(JTA) — Jeremy Gordin, one of South Africa’s most prominent journalists, wrote repeatedly in recent months about burglaries at his family’s Johannesburg home.
In a weekly column, he expressed dismay at the rampant levels of crime, growing urban decay and regular power outages endured by South Africans as a result of mismanagement and corruption. In one — titled “It is getting dark, too dark to see” after the Bob Dylan lyric — he addressed his two children, both in their twenties.
On March 31, Gordin’s worst fears came to pass: He was murdered during a night robbery at his home. He was 70.
South African police described the incident as “a robbery gone wrong” but did not describe the exact cause of death. Seven people were arrested in Johannesburg two weeks later; one was driving a car that had been stolen from Gordin’s residence.
It was a tragic end for Gordin’s 70-year South African story, which, as with so many of his country’s Jews, intersected sharply with both the story of Israel and with the struggle of Black South Africans. As a lifelong journalist, he had at times headed both South Africa’s version of Playboy and its storied working-class Black tabloid, and also ran an initiative that used reporting to prove the innocence of people who were wrongfully imprisoned. He won the country’s annual top journalism prize multiple times.
Gordin was also a friend to many, frequently opening his home in Johannesburg’s Parkview neighborhood to guests. (This reporter was one of them during a stint in Johannesburg for Efe, the Spanish newspaper.)
Gordin was born in Pretoria in 1952, in a Jewish family with Lithuanian and Latvian origins. After a spell in South Vietnam, where his pharmacist father worked for the United States, the family returned to South Africa. Gordin went to high school in Brakpan, a town in the industrial east of the Great Johannesburg emblematic of the country’s white Afrikaner working class to which he often referred in his articles.
Gordin obtained a scholarship to study in Israel and completed a bachelor’s degree while playing rugby at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Back in his country, he did his military service volunteering for the South African Defence Force’s elite 1 Parachute Battalion, then started a prolific career in journalism.
In a breakout moment, he published a book in 1998 based on his conversations with the apartheid government’s death squad leader Eugen de Kock. Then incarcerated, de Kock candidly told Gordin about his deeds, but most importantly about those who had ordered his crimes, for which they were hardly questioned and never tried.
Gordin authored another canonical book of recent South Africa history, his biography of South Africa’s former president Jacob Zuma. Published in 2010, a year after Zuma took power, Gordin’s went beyond the usual assumptions about the Zulu former freedom fighter who learned how to read and write as an adult and was often underestimated by South Africa’s intellectual class.
Zuma left office in 2018 after a tenure marked by charges of corruption, cronyism and incompetence. Gordin’s biography has been criticized for being excessively indulgent with its subject, but it remains essential for understanding Zuma’s psychology and the motivations behind his actions.
Although not religiously observant, Gordin peppered his articles with Jewish stories and jokes and Yiddish words and expressions. His sense of humor was strongly influenced by his Jewishness, as it was the combination of principle and humorous compassion that defined his personality. He was extremely well-read and voraciously curious, loved to share what he discovered with friends and indulged in sassy but harmless gossip both in private and in his articles.
Sometimes, his Jewish identity and his journalism entwined as when, in 2016, he reported from Johannesburg about the extradition hearing of a Hasidic rabbi, Eliezer Berland, wanted in Israel on rape charges. His final column, published the day before his death, explained, and condemned, the proposed right-wing judicial reforms in Israel.
Rabbi Sa’ar Shaked of the Beit Emanuel Progressive Synagogue in Johannesburg said Gordin as a friend and “wild spirit” who didd’t regularly attend services but was a repeat guest speaker at the synagogue to discuss weekly Torah portions and a variety of aspects of Jewish history and law.
Despite not attending services regularly, Gordin’s role in the community is described as “very active” by Wendy Ovens, a South African health professional in the NGO sector who served with him on the management committee of Beit Emanuel in 2011.
“His knowledge on Judaism and Jewish history was incredible,” Ovens said. She said his Jewish identity fueled his core mission: “He was community-minded and believed in justice and in what was right.”
Gordin is survived by his wife, Deborah Blake, and his children, Jake and Nina.