

The article also noted that the V&A Waterfront’s senior operations manager, Deon Sloane, declined comment, saying the matter was being dealt with by the police and that the DM could not view CCTV footage because the matter was sub judice. This was theoretically correct, I suppose, Pauw had pleaded before a court on Monday. But Mr Sloane might have saved a lot of people (including Pauw) a great deal of grief if he’d not been so po-faced (pauw-faced?) about the matter.

Similarly, all the SAPS Western Cape spokesperson had to say was that Pauw had been arrested for theft and needed to attend his case, postponed to the end of March. Also “correct” – but if he’d simply had a little off-the-record chat with DM editors, he could have helped avoid all this.

The information in the previous paragraphs is important because it tells us that the DM editors did try – to some extent – to get independent verification for the article. Whether this was because there were some “doubts” about what Pauw had written or whether it was because they were just being “responsible” journalists, we don’t know.

It also seems the DM tried hard to make the article into more than a “Pauw personal experience”. If you read the article and Pauw’s “famous” apology (which we’ll get to), you will note that, although the article was published on 12th February, it was written on the 10th.

In other words, there was a two-day hiatus between submission and publication and, moreover, the article has all sorts of material interpolated in the middle – various wise and portentous words about wrongful arrest, from the SAPS commissioner, IPID, criminologist Lukas Muntingh, and the ubiquitous constitutional law commentator Pierre de Vos.

Did Pauw solicit these or were they inserted by the DM’s industrious editors to give the story some bulk and semblance of “objectivity”? Whether (if the latter) – I say again – this was because there were some “doubts” about what Pauw had written or whether it was because the DM folk were being good journalists, we don’t know.

There ensued a devastating barrage of indignation and anger on social media, aimed at the police and the V&A. Then, a couple of days ago, on 16th February, about three days after publication of Pauw’s damning J’Accuse against the cops and the V&A Waterfront, came Pauw’s famous apology – which you can find here.  

In it [3], Pauw says that, although he still believes he was wrongfully arrested, he had too much to drink at the restaurant and therefore there might have been other issues leading to his arrest – presumably, some pretty wild and “impolite” behaviour. He’d also learned that no one, least of all the restaurant staff, called the cops – they happened to be close by. Pauw also established that the cops didn’t take his missing R1000. He apologised to the restaurant, the V&A Waterfront, the police, DM readers and its editor.

Now, Pauw’s apology leaves at least 10 tantalizing questions unanswered. Was it only the demon drink that caused him to mess with SA’s finest? Nothing else? I don’t know Pauw’s exact age, but he must be in his sixties – maybe some medication? Who was his mysterious companion? Why did someone at the restaurant later tweet that Pauw’s “company” at the table was “dubious”? (Was it Helen Zille? Max du Preez?)

How did Pauw not realize – why was he not told (say by his “companion”) – during the three-day interregnum between his release and writing his article that his behaviour might have been a trifle beyond the pale? Can you get so blotto that you really don’t remember stuff that took place? [4] What about those cops? At the risk of injecting some common sense into this saga, Seffrican cops of whatever hue don’t generally bully elderly white men, even ones who might look slightly down-at-heel – so Pauw clearly did something that irked them intensely. What was it?

As I say, there are many questions. However, as much as I’d like to consider them, my space is limited. More importantly, given the storm of vituperation, hatred, etc., that has now been launched at Pauw and the embarrassment, shame, etc., that he’s probably feeling – I think there are two main issues on which we should rather focus.

The first is this: did Pauw simply f--- up or did he lie? Did he write the first article with malicious intent (male fides) – or was he simply too drunk to remember what actually happened?

I’ve crossed “professional” paths with Pauw for 30 years or so. During most of that time, it could be said that we were not on the same team [5], then later I took over from him at Wits journalism’s Justice Project. Point is that whatever Pauw and I might disagree about (or might have disagreed about), I have never known him to tell a journalistic lie – and, unless he’s had a meltdown of some sort that I don’t know about, or unless he’s really in need of attention, I don’t see why he’d fabricate the Waterfront story.

But never mind me. Why would Pauw want to lie? What’d be the point? He doesn’t need the kudos. Besides, as he himself said in the first article, the Waterfront “is extensively covered by CCTV cameras that can verify my account”; i.e., he’d have to be pretty unhinged to fabricate knowingly.

In short, it seems clear that Pauw had indeed been poesdronk and simply couldn’t remember much of what had really happened.

Okay, but as a result of this stuff, Pauw has also been “fired” by the DM. In real terms, this might not make a huge difference to Pauw’s life. I assume he’s still collecting royalties from his latest book (and previous books), still owns a restaurant, has other places in which he can continue to write (Vrye Weekblad?), and so on. Nonetheless.

In my view, if your contributor has simply screwed up – and it seems this is what Pauw did, by being drunk or whatever – then the publication should correct the record, apologise (if need be), and move on. In other words, if someone on your own team lets you down, beat the shxt out of him or her in the locker room, but don’t make a public spectacle out of it. Yet DM editor Branko Brkic has bayoneted one of his own men in full view of the enemy trenches. Pauw thereby becomes the scapegoat – and the DM is absolved.

But let’s consider what I think is the second main issue. To what extent was the DM culpable in this snafu? My friend, erstwhile colleague, and experienced journalism trainer Paddi Clay has asked on Twitter “why is the DM not getting criticised for even publishing a piece that any editor should have seen was full of holes and signalling the actual truth very loudly?”

Indeed. Well, as noted above, the piece was dressed up with various pompous insertions (which was itself a problem because it suggested the article was of GREAT CONSEQUENCE and reflective of a major PLAGUE IN THE NATION); and the DM also seemed to try and get some verification (which was stymied, as noted, by the Waterfront and cop spokespeople).

But here’s the thing. The DM wasn’t in a race with anyone else in the country to publish this earth-shattering story. There was no pressure. They weren’t going to get scooped by the Cape Times. There was no need to rush to print, especially if they had concerns (and they seemed to have some). If the DM had waited a few days, and got the actual facts, Pauw’s story would have still been a good one – albeit with a different “moral”. 

In short, Brkic and the DM should also take some of the pain. Instead, Pauw becomes a useful whipping boy on social media for some who don’t seem to know when it’s time to put a sock in it, for the super righteous, and for those irked by whites. And if we poor folk, sitting quietly at home, are foolish enough to venture onto social media, we get trapped in this barrage of twaddle.

The late, great Lenny Bruce – for me one of the greatest comedians who ever lived – famously had an extended shtick about “never apologizing”.

“Never apologize,” he said, “never, never apologize and never admit anything – not even if your wife catches you in bed with a chicken”.

I appreciate the wise words of Bruce more every day.


[1] When I lived in the states some 30 years ago and was even poorer than I am now, if one’s credit card was declined, the owner of the establishment you were in at the time was given the “right” by the relevant bank – to hell with the Constitution – to confiscate and destroy the card in front of you. It happened to me once in San Francisco’s Tenderloin (calm down, I was trying to buy a couple of paperbacks) – and I was extremely indignant. If memory serves, I threatened the bookshop proprietor with physical violence. Which all goes to prove what I have often famously opined: “It’s one thing to sleep with a man’s wife, but never mess with his credit card or take his parking slot in the office parking garage”.

[2] Keen readers will recall that during Oscar Wilde’s famous trial, the following dialogue took place between Wilde and Queensberry’s defence attorney, Edward Carson: 

“C: Did you become intimate with a young lad named Alphonse Conway at Worthing?

W: Yes.

C: He sold newspapers at the kiosk on the pier?

W: No, I never heard that up to that time his only occupation was selling newspapers. It is the first I have heard of his connexion with literature.”

I just wanted to say this is the first I have heard of a connection between a local policeman and literature. But it is to be commended.

[3] Referred to by a friend of mine as “the reverse ferret to surpass all reverse ferrets”.

[4] I can only really speak from personal experience – and I do remember, to take just one example, waking up one morning in my Yeoville flat but not being able to remember at all how I got there from the SAAN “shebeen” close to the corner of Main and Mooi streets (I think). Exacerbating the matter was that I drove a motorcycle then (which was downstairs, in good nick). Still, I was pretty much able to piece together later what had happened.

[5] Pauw’s (initial) main source on apartheid death squad activities was Dirk Coetzee while mine was Eugene de Kock. Let’s leave it at that.