Jeremy Gordin had a long relationship with the Wits Centre for Journalism, both as a mentor and a teacher for the Centre’s postgraduate programmes, and as the head of the Wits Justice Project, based in the department. Jeremy – remembered by some as the “Bullfrog” (for the song “Jeremiah was a Bullfrog”) – joined the Wits Justice Project in 2008 shortly after its launch and acted as its coordinator until 2012, building the project into an award-winning journalism and activism programme that focused on the plight of prisoners who had been unfairly or unjustly imprisoned, or who had experienced abuse within the justice system.
It was tough work, requiring resilience and determination, largely because it was unpopular work. South Africa’s high crime rates meant that public sentiment was against those who had been convicted, even unjustly. The role meant sorting through thousands of letters from prisoners claiming their innocence to find the genuine cases that merited attention. It also meant reading hundreds of pages of court records, and spending a lot of time trying to get into prisons to talk to people and to get the authorities to listen when there was evidence of a wrongful imprisonment.
Most memorable was Jeremy’s role in tackling the case of Fusi Mofokeng and Tshokolo Mokoena, who were wrongly imprisoned for 19 years. Jeremy was central to the team that investigated and campaigned for their release, tackling it with the passion and care he always brought to his work and to issues of justice and human rights. He stuck with it when others lost hope, pursuing every possible route to dig out the evidence and bring it to the attention of the authorities. Jeremy also wrote many stories about the plight of other prisoners, including those who had been arrested but not yet convicted of any crime. His work on the problem of remand detention in South Africa drew significant awareness to the issue.
Jeremy’s commitment to justice and journalism was just one element in a long and full life as a journalist, editor and poet. Jeremy was a big character, passionate about writing, literature and life, with a prodigious appetite for it all. He was always opinionated and provocative, and always informed, original and witty. He had no time for cant, and had no hesitation in tackling anyone he disagreed with.
Learning of Jeremy’s death came as a massive shock to Jeremy’s colleagues and friends at the Wits Centre for Journalism, and we send our condolences to his wife Deborah and their two children.