“We can’t change what’s happened to you, but if you work with us and we work to tell the truth, we may be able to prevent other people from getting hurt.” – Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey
Two years ago, I listened in awe to New York Times journalist Jodi Kantor speaking at a conference about how she and other colleagues exposed the sexual abuse of Hollywood supremo Harvey Weinstein, that set off the #MeToo movement in the United States.
For years, Hollywood gossiped about Weinstein’s dark side. Now, finally, some women were willing to put pen to paper. Under oath.
Kantor spoke about how difficult it was to listen to and report on the stories of Weinstein’s survivors; how they had to tread carefully between showing empathy but still doing the basic journalistic checks to be able to publish.
During a smoke break on a windy New York day, I turned to my colleague. “You know our Weinstein moment is coming,” I said. “Who?” she asked. “Willem Breytenbach.”
A name I know so well. From my days as an aspirant school journalist, in awe of the attention we received from real journalists working for Naspers in the late 1990s. I will get back to this.
I had no doubt that he was telling the truth when early in 2019, Deon Wiggett called me to tell me about his plan to out Breytenbach as his rapist in a podcast series. I’ve known Wiggett since our school days when we were both young, ambitious and into newspapers.
MY ONLY STORY | A News24 podcast series on sexual assault claims against a former Grey College teacher
Our paths crossed again at Stellenbosch University, where he was my first news editor at the student newspaper Die Matie. Little did I know about the horrible, unspeakable thing that had happened to him since we first met.
I was surprised that Wiggett didn’t pursue a career in journalism like the rest of us after university. Of all the student journalists in our circle of friends, he was the most natural. A brilliant writer, funny, questioning of all authority and incredibly intelligent, Wiggett ended up in advertising.
It was only almost 20 year later that I understood why he didn’t pursue his dream and passion of becoming a journalist like the rest of us. He was raped by a journalist who was supposed to be his mentor and he wanted to get as far away from the industry as possible.
Back in 1997 when I met him, Breytenbach was one of a group of journalists working at Die Burger in Cape Town who gave up some of their weekends to teach bright-eyed aspirant journalists like Wiggett and myself about the wonderful world of news.
He would call me on my parents’ landline and speak in a hushed voice about the “big break exclusive” he was working on, letting me into his world of secrets and mystery.
Naspers’ school newspaper project was a magnificent initiative, launched in the days before CSI was a thing. It introduced a whole generation of young people to journalism and was one of the driving factors behind my career choice.
On Saturdays, Afrikaans journalists like Breytenbach and his peers came to schools to talk about what it was like to be a real journalist. They taught us how to write intros, headlines and do page layout.
Breytenbach took a particular interest in the young boys at these workshops, including me.
He would call me on my parents’ landline and speak in a hushed voice about the “big break exclusive” he was working on, letting me into his world of secrets and mystery. A naïve, excitable teenager, I was thrilled at the personal interest a real journalist showed in me.
During a December holiday at the coastal town of Hartenbos in the Southern Cape, Breytenbach came to pick me up at my grandmother’s house for coffee. We probably spoke about that morning’s front page of Die Burger and he may have shared some gossip from the newsroom with me, then 17 or 18 years old.
On the way back to my grandmother’s house, Breytenbach stopped at a lookout point and we continued talking in his car with a view of the ocean. After a while, we left, and he dropped me at home.
Knowing what I do now, I believe I was incredibly lucky to have escaped Breytenbach’s grubby hands that day.
Many boys were not as lucky as I was. Deon Wiggett is one of them.
EXCLUSIVE | Prestigious boys’ school reports allegations of sexual misconduct against former teacher
Over the past three weeks, in his podcast series titled “My Only Story”, Wiggett told the story of a sexual predator he called Jimmy, who started out as a teacher in Bloemfontein and ended up as an executive at Media24. On Thursday, Wiggett identified Jimmy as Breytenbach.
When we first started talking, I told Wiggett that I absolutely believed his story of how Breytenbach lured him to his Sea Point flat and raped him in the mouth during a supposed outing to Die Burger’s office in 1997, but that we would need more to publish his series on News24.
Having read up on how the #MeToo movement was covered by the likes of Kantor and from personal experience of covering sexual abuse cases, I told him it would make his story so much stronger if he could find more survivors. The favoured defence of those accused of sexual abuse – think of Jacob Zuma in his rape trial – is to discredit the complainant. But many more complainants make the case so much stronger.
Wiggett set out to find others with similar claims against Breytenbach and a few months later we were sitting with our attorney, going through fresh affidavits and many more accounts of sexual abuse that gave me (and our lawyer) the comfort to publish. As soon as the first podcast dropped, many other survivors came forward.
I became a journalist because I believe in the power of telling the truth. 22 years after he taught us about the magical world of journalism, I take great pride in using my voice and the platform I edit to expose Breytenbach for what I have no doubt he has done to Wiggett and many other boys and young men over the years.
* The fourth and final episode of season one of “My Only Story” will be published on News24 next Thursday. News24 will continue its investigation into Breytenbach. If you were his victim or have any information that could help us, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.