Pravin Gordhan during a media briefing to address load-shedding. (Photo by Gallo Images/Sowetan/Alon Skuy)
- Jonathan Ancer and Chris Whitfield launched their biography of Pravin Gordhan on Tuesday live on Arts24.
- Although it wasn’t easy (or mandatory) for Ancer and Whitfield to speak to Gordhan, the pair managed to.
- Overall, it considers a painful time in South Africa’s turbulent history and deepens one’s admiration of a man who kept fighting the good fight.
Journalists Jonathan Ancer and Chris Whitfield subtitle Joining the Dots (Jonathan Ball), their book about Pravin Gordhan, “An unauthorised biography”.
An unauthorised biography is usually one written without the cooperation of the subject, and it can become a hatchet job. Think Albert Goldman’s biography of John Lennon, or Peter Ackroyd’s biography of TS Eliot. Worried about her late husband’s reputation, Eliot’s widow wouldn’t let Ackroyd quote from his works or letters. But such a biography could also be more neutral: when Samuel Beckett was approached by his first biographer, he said he would “neither help nor hinder”.
For Ancer and Whitfield, it meant they did not set out to write a hagiography. They were free to try to dig up any dirt on Gordhan and try to deal with his detractors’ sometimes outrageous accusations. They did have some help from Gordhan, though; after much trying, they spoke to the man himself – an episode recounted rather amusingly.
It wasn’t easy, Ancer writes, to get Gordhan to speak. They were told, repeatedly, in different variations, that “PG doesn’t like talking about himself”. But, in the end, “we managed to achieve where the Guptas had failed: we wore him down”.
When they spoke to Gordhan on Zoom, however, they were ill-prepared for his blunt approach: “What’s your first question?” Ancer admits: “We’d been so busy polishing and rehearing our arguments appealing for his cooperation that we hadn’t prepared any questions.”
Ultimately, they conducted several interviews with Gordhan, who “had facts and figures at his fingertips and recalled extraordinary details from events half a century ago”. His stamina was such that, after one long session, Gordhan told Ancer: “You look more tired than I do.” And Gordhan still had another meeting to attend.
The title Joining the Dots refers to Gordhan’s famous statement at the 2017 memorial for struggle icon Ahmed Kathrada that, to see the corruption and state capture devastating South Africa, citizens had to “join the dots”. Since then, many dots have been joined – especially at the Zondo Commission, and by investigative journalists – and Gordhan features centrally in this story, because he stood up to the corruption and tried to bring it to an end, or at least stall its progress.
For this, Gordhan is a hero in many South Africans’ eyes. Ancer and Whitfield try to get to the core of that hero’s personality to uncover the secret of his “steely resolve”. They succeed in the latter case, perhaps not so much in the former. Maybe there is no secret Gordhan personality behind the resolve and the stamina, and he remains as much of an enigma as his recent deal to save SAA.
The book takes the reader through Gordhan’s youth, his emerging political sensibility and his service to the underground struggle against apartheid, when his pharmacy became a sort of front for illegal activism. His work at the South African Revenue Service is described, as is his conflict with then president Jacob Zuma over issues such as the nuclear deal with Russia.
It’s a story that reminds one of what Gordhan has been through in his defence of South Africa’s democracy and his battle for good governance. It is thus also an account of a turbulent and painful time in South Africa’s history, and it deepens one’s admiration of a man who, through it all, kept fighting the good fight.