The untruth behind Jacques Pauw’s shipwreck on the foreshore.
Aris Danikas vs Johan Booysen.
How Jacques Pauw and Daily Maverick unwittingly Zoomed history forward
“What is reality?” Pontius Pilate.
Anton Harber, Caxton Professor of Journalism, and founder editor of the Weekly Mail (now the Mail and Guardian) described the shipwreck of the career of his friend Jacques Pauw on the Cape Town Foreshore as “devastating” and an “appalling mess up”. He said on Twitter, “I struggle to think of a journalistic disaster more harmful than this one, and we have had a few competitors”. Weekly Mail kept the flickering flame of media freedom alive throughout the crunch times of apartheid, and Harber endured it all.
Jacques Pauw also has admirable struggle credentials, having worked with Max du Preez to establish the Afrikaans language equivalent of the Weekly Mail, Vrye Weekblad. A friend who worked with him back in those dark days told me that she witnessed first-hand how he showed the courage to do what no other journalist was willing to do, in Naming, Unmasking and Confronting the Fallen Powers that Be with evidence of human rights atrocities. With the same zeal he held the Gupta corrupted Jacob Zuma’s feet to the fire with his 2017 book The President’s Keepers: Those keeping Zuma in power and out of prison. In one of his previous contributions to DM he describes it as the “book that brought the house down” on Jacob Zuma. And he is not exaggerating.
How could it be that such a man filed a fabricated story that accused the police of wrongfully arresting him and detaining him for supposedly stealing his meal and a large R1,600 bar tab from the Den Anker restaurant on the Cape Town V&A Waterfront?
Daily Maverick’s go-to scribe for collective narrative therapy, Richard Poplak, explained how the shipwreck happened here. The Jacques Pauw Affair: The Story, the facts, the fallout and the future. Scotch on the Rocks wasn’t listed as one of the drinks on the bar tab, but Jacques’ distinguished career certainly was.
“Deliberate falsification is the death of journalism,” retired journalism professor Graeme Addison said in response to my plea to him to help me understand what was happening. “It seems to me that although he may claim to have forgotten things in his drunkenness, the article he wrote was calculated to blame the cops and the restaurant for his discomfiture. That raises questions about the truth of his earlier reporting and about Daily Maverick’s fact checking”.
If Truth is to hold Power accountable, the truth must be true.
I am told that The President Keepers, having sold over 200,000 copies, is right up there just below the Holy Bible as the second best-selling non-fiction book in South African history.
Poplak has explained what happened but not why it happened. I think I know.
Let me start with the number one best seller, the Bible. I have been told by one of my psychologist friends that I am a ‘public theologian’ and must own that role and get over the imposter syndrome that causes me to doubt it. So, let me try on that cap and let readers be the judge to see if it fits.
I am told by another psychologist friend Rod Charlton, that the ancient Greek word for ‘truth’ that Pontius Pilate used when he became all philosophical was ἀλήθεια — aletheia in our alphabet. It is usually translated as ‘truth’, but more strictly means “an accurate perspective on reality” or “a factual representation of events”. The better-known Latin word has much the same meaning is ‘veritas’. A common Latin saying, peculiarly relevant to this story is “in vino veritas”. That is when a person under the influence says things they would not normally say. Sometimes they speak with liquor-loosened tongues of private truths that should remain private and harm their relationships. But more often the truth that the vino verifies are about the person themselves and what personal crises and trauma’s they may be going through. I have seen a lot of that in my long social work career working with people with both substance addictions and process addictions. More about that in an article I wrote in 2018, Permission to Speak Freely about the free speech of Gareth Cliff, Dali Mpofu and Richard Spoor. It tells how Sam Cowan’s book “From Whiskey to Water” helped me understand how ubiquitous and damaging addiction is.
This reflection offers some sobering thoughts that Jacques’ shipwreck has precipitated, hoping that the fermentation and distillation process will yield a potent therapeutic brew from the bitter lemons that have saddened and upset so many of us (sorry Jacques only lemonade for you).
Rod and I were counselling a very sober truth teller — a whistleblower — who has for 21 years (almost half his life, he has just turned 50) come to a perspective on a reality that is diametrically at variance with the dominant one. It is the narrative that Jacques has been promoting and because it was inconvenient, my client got scapegoated by him. Our clients’ willingness to sacrifice his profitable business, his home in South Africa and his position as an esteemed and decorated member of the South African Police Services for his convictions has convinced us that his perspective on reality was well toward the aletheia end of the veracity spectrum. His scapegoating and intimidating adversary, who was the cause of our clients’ decision to get a trusted friend to secretly buy him and his wife one-way tickets to Greece, set to work to contrive a false narrative that is on the opposite extreme of the veracity spectrum. The ancient Greek term for it is σκύβαλον, pronounced ‘skubalon’ and freely translated into modern English as “bullshit”.
I am using the term in the precise technical sense, as defined by Harry Frankfurt, professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University, in his 2005 book “On Bullshit”.
Tragically for Jacques sake, he was persuaded. But he was not alone. Professor Anton Harber, Jessica Pitchford and Martin Welz editor of NoseWeek had bought it too.
My go-to professional colleague whenever I find myself in really difficult situations of having to discern bullshit and speak truth to it, is Brené Brown. She helpfully explains in one of the chapters of one of her many books “How to speak truth to bullshit” as follows.
“The first of Frankfurt’s insights is the difference between lying and bullshitting: Lying is a defiance of the truth, and bullshitting is a wholesale dismissal of the truth. “By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are,” Frankfurt writes. This changes the nature of debate — and calls into question the opportunity for productive discourse. As Alberto Brandolini’s Bullshit Asymmetry Principle states, “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.”’
Rod and I counselled our client not to try to refute bullshit, but simply to nerve him to keep standing and living by his truth. It had kept him going to his 50th birthday. Now was not the time to give up and allow defeat to be snatched from the jaws of victory.
In between the extremes of ἀλήθεια (aletheia, truth) and σκύβαλον, (skubalon, bullshit) we can grade communications along a continuum. I call it The Veracity Spectrum.
Update: I have since discovered that Martin Heidegger devoted an essay to re-examining Plato’s doctrine of truth as expressed in his allegory of the cave, with recourse to the term aletheia. See this fifteen minute mini lecture by Dr Chris Sadler. Martin Heidegger, Plato’s Doctrine of Truth | Allegory of Cave, Education, and Truth | Core Concepts.
Another go-to wise man who has of late helped me cleanse the lenses of my perception and overcome my own bias is Brian McLaren, a genuine public theologian. Brian has helped me ‘C’ clearly.
His teaching on overcoming human bias has been most helpful to me when hapless souls seek my help to get them out of trouble. There is bad trouble and good trouble. Since setting out my stall to counsel and support whistleblowers I am mostly concerned with helping them through the ‘good trouble’. The late Congressman John Lewis defined it as the trouble one gets into when one speaks Truth to Power — ‘Aletheia to Skubalon’ — because that is the truth about power: it eventually has a damaging effect on your brain, as The Atlantic explained in an influential article in their December 2017 edition “Power causes Brain Damage”.
“The historian Henry Adams was being metaphorical, not medical, when he described power as “a sort of tumour that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies.” But that’s not far from where Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, ended up after years of lab and field experiments. Subjects under the influence of power, he found in studies spanning two decades, acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury — becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view”.
Ironically Jacques may also have acquired the same personality disorder that I have previously assessed that Jacob Zuma had acquired, The Hubris Syndrome, which is also discussed in The Atlantic piece. Signs of it were already evident in one of his previous writings for Daily Maverick. He was getting himself into ‘bad trouble’ and I could see it coming. I shall explain in due course, and please pardon this long preamble, but I need to help readers focus their binoculars more finely hoping you can see what I saw. There is a great deal at stake.
McLaren with clever alliteration lists and describes no less than thirteen forms of bias, all beginning with the letter ‘C’.
Confirmation bias is the most talked about, but he has enumerated twelve others, including “contact bias” which he defines as “when people lack meaningful contact with each other, their prejudices and false assumptions go unchallenged”. We tend to be biased toward those with whom we have regular contact and imbibe their prejudices toward those they may fear or distrust.
We are social beings, and as Brené Brown further explains.
“My research makes it clear that true belonging doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are. Because the yearning for belonging is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging but often barriers to it. Our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of authenticity”.
We need to transcend the necessary bonds of belonging if we are to mature toward greater insight. Otherwise, it becomes “tribe over truth”, another bias on McLaren’s list, “community bias”.
There is a great podcast titled Learning how to see, in which McLaren explains each of the thirteen biases and gets two of his fellow public theologians, Jacqui Lewis and Richard Rohr to unpack them by reflecting on their own experience as pastors and priests.
For present purposes besides the three already mentioned the other five biases that are directly relevant to this story of speaking aletheia to skubalon are as follows;
Complexity Bias — our brains prefer a simple falsehood to a complex truth.
Competency Bias — we don’t know how little (or much) we know, because we don’t know how much (or little) others know. It builds on the insights of the Dunning-Kruger Hypothesis, which suggests that bias results from an internal illusion in people of low ability and from an external misperception in people of high ability. It is related to the cognitive bias of illusory superiority and comes from people’s inability to recognize their lack of ability. Without the self-awareness of metacognition, people cannot objectively evaluate their level of competence.
Comfort Bias — Also termed Complacency or Convenience bias. We prefer not to have our comfort disturbed. We can’t handle that much discomfort, pain, or inconvenience, and a process of ‘psychic numbing’ takes hold.
Conspiracy Bias — Under stress or shame, our brains are attracted to stories that relieve us, exonerate us, or present us as innocent victims of malicious conspirators. (teleological/conspiratorial thinking).
Confidence bias — We are attracted to confidence, even if it is false. We often prefer the bold lie to the hesitant truth. These are the con artists and con men. Donald Trump epitomises this as someone on the far extreme of the Veracity Spectrum.
Perhaps I need say upfront that I am not claiming to have a perfectly accurate perspective of reality. I have not arrived on the aletheia end of the Veracity Spectrum, but that is the critical ideal that motivates me. Not even Jesus laid claim to being a “good master”. He told the rich young ruler that there is only One who is good, the transcendent one. So, as I narrate this story, please check my blind spots. They do not show up as dark patches to me. I am unaware of them until they are pointed out to me.
As I have grappled with going public, I have toyed with the idea that within the Competency Bias, there is perhaps a more virulent South African variant of this particular bias that infects people of my particular demographic and borne out of our racial history. It is hard to explain for those who are internal to it. I call it the ‘competency of unearned privilege bias’: the bias that takes hold of those of us with unearned privilege who simply can’t help ourselves from presuming that we know better.
Moreover, my life would on a day-to-day basis be a lot easier, if I was diagnosed to have bought into a delusional ‘skubalon’ narrative. But as I look back on my life, I have only developed when I have let my biases give way so that deeper truth can manifest itself. The aletheia does set us free but first it makes us miserable, often highly uncomfortable and almost always unpopular with some people. Prophets are never loved in their own countries.
However when people are miserable, uncomfortable and suffering it is always a disguised opportunity for a latent truth to emerge (which is not to claim that I know what it is, only that I know it is there).
Social workers work to “promote insight”, which one of my yellowing textbooks defines as “seeing situations as they really are”. It is about cleansing the lens of perception by a process of contemplative examination of the various biases that cloud our vision. Hopefully, all stakeholders who have been harmed by this disaster (including Jacques) will find something redemptive and transformational in this reflection, re-examine the lenses of their perception to remove the motes and logs of bias, and move on with greater wisdom and renewed confidence.
That is why I have offered to support whistleblowers. It is exceedingly difficult to reverse the priority and speak ‘Truth over Tribe’. Even for me personally. My ‘tribe’ of lefty, liberal, well-educated, middle class and progressive Facebook friends, including many journalists have by-and-large subscribed to the same false narrative that has left my client scapegoated, defamed and marginalised. By immersing myself in the very inconvenient truth of his story, I have gained a visceral empathy for how Galileo may have felt when he was up against the Roman Catholic Curia. My friends fear that I may have succumbed to a dangerous heresy when I tell them that I believe my client to be speaking aletheia — an accurate perception of reality, and that his adversary is the one who is speaking bullshit. They don’t know my client. They do know his adversary.
So, who besides Jacques Pauw, am I talking about?
My client is Aris Danikas, and the adversary who scapegoated him is General Johan Booysen. Jacques Pauw found himself caught in between the two men and their colliding narratives. I think he realised that he was in the ‘skubalon’ camp and that contributed to him losing his bearings and head for the rocks.
Here is what happened in the days, weeks and months leading up to the shipwreck on the foreshore.
Part One. Press ganged.
“The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
So said ‘Mr Dooley’ the fictional Irish bartender columnist for the Chicago Evening Post.
What does one do when a news outlet gets it so terribly wrong that they afflict the afflicted and provide comfort to the comfortable?
That is what the Daily Maverick did, and this is the story that explains how Jacques Pauw intimidated a whistleblower, Aris Danikas, and comforted the person who was the target of his alarm, Johan Booysen.
Or tried to.
Jacques’s email to a close friend of Aris and a fellow whistleblower helps set the scene and get to the heart of this story.
John Kiriakou is a household name in the USA for having exposed the practice of waterboarding torture in the CIA in the so called “War on Terror” after 9/11.
The Netflix drama The Report is based on the story, except Kiriakou — the real whistle blower — spent 30 months in prison.
Sharing a Greek heritage, the two men have bonded in the mutual solidarity of having had to suffer for following their consciences.
Jacques Pauw wrote to Kiriakou in September last year.
“Dear Mr Kiriakou,
I am a South African investigative reporter and the author of six books. My latest book, The President’s Keepers, is the biggest-selling non-fiction book in South African history and won among others the Association of American Publisher’s International Freedom to Publish Award.
The book exposes state capture by former president Jacob Zuma. I was, as a result, criminally charged and the State Security Agency attempted to ban the book.
I am currently doing a follow-up and want to ask you about Aristidis (Aris) Danikas, a South African / Greek citizen that in the early 2000s blew the whistle on the extra-judicial killings performed by a group of policemen.
As a result, 26 policemen, including a top general, were charged with murder and suspended. Danikas left South Africa and went back to Greece.
Over the past eight years, a picture has emerged that the targeting of the policemen was part of Zuma’s state capture project. The general in question, Booysen, was targeted because he charged and investigated several of Zuma’s cronies for fraud and corruption.
The newspaper that carried the “expose” of Booysen and his men have withdrawn all their stories.
A top-level panel appointed by the prosecutions boss has found that top-level prosecutors conspired to manufacture evidence against Booysen and his men. The Panel found specifically that the evidence of Danikas was worthless.
On his Linked-In profile, he quotes you as saying the following about him: “It is my pleasure to recommend Aristeidis Danikas. Danikas is quite simply the single most impressive technologist I’ve ever encountered. His mastery of technology and engineering set him apart from other such entrepreneurs in Greece and across Europe. Even more importantly, he has proven himself to be an adherent of the very highest ethical standards, even at a great personal cost. No more honest person is out there.”
Have you in fact said this about Danikas?
Have you ever met him?
Thank you for your co-operation.
Except that Jacques neglected to disclose to Kiriakou that his real purpose was to garner evidence post-facto, to rebut a complaint that Aris had lodged against Daily Maverick for this article. Aris alleged serious violations of the press code because it contained false and defamatory statements against him. Kiriakou knew that anyway. Aris had briefed him.
I found myself involved in the complaints process because Aris, knowing I had set out my stall to offer professional psychosocial support to whistle blowers, requested my help. When I tentatively agreed to assist Aris, I had no idea that it would end up with Jacques Pauw going down in such dramatic fashion after his shipwreck on the foreshore and a night in a Table Bay Harbour police cell.
Aris feared that given the well-entrenched bias against him by the South African media, Jacques was intent on using the age-old defence strategy of isolate and attack rather than engage and explain.
The Press Code says;
“The media shall… seek, if practicable, the views of the subject of critical reportage in advance of publication. … Such a subject should be afforded reasonable time to respond; if unable to obtain comment, this shall be stated.”
Had Jacques done his homework properly, he would have interviewed Aris to obtain his perspective, and then contacted Kiriakou to corroborate Aris claim that they were indeed friends and he had indeed given him the ringing praise and affirmation. Had Jacques done that, the whole article would have turned out to be utterly different. Perhaps the article would never have seen the light of published day at all. Which would not have pleased Johan Booysen. His agenda in the saga was plain to see.
The objective of Jacques’s article was to unpack a leaked internal report commissioned by Advocate Shamila Batohi, the National Director of Public Prosecutions, tasking one of her senior staff Advocate Rodney de Kock to make a recommendation as to whether grounds existed to reinstitute racketeering charges against Johan Booysen. Jacques’s treatment of the report was slanted very much toward Booysen’s narrative, focused on the apparent failure of Batohi to thoroughly clean house, after the botched effort of her now discredited predecessors to make the charges stick. Someone, presumably concerned that some tainted prosecutors who had worked on that failed prosecution ought to have been fired, had leaked the confidential memo to Jacques to amplify pressure through the media. At least that was how Aris saw things.
Besides the confidential NPA report, the only other source Jacques consulted was the man in the eye of the storm, Johan Booysen himself.
Aris Danikas and Johan Booysen were once bosom buddies who once trusted each other with the keys of their respective homes. They were both cops, initially unified in the noble end of crime fighting, but diverged on the means. Aris did so as a volunteer reservist, but that did not stop him from excelling himself, for which he received acclaim from within the police. Booysen liked the media profile he acquired as it reflected well on him too. That changed when Aris increasingly felt that he was being manipulated and their relationship cooled. When Aris found him deaf to his reports about crime within the ranks of the police itself, their relationship ruptured.
Aris became a whistle blower and had to flee for his life.
They hadn’t spoken to each other in person since 2008. That is when Aris and his wife decided it was time to get out of the country. Aris does not trust Booysen. In the unlikely event that they were to ever shake hands again, Aris would probably count his fingers afterwards.
Aris believes that Jacques’s article was yet another instalment in Booysen’s masterful media management strategy to present himself as a target of the State Capture conspiracy, and thus to endear himself to ordinary South Africans fed up with rampant crime and political corruption at the highest level.
General Booysen has a confident forthright way with journalists. As they drudge on with the “inescapably impossible task of providing every week a first rough draft of history that will never really be completed about a world we can never really understand”, as the late Washington Post editor Phil Graham said in 1963, General Booysen makes their drudge less drudging. But perhaps too easy.
When journalists turn to writing books, our natural expectation is that such publications would not only document a second, more complete draft of history, but also render the world more understandable. Johan Booysen had befriended three reputable journalists turned writers-of-books who fell for the ‘simple falsehoods instead of the complex truths’ bias;
· Jessica Pitchford, who has written a book Blood on their Hands. Johan Booysen reveals his Truth published in 2016;
· Jacques Pauw, who quotes from Pitchford’s book extensively in his own book The Presidents Keepers published in 2017.
· Anton Harber, who has given his final seal on the ‘Truth’ in his latest book So, For the Record: Behind the headlines of State Capture published in 2020.
Professor Harber devotes a few pages to explaining how, in his opinion, the now discredited and disbanded Sunday Times Investigation unit got it badly wrong in their 2013 front page “Shoot to Kill” report on alleged atrocities committed by the Cato Manor Organised Crime Unit, that Booysen commanded. Al Jazeera had also filmed a documentary in 2015 Echoes of Apartheid
Referring to Booysen’s account of Aris’ claims that he had “left South Africa under a cloud” and that his claims were “fraught with improbabilities” Harber writes, commenting on the Al Jazeera documentary.
“In this documentary, Danikas says that when he confronted Booysen about the torture, Booysen’s response was, ‘We get the job done.’ There was no mention though, of the charges that Danikas was less than reliable, or why he wasn’t used as a prosecution witness.
Hofstatter to this day cites Danikas’ evidence against Booysen.
This is ‘confirmation bias’, in which journalists eager to get backing for a story upon which their reputations depend see only the evidence that supports their version and ignore that which throws doubt on it.” (page 47–48)
Let he who is without confirmation bias cast the first stone.
Aris confesses astonishment at the contrast between the treatment he gets from the South African media compared to how journalists from other countries listen to him. See South African cop escapes to Greece after blowing whistle on police brutality, in Euronews and South African Cop Death Squad Whistleblower Lands Back in Greece in The National Herald. Both published in 2018.
“I have absolutely no problem getting any reputable journalist from other countries to believe my story. But South African journalists only seem to want to believe what Booysen says, even when he clearly scapegoats and defames me”.
Unfortunately for Aris none of these three writers made any effort to interview him, even after they became aware that he was willing to speak with them to correct the record. The only South African based journalist who takes him seriously is Stephan Hoffstatter. Once admired and celebrated, they are not in the good books of anyone appalled by the rot of State Capture now. The popular view is that Hofstatter was played by Jacob Zuma’s cronies. Aris is now conveniently seen as one of the villains of that conspiracy.
Several weeks after receiving notice of Aris’ complaint from the Ombudsman Jacques planned a defence strategy, firstly by obtaining an affidavit from Booysen to try and emboss his claims with legal authority and secondly by writing to reputable people who had endorsed Aris as a good and ethical man, to question his claims about their recommendation of him.
With respect to the first plank of Jacques’s defence platform, Booysen’s affidavit advanced a theory that Aris lacked the “wherewithal regarding the Press Code” and that he was being used in a conspiracy by Hofstatter and the NPA Prosecutor Advocate Sello Maema to discredit Jacques Pauw. Booysen claimed that since Aris only spoke “broken English” he believed that the complaint could not have been the work of Aris. This was not just a simple falsehood. It was complete skubalon. Yet Jacques favourable ‘contact bias’ toward Booysen persuaded him.
Lawyers are not allowed to represent parties in the adjudication proceedings. The complaints mechanism is meant to be a non-adversarial, restorative justice process to make findings not rulings. It is a self-regulatory instrument of the Press Council to promote understanding and commitment to the Press Code.
It seemed puzzling that Jacques seemed not to get that and appeared intent on abusing the process, in much the same way that corporate bullies do in SLAPP suit litigation. I am fighting a SLAPP suit myself, I know a lot about that. Was this not poisoning another well to frustrate the promise of justice?
After conferring with people who know more about these things then me, I learned that journalists are only absolved from obtaining a right of reply if the matter in question is backed by some established legal authority that has settled the factual basis for it. Even if one has testified under oath before a judge, or made a sworn statement, until the judge has handed down a judgement it is folly to jump to conclusions. That is what sub-judice means. It doesn’t mean one cannot have an opinion about issues, but they remain opinions, or at best perceptions of truth, not hard facts. Journalists have a special duty to be fair to all points of view in their reporting. They are of course entitled to have opinions too, but their credibility hinges on the extent to which they have some basis of evidence for them.
Our fears that Jacques was intent on an intimidatory SLAPP tactic were increased when the Ombudsman informed us after intense pressure, the day before the hearing that Jacques now intended to call Booysen to give oral testimony and elaborate on his affidavit. Aris knew a great deal about Booysen. Enough to know why Booysen would not want Jacques interacting with Aris without him present.
Effectively Jacques had yielded his interests and that of Daily Maverick’s to allow Booysen to further entrench his false narrative about Aris.
With respect to the second plank of Jacques’ defence strategy, besides contacting the aforementioned John Kiriakou, he sent similar emails to the other heavy hitters in Aris’ corner: an international media freedom organisation BluePrint for Free Speech, and Transparency International Greece. They had all been briefed by Aris. Feeling that Jacques was being underhanded, they chose not to reply to him, but instead forwarded the emails straight to Aris as further evidence of Jacques’s violation of journalistic ethics. A senior director of BluePrint for Free Speech wrote directly to the Ombudsman, saying “Mr Danikas has volunteered as a project consultant for Blueprint on a project with several NGOs, including ours, regarding whistleblowing safety protocols. His contribution in this has been very helpful to advancing the cause of whistleblower protection.”
The more deeply I got into Aris’s networks of international support, and learned about the incredible work they were doing, the less my wife and I quarrelled over the TV remote. I enjoy Netflix spy thrillers, but my wife likes the Home Channel. I yielded the remote to her to watch “Luxury Homes Revealed” on our big screen TV, while I put on headphones and watched YouTube videos on my laptop. The emerging truth was stranger than the fiction of “Covert Affairs” and “Jack Reacher”. To understand why, watch John Kiriakou inspiring young people in a Ted Talk, with his story.
The Ombudsman, Pippa Green, had decided that the issues were too complex to be decided on the papers, and wanted the complaint to be adjudicated by a panel of three, as is the custom. Dr Joe Thloloe, a widely respected veteran journalist would serve as the media representative and Mr Peter Mann former CEO of Meropa Communications was to represent the public interest.
But even though the matter was quite simple, the historical context within which the complaint had come was not. Green had 200,000 reasons for calling for an adjudication hearing. That is how many copies of Jacques’s book had been bought (in addition there were a lot more circulating on social media in a pirated PDF copy). The public acclaim had surely exonerated Booysen, hadn’t it?
The adjudication date was set for 21st December 2020. Following advice from Aris’ international support network, it was time for him to lawyer up. Even though lawyers were not allowed into the adjudication process, I felt we needed my trusted ally and legal talisman, Richard Spoor. A desperate call interrupted his family holiday in Cape Town. He agreed to provide legal advice but needed more time. The Ombudsman agreed to a one month postponement until after the festive season.
This gave us more time for us to work through the pile of evidence Aris had submitted in support of his complaint.
The other advantage of the postponement is that another helpful resource emerged just a few days before the hearing which help frame the particulars of Aris case within the larger general context of South Africa’s media eco-system, and the highly polarised political climate within which it had to operate. It was the “Inquiry into Media Ethics and Credibility Report” by an independent panel commissioned by the SA National Editors Forum (SANEF) in mid 2019. Chaired by retired judge Kathleen Satchwell, she was assisted by Nikiwe Bikitsha and Rich Mkondo to engage with individuals and entities, and to seek clarity on “those challenges confronting the media industry generally and journalists in particular which hinder the appropriate, honest, accountable and effective reporting necessary for advancing and strengthening Constitutional democracy in South Africa,” through ad-hoc research.
I was keenly awaiting the report, having made a submission myself to the Panel Restoring and Renewing the Fourth Estate, to express my concern about the impact of State Capture and political corruption on the South African media, and which had made my job as a social worker in mediating information from whistleblowers to the public even more difficult. Participating in the Enquiry process had given me hope, and the report came just in time to help me explain to Aris all the current optics. He had left South Africa before Jacob Zuma had become President and a lot had happened since then.
The major precipitating factor that motivated SANEF to set up the enquiry was a major crisis that befell The Sunday Times — South Africa’s most widely read newspaper — over the way its elite Investigation Unit had reported on three major stories that were perceived to have been part of the Zuma State Capture conspiracy.
This was not the first time that The Sunday Times had faced a credibility problem. The Panel reminded us that “In 2008, following a number of earlier high-profile story retractions, a four-person panel was asked to review the The Sunday Times editorial processes. The report is lengthy, detailed and replete with recommendations to “enable the The Sunday Times to produce bold, incisive journalism that maintains the utmost credibility with its audience”. However, for reasons that were not explained, the report was not made public until June 2011.”
The Satchwell report highlighted that the sources that The Sunday Times journalists had relied upon for, including Danikas, were never discredited (8.206) and that their allegations needed to be taken seriously.
The report found that The Sunday Times had retracted the Cato Manor stories because of a publicly orchestrated campaign, complete with threats of a consumer and advertising boycott (8.65–8.72 and 8.213) and concluded that “politico-financial considerations have triumphed over the truth of journalism” (par 8.222–223).
Johan Booysen’s ally private investigator Paul O’Sullivan led the public campaign. He had aggressively threatened an advertising and consumer boycott of the Sunday Times. It seems the editors completely caved into the threats, prioritising short term commercial viability above editorial independence. They retracted the stories and apologised, but never admitted that they had been intimidated into doing so. This was confirmed by the Satchwell report (8.65–8.72 & 8.213).
The report says the Sunday Times retractions raised more questions than are answered.
“It is not clear to the Panel what exactly was retracted: some individual facts or entire stories. If some facts only are retracted, then a correction of fact and apology would be the usual route to be followed by a newspaper. Thus, if Booysen was in ultimate command but not actually involved in the work of his team, then the newspaper could have made such a correction with clarification that Booysen gave evidence in court and in defence of his team during the Mkhize litigation on the basis of his personal knowledge and responsibility…
… The reader is left in doubt as to what was correctly reported and what was incorrectly reported. The sources upon which the reporters relied in the Cato Manor stories have not been discredited and one of the prime sources, Mary de Haas, has publicly confirmed her information. More than 40 people are dead and the Hawks and the NPA all conducted their own investigations resulting in prosecutions”.
“The apologies were not simply the result of reflection and merely settlement of litigation.”
O’Sullivan’s publicly orchestrated campaign had its effect of exerting power over the editors but the panel found this “difficult to fathom. It is unclear for whom, if anyone, he acted as proxy”.
On the other hand the Panel found that the journalists who wrote the stories had never been accused of ethical malpractice by their editors. The report categorically concluded that there was no suggestion of corruption, “ethical malpractice” or “malevolent intent” (8.218–219)
“This Panel was tasked with investigating allegations of “ethical” malfeasance in the media industry. It must be categorically stated that no ethical malpractice on the part of Hofstatter, Rees, Rose or wa Afrika has been suggested to the Panel”.
Aris told me that he had also made representations to the Panel, as one of the sources for the Cato Manor reports much concerned that the relative powerlessness of the victims and families of the alleged crimes were not afforded anything approaching fairness, in contrast to the favour shown to the interests of Johan Booysen and Paul O’Sullivan. When Booysen and O’Sullivan put the short-term commercial viability of the Sunday Times in jeopardy with their threats, by caving in, the newspaper showed no regard for people like Aris, Mary de Haas and her witnesses who had put their lives on the line by blowing the whistle.
Judge Satchwell had acknowledged this.
I note that O’Sullivan is not chastened by the enquiry, and has loudly protested against the findings and calling for its retraction under threat of High Court Action.
But back to the Ombudsman hearing.
Of special interest was the affidavit that Aris had signed in his native tongue Greek in October 2016 which detailed the most horrific atrocities. A lawyer friend who has seen the docket told me that he had no doubt that General Booysen and his men had a very serious case to answer. “Whether or not they amount to racketeering, they certainly amount to murder”.
Readers can read the sworn statement and official translation here.
Aris was also surprised that the Ombudsman had deemed all the correspondence he had forwarded to her to be insufficient to make a finding based on the papers.
It was clear that a massive showdown was looming. Booysen and Danikas had not been in the same room together for thirteen years. Due to the Covid19 physical distancing regulations, the room was going to be virtual, but the emotions were going to be real and raw.
As I dug deeper, and canvassed trusted friends in Civil Society to test assumptions, I became less anxious, more hopeful: for the very first time the rough draft of history was to be bestowed with an impartial adjudication of conflicting narratives about a very important matter of grave consequence for South Africa. But that left me no less perplexed. A Press Council adjudication process was hardly the right container for issues of such momentous proportions to be ventilated. In John Kiriakou’s case, there were congressional hearings, enquiries and court cases. Police brutality and human rights violations such as torture, is not something to be settled on the cheap. As I write this, police officers are on trial for the murder of George Floyd.
Pippa Green had really received a hospital pass by having to preside over what became the first formal process to deal with the consequences of the utter failure of our criminal prosecution system to not only stop cops going rogue, but the failure to protect whistleblowers who had damning evidence of policemen who assumed themselves to have a licence to torture and kill.
“I think it would be prudent for me to meet Johan Booysen personally” I suggested to Aris. “Even though you might feel he has betrayed you, I need to respect his right to human dignity. Social workers try to build relationships”.
Other than to express concern that I might be sucked into Booysen’s orbit by his powerful magnetic charm, Aris consented to my intervention strategy. He said he had nothing to hide and was sure there was nothing that Booysen could tell me that I didn’t already know about him — at least nothing that was true. Had Aris tried to prevent me, it would have been telling. But he insisted that I should under no circumstances disclose to Booysen that I had been contracted to support him in the upcoming adjudication hearing. “He is a powerful man with connections. We don’t want to give him any information that could prejudice us.”
Unsure how to initiate contact, the Universe conspired to assist: no less a luminary than Professor Anton Harber offered to introduce me. Anton was unaware that Aris had already contracted me for my professional services, and I could not break the ‘confessional seal’ that my personal and professional code of ethics obliges. At that stage I didn’t know who to trust, and although my default attitude is to trust people until they prove themselves untrustworthy, these were exceptional circumstances.
I was planning to visit Anton anyway because I had misgivings about his book, which had just been published, “So for the record: Behind the headlines in an era of State Capture”.
As we sat on his patio on a warm December afternoon I told Anton that while I really did appreciate his analysis of the deep fault lines in the South African media, which had made my job as a social worker so much more difficult, and that, while I agreed with his assessment that The Sunday Times had really failed their readers with respect to two of the “State Capture” stories (the SARS Rogue Unit and Zimbabwe Renditions stories) I had reason to differ in his assessment of the Cato Manor “Hit Squad” story.
“Is Johan Booysen really legit?” I asked.
“Well go and see him, and judge for yourself. I can introduce you”.
I don’t think Anton self identifies as the answer to anyone’s prayers. A week later, after I had met with Booysen I informed Anton that Aris was my client. He was understandably angry. He felt I had an ulterior motive in visiting him and could at least have disclosed that I had a client in the system, even if I had kept their identity confidential. I have now explained myself and told him that as a reciprocal gesture Aris was willing to have a Zoom meeting with him.
Meeting with Johann Booysen was also pleasant. Defences were down. We certainly did have common cause in believing that the criminal justice system was in an appalling state, and that the rule of law had been very badly eroded.
I explained that I was offering to devote the last chapter of my 40-year career to support whistleblowers. What advice did he have?
He listened as I sketched the background to what had become the central unresolved concern in my work to support the Amadiba community in their opposition to the Xolobeni Mining venture, and which I thought he might be able to help resolve, even though he was retired: the murder of community leaders opposed to the mining of their ancestral lands.
I asked him if he might still have some contacts in the Hawks who might be able to at least help bring closure for the grieving family of the late chair of the Amadiba Crisis Committee Bazooka Rhadebe who had been assassinated. (I am publishing this on the fifth anniversary of his still un-prosecuted murder). How could we ensure the killers were finally brought to justice?
“Send me the case number, and I will make some enquiries”, he offered. “I can also perhaps talk to Minister Bheki Cele. He listens to me”. Cele is the Minister of Police.
Our conversation turned to the role of the media. “I have a very good relationship with journalists”, he told me. “Or at least most of them. For some reason Stephan Hoffstatter and Mzilikazi wa Africa still seem to have it in for me. I really don’t understand why. But all other journalists know me to be quite open. I have nothing to hide.”
That was the closest we got to talking about the concern uppermost in my mind. He wasn’t aware that his onetime friend, but now his most problematic adversary, had told me things I didn’t know, things I needed to know, and things that I really wish I didn’t have to know.
I had to suppress the impulse to tell him that he had got it wrong to scapegoat Aris as a “useful idiot” of those ‘Presidents Keepers’ in the NPA who had tried unsuccessfully to prosecute him on racketeering charges.
We spoke only about our shared concerns from common ground.
The only thing we disagreed about, was who first said, “for evil to thrive, all that is required is for good men to do nothing”. Booysen quotes that in his email signature, attributing it to Edward Burke. I thought it was Oscar Wilde. I have since established that it was neither. It was John Stuart Mill who in 1887 wrote. “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”
Reflecting again on the Xolobeni mining saga, and the defamation SLAPP suit that the mining company CEO Mark Caruso had brought against me and other activists, I told him that I had learned another important lesson that takes Mill’s aphorism further. Once we have done whatever we can to bend the needle of the compass of Money and Power to Truth and Justice and have ‘divined by conscience the arc of the moral universe’, all that remains is for good people to be patient, submit one’s work to a Higher Power and watch as evil collapses in on itself under the weight of its own internal contradictions. It always does.
He didn’t seem altogether sure about that, but nodded thoughtfully.
(Update: The West Australian newspaper reports that Mark Caruso has since been fired by his company MRC after an irretrievable breakdown of his relationship with his board and is facing charges of drunken driving, assault and burglary.)
We exchanged copies of our respective books, inscribed with words of mutual gratitude.
On my way back to Johannesburg, I called another client, who knew Booysen all too well. I had consulted with her beforehand, and she too had been anxious and fearful for me. I thanked her for her prayers and support. I had been constrained by the need to protect Aris from any possible further intimidation by not being totally open with him but I had least shown respect to his fundamental human right to dignity, and ensured my favourable “contact bias” toward herself and Aris would be mitigated. Even the worst sinner has within them the “imagio dei” — the Image of the Divine. There is still a symbolic relationship between the Divine and humanity that needs to be recognised, even if (especially when?) we are not able to be totally open, honest and transparent with one another.
To conclude this first part of the story, and highlight my central concern, my clever daughter Aimee — a professional copy editor — unwittingly put her finger on it.
After I had returned from my meeting with Johan Booysen, she happened to drop in to raid our refrigerator again. She saw the book lying on the coffee table. With an honour’s degree in publishing, she has learned that books must indeed be judged by their covers. It is certainly eye catching.
Unaware that I had just spent two hours with the main protagonist of the book, and was holding a brief for his antagonist, she picked up the book and noticed the footer strap line. “Hey, ‘truth’ is not a proper noun in that sentence” she remarked. “It should not be capitalised”.
Part Two: Hardness in the Hearing.
“Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur (whatever is received into something is received according to the condition of the receiver)”.
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica
When Pippa Green opened the Zoom meeting on the 21 January 2021, the Zoom gallery of participants showed all stakeholders present. The hearings are open to the public, so there were a few observers. Richard Spoor, Anton Harber and a few others were in the gallery.
I was named as Aris witness, but he wanted to fight his own battle and stand up to his adversaries. We had agreed that my role would be that of a “fair witness” to monitor the proceedings, and not make any extrapolations and assumptions. I never said a word for two-and-a-half hours which, for those who know me, is probably some sort of record. But I did write some words of guidance to Aris using the Zoom chat facility, addressed only to him.
By contrast, Johan Booysen had a great deal to say as Jacques’s witness. As feared, the process turned out to be less about Jacques, and more about General Booysen. Jacques said he had invited Johann Booysen to testify in his defence, because “General Johann Booysen’s credibility was beyond question”.
The situation was poised for the classic paradox of “the immovable force versus the irresistible object” to play itself out. It is actually a false paradox, because it implicitly assumes both are indestructible. Reality is not like that. Aris proved himself to be immovable in his confident assertion that his fundamental human rights had been violated. Despite having two formidable and seemingly irresistible forces bearing down on him, he stood firm. The destruction of a false narrative commenced as the forces foundered.
A rule of thumb that has stood me in good stead as an activist and counsellor to those without power is that there appears to be an inverse relationship between power and truth. Those who take recourse to power and intimidation betray a lack of confidence in their own truth by so doing. ‘Power-over’ strategies almost always arise from a deep-down insecurity and lack of confidence. ‘Might becomes right’. I cringe at the recall of how many times I have resorted in the past to my white male unearned privileges to give me power over those who threaten to burst my bubble.
Paradoxically, there is a certain power inherent in powerlessness. Having worked all my professional life with people who have been scapegoated and pushed to the margins of society, they have helped me see how power, the longer it is held, will tend to distort the perception of reality. That is why power is so corrupting. That is why speaking Truth to Power is so vital.
Correspondingly, there is also a certain powerlessness inherent in power. That is why social workers and other helping professionals need to understand the Truth about Power.
The power dynamic that played itself out actually betrayed a deep insecurity within Jacques, and in his witness Johan Booysen. General Booysen was simply there to answer questions and explain. When the tide turned against his narrative he became agitated and tried to take control away from the adjudicators, bully Aris and dictate the outcome. The adjudicators did not allow that.
Jacques’s article starts with a kicker header, “Decade of Deceit Laid Bare”. Ironically, that is exactly what happened. Except it was General Booysen’s own decade of deceits about the character and integrity of Aris that were laid bare. Reality started coming back into alignment with the “arc of the moral universe as it bends toward justice”, as Theodore Parker famously said two centuries ago.
Here is how it started. To fully grasp the burden of meaning that this story aims to convey, these embedded videos really do need to be watched.
The hearing went on for another two hours, which at times became quite emotional.
The exchange over the clauses of the De Kock report that Jacques failed to cover is also included because Aris’ interpretation does suggest that the National Prosecuting Authority and Advocate De Kock and his fellow authors also have grounds to complain that an injustice was done to them. Jacques’ article failed to make it clear that the report had confined its analysis to an assessment of whether the racketeering charges should be re-instituted. Jacques’ article was not an impartial and critical analysis of the de Kock report. It was an ‘improperganda’ piece with an agenda behind it: Johan Booysen’s agenda.
At the end of the proceedings, it was obvious that Jacques and DM were going to lose. The only question was by how much.
In Jessica Pitchford’s book she quotes Johan Booysen describing Aris Danikas as a “useful idiot” “a melodramatic fantasist” and “too much of a narcissist to come back to South Africa to be humiliated in the witness box, and he would have been, because his statement in no way advanced the state’s case”.
With that characterisation in mind, watch the performance of all three men. This second film consists of excerpts selected to show some of the exchanges between them, and to show how things wrapped up.
Aris and I have agreed that in the light of what happened after Jacques’ shipwreck on the foreshore — which pretty much vindicated Aris’ concerns about Jacques’ recent lapses in journalistic ethics — there is no need to further embarrass him by showing the entire two-and-a-half-hour process. If anyone wants to see the whole sad saga, the Press Ombudsman made a recording.
The big takeaway for me from these clips are Joe Thloloe’s words of admonition to Jacques. Like the firing of the Noonday gun on Signal Hill that startles diners at the V&A waterfront below, these words should be loud, clear and repeated daily,
“In our craft we verify everything we are told”.
Alas, the satisfaction I got from seeing a client find his voice when all the odds seemed stacked against him, was at the same time little cause for celebration. It is important to explain that the Press Council is not an association of individual journalists. It is a membership body of subscribing media institutions. It was therefore puzzling that DM Editor-in-chief Branko Brkic left Jacques Pauw to defend DM’s interests, even though, as he himself said, he did not work for them. He was a freelance contributor.
After further investigation I discovered that it was not only the “Decade of Deceit Laid Bare” piece published in August 2020 that had attracted a complaint. On 8 December 2020, while the adjudication of Aris complaint was still in process, Jacques contributed another column, an op-ed, on the politics around one of the other crumbled pillars of the State Capture conspiracy, headed “Public Protector & ‘rogue unit’: How a big lie became a bigger and bigger lie”.
At the end of the article, the editor tellingly explains that one of the persons disparaged by the article, Advocate Rudolf Mastenbroek, had complained about not having been given the right to reply. “Minor amendments” were made but Mastenbroek was clearly still not happy about the way DM attempted to tidy up the article and has reserved his rights.
Daily Maverick were already aware of this matter by the time the hearing convened, yet they still entrusted their reputation to Jacques Pauw’s self-incriminating defence.
Besides the disquiet I felt about that, I had three more reasons to feel perplexed and worried.
Firstly, because I was angry. Instead of the media being a safe harbour for whistleblowers, Jacques Pauw turned it into a place of intimidation and character assassination. Daily Maverick’s editors did not stop Jacques from his appalling abuse of the ombudsman process. I get that Jacques is the proverbial hammer who will fearlessly and relentlessly go after corrupt and corrupting liars, but sometimes not everyone he goes after is a nail. Or a liar. In this case, the person he was hammering was a man with immense courage and integrity, who had been shamefully scapegoated because he tried to blow the whistle on gross human rights violations by the Cato Manor unit, only to find that his commander General Johann Booysen had tampered with the whistle. Few people could hear it.
However, as Brené Brown counsels: “Anger is a great catalyst for action. But it is a terrible lifetime companion”. This reflection is long, precisely because I need the therapy of writing it, to get the anger out of my system so that more constructive and sustainable emotions and feelings can take occupation.
Secondly, because of my invidious position as a long-time contributor myself to Daily Maverick. Jillian Green had worked on some of my contributions. Many DM journalists have become close friends, and we have collaborated to great effect. Read this piece by Kevin Bloom. I was the go-between who first got wind of a dirty deal, and had help support the source to blow the whistle by putting them in touch with Kevin. We ensured their identity was protected and the Pondoland Wild Coast has now been spared from being tamed by the pursuit of a Disney playground deal that a Chinese company manipulated King Ndamase of Western Pondoland into signing.
The third reason for my discomfort was because of my huge admiration for the work Jacques Pauw has done to fearlessly Name, Unmask and Confront the Powers. He is a legend and rightly so.
It was Jacques’ 1997 book, “Into the Heart of Darkness” that had sparked an incredible journey for Candice’s nine-year-old self, when she first saw photos in it of the murder of her father, Glenack Masilo Mama, by Eugene de Kock, when she was a toddler.
Candice has now written her own book, “Forgiveness Redefined: A young woman’s journey towards forgiving the apartheid assassins who brutally murdered her father”. Chapter Four of her book is titled “The Book”. It is Jacques’ book.
His writing has a way of exposing raw nerves.
But on the plus side, it was a great privilege to see a client find his voice and assert his agency and protagonism.
Social workers (and public theologians) do not get paid a lot. But the ‘fringe benefits’ are out of this world. My debrief with Aris and his wife Shelley Ann afterwards was one of those deeply beneficial experiences. Aris and Shelley could not hold back the tears of relief and release. This was the first time since they had fled in fear from South Africa that some semblance of an impartial adjudication had given Aris the chance to be heard, questioned and (hopefully) understood.
“Hope is believing in spite of the “evidence”, then watching the evidence change” is one of my favourite aphorisms. Aris and Shelley wept in hope. Hoping that their lives could find a new normal, and their young children would no longer feel bewilderment and confusion by the constant stress, anxiety and doubt of Mom and Dad.
Since their hurried flight into self-imposed exile in 2008, the rollercoaster ride of their lives became even more harrowing.
· They had seen their hopes dashed when The Sunday Times Investigation Unit ran aground, leading to the withdrawal of their “Shoot to Kill” report. Aris had been a key source.
· From afar they had heard the news of Judge Trevor Gorven’s ruling that Nomcobo Jiba had acted irrationally in pressing racketeering charges. Would Booysen and the other accused officers from the Cato Manor unit ever face charges?
· But their hopes rose again when the next Zuma-protecting plant in the NPA Advocate Shaun Abrahams commenced fresh prosecution on the same charges in 2016. (A point overlooked by Booysen’s supporters is that Judge Gorven did not grant him his application for a permanent interdict against reinstating the charges). Aris thought that at last he would have the chance to testify in a court of law and achieve closure. But having to relive it all was traumatic for both him and Shelley. They had one young child and another on the way. They just wanted to get on with their lives.
· They became deeply worried again when Jessica Pitchford’s hastily written book emerged in 2016. Aris had expected that he would be given the right to reply before it went to press. He had been approached by a go-between and had agreed to talk to Jessica Pitchford. She never called. Before they knew it the book was on the shelves amid much fanfare, leaving Aris defamed as a “useful idiot” of the Zuma conspiracy who was a “failed businessman who had a mountain of debt and had stolen money from his business partner”. He wanted to launch defamation proceedings against Pitchford, Booysen and Pan McMillan publishers, but since the racketeering charges were still pending against Booysen he was advised that this would prejudice the case, (notwithstanding the fact that this was exactly what Johan Booysen was doing, by getting an adulatory book published to win over the court of public opinion).
· When President Ramophosa fired Abrahams and appointed Shamila Batohi to the top job as NDPP, she prudently commissioned De Kock to re-assess the prospect of realistically succeeding in the racketeering charges and decided to withdraw them in 2019.
Aris and Shelley had felt like Vladimir and Estragon, the two characters in Samuel Beckett’s classic play “Waiting for Godot”. Was Godot ever going to come? Or were they being deluded — considering that the very first blow on his whistle had come in 2004 — fifteen years before?
“The Arc of the moral universe bends slowly, but it bends toward justice” I counselled them using Theodore Parker’s famous quote again, and confirmed in my own experience. Even though a Press Code adjudication hearing was not the most appropriate container to decide whose version of the truth was closest to aletheia, it was at least a big monkey wrench in the works of Johan Booysen’s narrative. His narrative might have become deeply entrenched in the court of public opinion, but truth has a way of asserting itself. “There is a crack, a crack in everything”, I hummed the words from Leonard Cohens famous song “But that’s how the lights get in. That’s how the light gets in”.
Ultimately, we don’t so much break the laws of the moral universe, as break ourselves upon them. “Patres Conscripti, Res Ipsa Loquitor” the great Marcus Tullius Cicero, the great Roman statesman and lawyer once ruled “Conscript fathers, the facts speak for themselves”.
“I am getting the same feeling now that I had last had when I was a young 28- year-old conscientious objector” I told Aris and Shelley, and shared with them my experience of having to appear before a tribunal of theologians chaired by a judge, to defend my decision to refuse further conscription to the whites-only, apartheid defence force in 1984. “I thought I was going to be given a hard time, but Judge Martinus Steyn and the NGK Dominee Johan Heyns were completely convinced and I never had to put on a military uniform again. In his judgement Judge Steyn quoted from a judgement from Cicero to the conscript fathers, which I had never heard of before”.
“Patres Consripti, when a person comes before us to state a fact the existence of which we must decide upon, his presentation to us can be likened to that of an artist wielding a brush on a canvas. Applying to that canvas with that brush.., the pigments whereby he seeks to depict a certain factual state of affairs. If that artist has merit and artistic integrity, if his brush is wielded effectively and with talent, there gradually emerges, during the course of the painting an image which if he has dealt with the subject properly in the end stands out, is self-explanatory.”
While we had no control over what further decisions the NDPP Advocate Batohi would make, we at least had the Daily Maverick as a platform for Aris to speak his Truth to Power and earn respect and acknowledgement from the Court of public opinion that the South African media had hitherto largely failed to facilitate.
“The Daily Maverick had already conceded (significantly against Jacques Pauw’s inclination) to give you the right to reply,” I told them. “From my perch as a fair witness, the task ahead was not how you are going to deal with failure, but the often more difficult challenge of how to deal responsibly with success”.
“Have you noticed the kicker at the top of every article DM publishes?” I asked. “It says ‘Defend Truth’. The editors might not always be sure that everything their writers write is true, but when something proves to be manifestly false, they are not going to defend that. The more inconvenient the truth is the more it needs to be defended.”
Recalling Brandolini’s BS Asymmetry Principle about how much more effort it requires to refute BS than to generate it, I proposed they ignore Booysen’s skubalon story and the amplification that Jacques Pauw had given to it, and simply concentrate on owning their own story, all the way down to the solid foundation of who they really were: much blessed for having hungered and thirsted for what is right. “I am sure you will be satisfied”.
And I wept a few tears with them myself.
“But we must be careful” Aris said. “Johan Booysen is planning something to fight back. He always does.”
What could he possibly do?
Then, on Monday 25th January, just three days after the hearing, Johan Booysen was again getting headlines. The first report on News24 screamed “Former Hawks Boss Johan Booysen, survives assassination attempt”.
The report, swiftly filed a mere two and half hours after the event, said that after Booysen drove into his residential complex two gunmen stopped the automatic gate from closing behind him.
“He came up to the window, pointed the gun at me and pulled the trigger, but it didn’t go off”.
The gunman tried a second time, but again it failed to fire.
The incident was captured on CCTV video.
Here it is.
With a succession of emotikons Aris messaged me “It was so obviously staged. He is playing the media again”.
I asked others whose judgement I respect what they felt.
Reasonable doubt morphed into clear scepticism when one of my friends, a widely respected opposition politician called me unbidden. He was unaware that I had been canvassing thoughts from my journo friends. He said that his instincts were telling him that Johan Booysen had staged it to gain sympathy. In the hands of clever spin doctors whose task is to make skubalon smell good, there is no such thing as bad publicity. Just poor management thereof.
Daily Maverick’s report on Tuesday 26th January carried Booysen saying that perhaps it was just a failed hijacking.
That is a bit more plausible than a professional hitman’s gun failing to fire twice, but why would any self-preserving hijacker chase a victim more than 100 meters into the driveway of a secure residential complex, and perform the attempted deed right in front of the CCTV camera?
They article quoted Booysen recounting of what had happened, and what his thoughts were.
“It was a harrowing experience. Thank God the firearm failed to go off. My first impression is that it was an attempted hit. The guy actually pulled the trigger twice. After viewing the CCTV footage I do not discount a failed hijacking,”
“Either way, I’m relieved that I survived. I will definitely be more vigilant. I have been warned about my personal safety, but admittedly became careless.”
The DM’s report is more carefully nuanced suggesting that not everything seemed to tie up.
I don’t really know. What I do know is that people with an anti-social personality disorder will expertly play the victim card to gain sympathy. The other card they habitually play is the scapegoating card. I had seen General Booysen play that just three days before. When one’s bluff is called on one card, one tends to be sceptical about the currency of the next.
As we waited for Pippa Green to finish and release her finding, I contacted various good journalists and writers to shop around for someone willing to document Aris’s revelations of ‘Truth’ — the facts that speak for themselves, and ‘Aris’s truth’. Having been suffocated by fake news he couldn’t get enough breath to blow the whistle.
That would still mean going up against well respected writers, Anton Harber, Jacques Pauw and Jessica Pitchford, and consequently against the cunningly orchestrated public bias against Aris. Yes, people are more inclined to believe simple, confident falsehoods than complex, hesitant truths, but I have lots of clever, highly principled friends in the media and professions. Yes, Upton Sinclair was correct when he said, “it is hard to get people to understand something when their paycheck depends on them not understanding it”. But he never said it was impossible. Some of my friends were justifiably fearful of giving any toehold to the still not fully unspent forces of RET that once kept President Zuma in power and out of prison. Not all the Keepers had left the country with the main Captors of the State, the Gupta brothers.
I spoke to Samuel Beckett’s great nephew/cousin Denis Beckett. He is the patron saint of unpopular causes — his last book was written to defend Sanral and the Gauteng Etoll system. He has been an invaluable sounding board and honest (and courageous) enough to warn me when the needle on my own Veracity Spectrum flicks dangerously toward the Skubalon extreme.
“Wait for the Ombudsman finding” my inner voice of reason advised. “Take your own advice that you shared with Johan Booysen. After you have done good, just be patient, and wait for Karma to catch up”.
The finding came ten days later. As expected, Aris got the right to reply. However, it stopped short of finding the failures of Jacques and Daily Maverick to have been violations of Aris dignity. A process that was supposed to be conciliatory had not brought Aris and Jacques together at all. Despite all that had transpired Jacques said he still did not think Aris deserved a right of reply. Aris was dissatisfied and felt the Ombudsman had been too protective of Pauw and Booysen. He bravely decided to appeal. My inclination, and that of my advisors, was to take the win. But Aris was determined.
Then Karma intervened making it all somewhat moot. Jacques Pauw shipwrecked himself on the foreshore so badly that DM editor Branko Brkic lost all confidence in him and severed their relationship.
Part Three: Karma comes calling.
“Karma has a surprising way of taking care of these situations. All you have to do is sit back and watch.”
“The role of media is not to report the truth. It is to SEEK the truth, a process in which facts and perspectives come into play, changing as the process unfolds,” Graeme Addison counselled me further.
“If you look for truth in the media you are bound to be disappointed. Historians have long wrestled with what makes their written history credible. News is the first draft of history and as such faces the same challenges that historians have faced. It is hard if not impossible to separate truth from certain lies because there are always means to construct narratives using facts that tell a misleading story. Propaganda is a case in point. The best propaganda is based on ‘truth’.”
Yes, I get that. But what still leaves me dumbfounded is that in Jacques Pauw’s contribution on the ongoing politics around the SARS rogue unit written while he was preparing his defence against Aris’ complaint, he sounded exactly the same echo.
“Yet, the proponents of the “rogue unit” narrative have managed to keep their fairy tale alive for six years despite convincing evidence that existed from day one that that there was no truth in the allegations.
How did they manage to do this?
The Nazi propaganda supremo Joseph Goebbels is credited with saying: “If you repeat a lie for long enough, it becomes a truth”.
This is exactly what Malema, Shivambu, Rampedi and their Twitter armies have accomplished. Liars can create an illusion of truth by repeating their falsehood often enough.”
“For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged”, the words from the Sermon on the Mount ring out across the centuries.
“Let he who is without confirmation bias cast the first stone” I teased Anton Harber earlier. It gives me absolutely no comfort to moralistically opine. The measure I use will be measured back to me. Anton says in an author’s note at the start of his book. “This book attempts to demonstrate how elusive — and how essential — is the journalistic aspiration to accuracy and fairness. Some of those I’ve criticized for errors and misrepresentations will I expect be eager to point out my own. I apologize for these in advance.”
There are some ‘either/or’ binaries in this story: mutually exclusive statements that cannot both be true. For example, did Aris and his wife leave the country because he had a mountain of debt and had stolen R300,000 from his business partner? He did not. Res Ipsa Loquitor. The facts speak for themselves.
However, this reflection is not about drawing neat lines between Us (heroes) and Them (villains). Readers will not be able to fathom what I am trying to communicate if they read from a binary, dualistic mindset. Another of McLarens biases is “Confidence bias”. We are attracted to confidence, even if it is false. We often prefer a “bold lie to a hesitant truth”. Dualistic thinking is so much more convenient. A binary view that favours a simple lie to a complex truth so much more popular.
Yet as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said so well in his famous work The Gulag Archipelago.
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
The adjudication hearing wasn’t intended to establish the substantive truth between the contested narratives, nor to separate the heroes from the villains, and certainly not to draw the dividing line between good and evil. But I did anticipate that many pieces of many hearts stood to be destroyed. The hearts of people that love Booysen and Pauw. That includes mine. But I hate what they have done.
I suspect that Jacques came to realise that he was looking into the heart of darkness and had leaped far too quickly to a comfortable conclusion. When the Ombudsman finding came ten days after the adjudication hearing, alas he chose the wrong therapy.
Things would have worked out better for all concerned had Daily Maverick been more responsive to my behind-the-scenes effort to urge them to take Jacques Pauw in hand. That editorial failure has left Jacques’ reputation in tatters and the theory of sound journalism left strewn like flotsam and jetsam all over the foreshore?
Before Daily Maverick unpublished what one Twitter comic described as “the longest drunken text ever sent” I managed to take screenshots of Jacques bogus article, and comments that flowed in its wake.
I was busy editing the video footage of the adjudication hearing and noticed that Jacques had been clearly sipping from a glass of red wine as the hearing progressed. I highlight that not to shame Jacques. Anton Harber has also said on Twitter “I called it the Jacques Pauw/DM saga deliberately, because it has exposed weaknesses in editorial management as well as alcohol management”.
I regret that I didn’t notice the alcohol management problem while I watched it live. Had I done so, it may have added more grist to my effort to assist both Aris, Jacques and the editors of Daily Maverick to negotiate a constructive resolution behind the scenes. Who knows, perhaps that would have forewarned Branko Brkic that Jacques had a truth problem because he had a drinking problem and Jacques might have been spared the humiliation of what happened on the foreshore two weeks later.
Richard Poplak wrote in his post-mortem on the shipwreck that the remedy for DM to restore its credibility is “Correct, Apologise, Retract (if indicated) and Analyse”. The first three steps have been done with respect to Jacques final article, but many of the DM Commentariat feel that Branko’s decision to sever the relationship with Jacques was going too far. I agree. While ‘tough love’ is needed and firm boundaries must be drawn, we must be careful to avoid falling prey to the scapegoating mechanism. Brian McLaren’s colleague Richard Rohr explains.
“Human nature, when it is seeking power, wants either to play the victim or to create victims of others. In fact, the second follows from the first. Once we start feeling sorry for ourselves, we will soon find someone else to blame, accuse or attack — and with impunity! It settles the dust quickly, and it takes away any immediate shame, guilt, or anxiety. In other words, it works — at least for a while.
When we read today’s news, we realize the pattern has not changed much in all of history. Hating, fearing, or diminishing someone else holds us together for some reason. Scapegoating, or the creating of necessary victims, is in our hard wiring. Philosopher René Girard (1923–2015) calls “the scapegoat mechanism” the central pattern for the creation and maintenance of cultures worldwide since the beginning. ”
The sequence, without being too clever, goes something like this: we compare, we copy, we compete, we conflict, we conspire, we condemn, and we crucify. If we do not recognize some variation of this pattern within ourselves and put an end to it in the early stages, it is almost inevitable. That is why spiritual teachers of any depth will always teach simplicity of lifestyle and freedom from the competitive power game, which is where it all begins. It is probably the only way out of the cycle of violence.”
What are we reading when we read Daily Mavericks account of today’s news?
Part Four: Across the Threshold
When I think how far the onion has travelled
just to enter my stew today, I could kneel and praise
all small forgotten miracles,
crackly paper peeling on the drainboard,
pearly layers in smooth agreement,
the way the knife enters onion
and onion falls apart on the chopping block,
a history revealed
Naomi Shihab Nye.
This has been an extremely challenging but remarkably interesting chapter in my work. One of my big takeaways has been the expansion of my own international network of kindred spirits. Some of Aris’ international connections have now become trusted connections of mine too. BluePrint for Free Speech have taken an interest in the Xolobeni mining saga and my defamation SLAPP suit, and assigned a journalist to write about it. Adversity has metabolised into opportunity.
Meanwhile Aris is now confidently back on twitter, and it is pleasing to see him confidently contribute thoughts and comments from his perspective of someone with an international reputation as a whistle blower who has stayed the full distance, and knows what it is like. All South African journalists should follow him so that they can more finely calibrate their Veracity Spectrums to separate the fake from the real news.
For example, Aris recently highlighted a story carried by The Daily News in 2013 which appeared mysteriously just when Johan Booysen and his fellow accused were first indicted for racketeering. The article alleged that Booysen’s domestic worker had identified Aris as having had a hand in the murder of her son fifteen years previously. In a follow up article, Aris was given the right of reply (Although the hyperlink between the two articles is now missing). Significantly, Aris asks why Booysen did not repeat this claim in his book. If it were true, it would have made convincing copy. I leave it to journalists to put that question to Booysen, so they can determine if this was not a fabricated smear campaign. Aris was not even a police reservist when the death occurred.
From the start of my career forty years ago, I have yearned to see the poor get good news, captives emancipated from false narratives of those blinded by power and privilege, and the downtrodden freed from paralysing fear.
When the Constitution with its entrenched Bill of Rights, including the Right to Life, was adopted by the National Assembly in 1996, I was full of hope. It wasn’t long thereafter that the first big test case came. Was judicial execution unconstitutional? The Constitutional Court decided it was. It was a happy day for all of us who believed the death penalty to be contrary to Christian Biblical teaching. However, in the absence of an effective criminal justice system, that is well aligned with the rest of the constitutional provisions that safeguard fundamental rights, and having a corrupted police and prosecutorial system and a prison system run by prison gangs that make bad men worse, the question has to be asked if we have indeed abolished the death penalty? The only difference is that now the killings are extra-judicial, unjust and savage.
When I set out my stall to offer professional services to support intimidated and harassed whistleblowers to regain their psycho-social functioning I never imagined I would find myself becoming both an eye-witness to an unfolding tragedy of history, and seemingly the only person recording it.
Nevertheless, in my more hopeful moments, I do believe that the whole sorry saga will actually serve the cause of making the media a safe harbour for whistleblowers to speak their Truth to Power. But every journalist and editor needs to swallow extremely hard and tell their readers what they are actually going to do to prevent such a disaster ever happening again. To show real commitment to the Press Code, not mere compliance.
Last year Mandy Wiener’s book, The Whistleblowers, was published. It spurred me on in the campaign to ensure whistleblowers are protected because the truths they have is like a vast subterranean reservoir of damning information. I have uploaded several videos on my channel on that theme. Here is the playlist.
A steady stream of other servants of truth have been in touch. Spending many hours over the past five months counselling and supporting them has been both inspirational (hugely so) and perplexing (deeply so). They simply have to be better protected from the befouling agendas of money and power if the springs of information they have can flow to the surface. Judge Raymond Zondo agrees. The commission he chairs has now had a succession of tearful testimonies of whistleblowers. The most recent was from Bianca Goodson. It served to underscore what Mosilo Mothepu said when she testified in December last year.
Judge Zondo was so moved by their courage, he committed himself to ensuring that the Commission at the very least has solid proposals to make that support whistleblowing and deter wrongdoing.
Mosilo and Bianca’s soulful laments in this clip sets the emotional register to understand why I was angry with Daily Maverick and appalled by Jacques Pauw’s conduct, not so much by his unmooring at Den Anker, but by his attack on the character and integrity of one of my whistleblower clients.
In my submission to the Satchwell Enquiry I had proposed a “deep adaptation” process for the renewal and restoration of the media.
“Four planks are needed to construct a firm platform to hold up the fourth estate. These are the same planks conceptualised by Professor Jem Bendell, in his proposal for a “Deep Adaptation Agenda” to address the climate crisis facing the planet as a whole.
It seemed the same four planks also made sense in any situation where a ‘climate change’ throws all normal coping mechanisms up into the air. I offer the same four dimensions for whistle blowers, and those who value the information they have, to reflect upon:
Resilience — To sustain a whistleblowing process the whistleblower needs to have owned their story, all the way down to their personal rock bottom, of truth/reality.
Relinquishment — Letting go of some attachments that hold people back, including relationships. Aris had to do that with Johan Booysen.
Restoration — What is there, but unused and perhaps discarded in ones life and memory?
Reconciliation — There is absolutely no way that a whistleblower can keep going without relationships with caring, nonjudgemental and affirming people. The basis of mental health is always relationships. The basis of all mental health problems stems from failure in relationships.
Over the weeks a conviction has gelled within me that there must be hundreds more whistleblowers in waiting ready to cleanse society from the contagion of corruption in the ‘post truth era’. If they are to venture forward, leaders from the State (all three spheres), Civil Society (NPO’s and Faith Based Organisations) and the Economy (business leaders and professionals in corporate governance) need dig a deeper foundation down to the rock of truth and erect three strong pillars upon that.
The foundation needs to be the Rule of Law. That means that any statement made under oath must be the truth, to the best understanding of the oath taker. Perjury should be far more vigorously prosecuted if the foundation is to be sound.
The first pillar is legal protection and reparation. Judge Zondo has made it clear that he will champion that cause personally.
The second is psychosocial support. I think social workers have a vital role to play here, because we work at the interfaces between individuals, their families, social institutions, the media, faith-based organizations and civil society. We have a long way to go, but thanks to people I have had the privilege of getting to know — Aris Danikas, Mosilo Mothepu, Cynthia Stimpel, Bianca Goodson, Thabiso Zulu, Rosemary Hunter, and many others whose names I cannot reveal — I have reason to have hope again for the future.
The third is media support. The media has to be a safe harbour for whistleblowers, and definitely NOT a place where they get intimidated, and made to feel like there is something wrong with them, just because they contradict the dominant narrative and challenge those who lie under oath.
The irony has not escaped me that despite his fabrications, Jacques’ final contribution to DM (now unpublished) actually raised a fundamental issue of huge consequence for South Africa: human rights violations by violent and corrupted police officers. I hope that at the very least Jacques is going to make contact with Aris and listen to his own story about that. Who knows, he might even write another best-seller book about it.
I have his contact number.
- If anyone still has any doubts about the veracity of Aris’s narrative, this “Aletheia Dialogue” with Aris and his wife Shelley Ann should settle them.
2. In December 2020, General Johan Booysen announced on his Facebook wall that he had been awarded the Stella Officii Egregii medal by the SAPS HQ.