/How Willem Breytenbach got away for 40 years

How Willem Breytenbach got away for 40 years

The Free State farming town of Kroonstad does not have a beach.

Kroonpark holiday resort, with its indoor, heated swimming pool and water slides for the children, is the closest it gets to a beach in this town in central South Africa.

When you Google image search the town, pictures of cows, churches and Boer statues appear. Most South Africans probably know Kroonstad through the Shell Ultra City filling station next to the N1 highway on the way to Cape Town.

In contrast, when you search for Three Anchor Bay in Cape Town, pictures of rolling beaches, lush green lawns and Table Mountain appear. The two places are worlds apart.

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It is between these two places, Kroonstad and Three Anchor Bay, that Willem Breytenbach spent the prime of his adult life – what now appears to be an undeniable fact – as a sexual predator and got away with it. For 40 years.

Until a man called Deon Wiggett stopped him in his tracks in November 2019. Before he could go back to the beach, he so loves.

Crime scenes

There were also other crime scenes, like Bloemfontein, Willowmore, Riversdale, Reebok, New Delhi and Port Elizabeth. But this story begins in Kroonstad and ends in Three Anchor Bay.

My Only Story, a four-episode podcast series by Wiggett, published in partnership with News24, has forced the country to pause and talk about sexual abuse in our classrooms, newsrooms and boardrooms.

South Africa is a country plagued with sexual abuse. We report on it daily and the crime stats tell a sordid story. But it is not often that stories of sexual predators in corporate South Africa make it onto the front page.

And one question remains: “How did he get away with it for 40 years?”

To learn from this story and move forward, we simply have to confront and discuss this uncomfortable topic, painful as it may be.

To be able to answer this question, we must go back to Hoër Landbouskool Kroonstad in 1978, an agricultural high school where Breytenbach started his high school career. To track Breytenbach’s life may give us some clues into the anatomy of a serial abuser.

His father, Bul Breytenbach, was the feared principal of the school which Breytenbach and his brother attended. Paging through the yearbook of “Lanties”, as the school is colloquially known among its alumni, brings back memories of apartheid, National Party rule and militarisation.

Breytenbach was born in 1964 and matriculated from “Lanties” in 1982. The most relevant yearbook available on the school’s Facebook page is that of 1981, when Breytenbach was in Standard 9 (now Grade 11).

He is bespectacled and physically larger than most of the other children his age. He looks like the class nerd; his hair cut in an old-fashioned, conservative style. His mouth does not open when he smiles.

Breytenbach was an over-achiever at school. His name features frequently under top students for activities like debating, ACSV (Christian society), the school newspaper and first aid. In 1981, he was one of two “Lanties” chosen to represent the school at a national Christian camp in Maselspoort, another Free State town with a holiday resort and water slides.

Willem Breytenbach

A young Willem Breytenbach, pictured in the front row, second from left, on the Lantie newspaper’s editorial photo at the Hoër Landbouskool Kroonstad.

Dark side

But there appears to have been a dark side to him – and his father, the strict disciplinarian – that the yearbook does not mention.

After Wiggett named Breytenbach in his podcast last week, former fellow students took to the school’s Facebook page to share their memories of him and his father, Bul.

Some claimed Breytenbach was caught in the act at high school. The boys were threatened by his father and the head of the school residence not to say anything. The details of exactly what happened is unclear, but what seems clear is that Breytenbach already had a secret in Kroonstad.

Former pupils remember his father as strict and aggressive. “He would slap us through the face,” claimed one former pupil on Facebook. Breytenbach snr was a “man’s man” and most probably did not approve of his son’s chosen activities.

Breytenbach was seemingly not good at sport. He features in only one sports picture: that of the fourth rugby team.

The Breytenbachs back then were conservative, God-fearing people who did not approve of their son’s homosexuality, according to News24’s sources.

Conversion therapy

Two former colleagues of Breytenbach, one at Media24 and another at Lumico, told News24 this week he (Breytenbach) said to them that he received controversial conversion therapy as a child – electric shocks to the testicles of gay men to “cure” them of homosexuality.

From Kroonstad, Breytenbach went to Free State University, where he enrolled for a degree in theology. On the same “Lanties” Facebook page, former pupils claimed they convinced the university not to let him become a dominee (reverend). They succeeded.

Breytenbach changed his studies to become a teacher.

From listening to Wiggett’s podcast and speaking to 16 sources who knew or worked with Breytenbach this week, a picture emerges of a man who believed he was untouchable and used his professional power, as a teacher and later as media executive, to coerce young boys and men into sexual traps.

He had a bag full of tricks: the gift of the gab; promises the he would make or break your career; his “amazing massages” that he used to entrap boys from his days as a teacher, and his powerful, larger than life persona that would explode when he did not get his way.

Breytenbach was liked – by his colleagues, by the parents of children he abused and by his bosses. One of his former colleagues, a woman, called him “the most compassionate boss I have ever worked for”.

She was shocked to hear Wiggett’s podcast and all the subsequent revelations of a meticulous sexual predator at work.

Many of the sources we interviewed this week were once Breytenbach’s favourites. His compliments to his targets ranged from, “You are the best journalist that Media24 has ever seen” and “you will change the future of media in the world”, to “you are the cleverest person in this business” and predictably, “you looked so attractive today”.

‘Empire of young boys’

At Media24, after moving into the commercial side of the business, Breytenbach built an “empire of young boys” around him at Die Burger’s marketing department.

When you resisted his overtures – or were a woman – you were shouted at and threatened that he would end your career. “We had to be at the office very early, around 6am or 7am, and if you were a minute late, all hell would break loose.

“Some of us went to vomit before work from stress, while others had to see psychologists because of Willem,” former colleagues from his days at Die Burger said.

Our sources say his modus operandi stayed the same: he would become “friends” with the young men he appointed (some of them were fresh out of school without any tertiary qualifications) and promote them over more experienced colleagues.

The same happened at Lumico and Lightspeed Digital Media.

“Lines became completely blurred … he encouraged internal competition and play us against each other.” We heard this line a few times.

Large penises

Another trick: “Willem would dare us to get some of the other guys in bed, especially some who said they were straight. He would always talk about their large penises, but I don’t even think he always knew.”

Breytenbach’s legendary bad temper alienated a number of his colleagues over the years.

He would change from a loveable caring boss into a screaming, shouting monster with saliva flying from his mouth in seconds. We heard numerous accounts of boardroom tables being slammed with his fists and pieces of office furniture flying through the air.

The words “I was scared of him” are repeated over and over again.

We were told that, at a strategy session at Goudini Spa near Rawsonville for the magazine division’s advertising team, Breytenbach once “almost assaulted” a senior advertising manager and instructed him to stop talking because he was challenging Breytenbach in front of his colleagues.

At the same breakaway, Breytenbach ended up in the swimming pool with his young, male colleagues in a “wrestling” match.

At Lumico and later Lightspeed Digital Media, Breytenbach continued to intimidate his staff into silence.

“He was very intimidating. Six foot five, 160kg, and he is walking up and intimidating young guys. I saw him intimidate grown men and leave them crying in the middle of the boardroom. He treated his staff like absolute shit,” claimed a former employee.

“I was having four- to five-hour fights with him on a daily basis just on the way he was treating people, just trying to completely destroy them. He was threatening to out gay guys to their parents who don’t know, if they don’t do what he says, whether in a sexual way or something for business.”

Breytenbach became a valuable asset for upcoming Afrikaans artists and music promotors and there are hundreds of rumours about how and what he did to promote the careers of good looking, young, blond Afrikaans singers.

Those who needed him saw what happened, but did not want to burn bridges.

“Especially during the period in which he was head of the magazine division [Breytenbach was the publisher of Media24’s weekly magazines, including Huisgenoot and You], he controlled large amounts of sponsorships aimed at the Afrikaans music and entertainment industry,” said an inside source who requested anonymity this week.

“He used his influence and power over artists, promoters, and event organisers to such an extent that he was seen and feared as some ‘God’ that could make or break people, both of which he absolutely did. Dig deep enough and you’ll find a number of young, male Afrikaans commercial singers who were lured with promises of record deals and stardom, and treated to nights in jacuzzis at expensive hotels, all to get them into a net,” claimed the source.

“Many within the Afrikaans music, entertainment and media industry were indeed aware – if not of actual abuse, then of the continued rumours and suspicions. More than one artist got their breaks thanks to submitting to Willem Breytenbach. Many more, unfortunately, were just broken when they did not.”

Scantily clad young men

The jacuzzi story is notorious in the industry; during one of the Huisgenoot Skouspel events (a music concert at Sun City) he helped to organise, Breytenbach landed himself the presidential suite of The Palace five-star hotel and ended up with a “harem” of scantily clad young men in the jacuzzi.

A former human resources practitioner at Media24 admitted they were aware of Breytenbach’s bullying and intimidation of staff and questioned the fact that he mostly appointed young, gay men in his department. But he could not act “because I knew I would end up in trouble … I was warned, ‘we will act against you’.”

After initially saying the company had not found any record of complaints against Breytenbach in its records, Media24 CEO Ishmet Davidson last week asked employees to come forward with evidence after new information emerged. 

Current and former employees have since provided documentation and testimony to the company. 

Breytenbach is holed up at his mother’s house in Reebok outside Mossel Bay, where he fled after Wiggett’s podcast premiered on News24 in early November. The police are at an advanced stage of their investigation into him. 

Breytenbach has previously refused to comment on any of the allegations against him.

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