EXTRACT | 'My Only Story: The hunt for a serial paedophile' by Deon Wiggett
In November 2019, Deon Wiggett’s sensational weekly podcasts held South Africa in thrall as he hunted down the paedophile who raped him as a schoolboy. Now, in My Only Story, he completes his exposé of Willem Breytenbach, the once brilliant teacher and later media luminary who led a predatory life.
Wiggett's mission to expose his abuser takes him from Breytenbach’s high-school years at an agricultural school in South Africa’s hinterland to the famous Grey College in Bloemfontein and the media titan Naspers. But his quest reveals so much more. As he traces systemic failures through schools great and small, he uncovers a culture of complicity that poses a clear and present danger to the country’s children.
While investigating men who prey on boys and girls, Wiggett devises a model that anyone can use to identify paedophiles in their midst. In his own words: ‘It’s pleasant to pretend that men don’t rape children, but once you accept that they do, it becomes surprisingly easy to recognise their trickery. Once you match a universal pattern to a specific man’s profile, you can spot the deceit before it is too late.’
My Only Story is a riveting, thoughtful and often irreverent account of one man’s determination to overcome childhood trauma; to help others face their demons; and to extract some beauty from the boyhood he lost.
In this excerpt, one of the characters in the book runs into Breytenbach the Friday evening before the launch of the podcast.
Exactly one month later, it is Friday 1 November 2019. It ought to be the last weekend of Willem’s regular life, but with six days to go until the trap is sprung, there is a complication from Cape Town. Ethan – the guy with the traumatic emails – has had a glass or two of wine and runs into Willem in a coffee shop. In Sea Point, it is after work, and Willem is five minutes’ walk from his home, but only if you can walk uphill.
Willem likes driving around in his massive white VW Amarok bakkie. He has no obvious need for a vehicle with such mighty loading capacity, but the cabin is nice and compact, creating an intimate atmosphere for the five you can squeeze in.
Willem is sitting with Danie van Rooyen at the biggest table in the coffee shop, and now Ethan is on a mission I am trying to prevent. He knows what is happening next Thursday, and he absolutely wants to get Willem on tape for me on this final Friday night.
‘I don’t know if that would achieve anything,’ I write on WhatsApp. ‘I’m nervous, because we’re just six days away from nailing him.’
But it is too late. Ethan is heading for Willem and wants to record their conversation on a very old iPhone.
His recording helps us to reconstruct the scene in Sea Point on one last carefree Friday evening. At the biggest table in the shop, he stops. ‘Hello, hello!’ he says to Willem, with the excitement of a talk-show host welcoming a hard-won guest.
‘My goodness, how are youuuuu?!’ Willem says, and his voice slides surprisingly high and then back down. As bullfrogs go, mine’s falsetto skirts alto.
‘I’m very good, man,’ says Willem when Ethan asks. Then he gestures to Danie, who is bald and squat. ‘Have you ever met Danie?’ Willem says, and it sounds like he is glowing as he introduces his life partner since 1997. ‘This is my Danie.’
‘This is your Danie!’ says Ethan, who knows perfectly well. ‘Awwwwww, that’s the best thing ever! Awwww, can I join you?’ and without waiting for an answer, he sits down. ‘Okay, I’m joining you,’ he says. ‘Why are you taking the big table?’
‘We originally sat over there,’ says Willem, but he offers no further explanation. He wants to talk shop with Ethan, but first Ethan needs to be explained to Danie: ‘So, do you remember a few years ago when we did the school newspaper project?’
That is how he met Ethan, says Willem, and ‘then he came to work at Media24 over the holidays. Then he went to study journalism—’
‘I have never—’ Danie interrupts.
‘And then he, then he—’ says Willem.
Danie says to Willem: ‘I have met everyone from your past …’ – Willem whinnies a giggle, but Danie has turned to Ethan – ‘… and I have never heard your name before.’
‘It’s when I was in India,’ Willem says hurriedly to Danie.
Willem’s chronology would wither under the most dim-witted glance. But people do not keep track of dates, and they scrutinise obliquely, at best. It is what makes it so easy just being Willem Breytenbach.
His glittering reign at Naspers’s Media24 comes to a sudden end in 2014, and so he desperately needs a new grooming machine. He starts a company with his protégé from Naspers, Daniël Malherbe, who is the Good-Looking Guy who once went hiking with Willem along Table Mountain. (It is vexing that Willem’s business partner is Daniël and his life partner Danie. It cannot be helped; these are their real names. But the name Danie is squatter, which is how I remember.)
Positioning themselves as media luminaries, Willem and Daniël start Lumico. See, for as long as anyone can remember, Willem has been nattering on about the might of new media. It always sounded visionary, and it was, but not for the reasons the audience could hear. The newer the media, the younger the boys who use it. Willem no longer has his school newspapers, but who needs them now? He can gorge himself on what he traps online.
Fortunately, Daniël does not suit Willem’s tastes. He is too old; too cocksure; not so much pretty as vaguely good-looking. All of this creates a safe space for their partnership – friends bound together by brutal professional standards and well-publicised ambition.
The two men have been thick as thieves for the best part of a decade. There is the celebrated hike up Table Mountain. There is the day of Daniël’s haircut, which is one of Willem’s first-ever Instagram posts. And here they are at Cape Town Stadium to see Lady Gaga: Daniël with his wife, a lifestyle journalist; Willem with his Danie.
Willem and Daniël build Lumico brick by brick. On 3 June 2014, we see the two of them in their first and very small office in a vintage Pepper Street building originally built as the head office of a mayonnaise manufacturer. They have one employee, a cute young guy named Matthew. Daniël (@DanielMal) looks proud and Willem (@kaapin) gives a thin smile from the desk-for-two they share. To the left, at a much smaller desk, young Matthew is on the phone, creating the impression of a very pretty receptionist.
Under the picture on Instagram, a friend writes: ‘The start of big things. Proud of you guys @kaapin @DanielMal #Lumico’. Young Matthew is not tagged.
Three months later, there are nine people in the Lumico office; its recruitment drive appears to be paying off. There may not be enough desks yet, but the company has been aggressively seeking ‘dynamic young people’ (month one), ‘young writers to tap the youth market’ (month two), or simply applicants with ‘no prior experience’ (month three).
Willem and Daniël’s baby is growing, and so are their travels and staff count. In the optimistic spring of 2014, they zip around the country and countryside. There is a picture of the two of them and young Matthew in the middle of an open road in the Karoo’s grassland, and even with Willem in the frame, it smells of hope and new beginnings.
In 2015 and 2016, Willem and Daniël travel to Johannesburg and Reebok and up the West Coast as, back in Cape Town, an empire toddles. But in the course of 2017, a chill starts to set in between the two. Gone are the picnics and Reebok holidays and gifts – like the one in January 2017, when Willem thanks Daniël for ‘sharing one of his first nine home-brewed beers with me! Will report back later! @lumicomobile’. (He does not report back later.)
Then, after six years side by side at Naspers and Lumico, the two part ways in September 2018. Daniël keeps the Lumico name, but moves to Stellenbosch; Willem keeps the Pepper Street offices, but has to rename his company – Lightspeed Digital Media, or whatever.
What happened there? Did Daniël learn of Willem’s dark side? I have not dared to ask him. The two men have been too close; Daniël is just one concentric circle removed from Willem.
At the biggest table in a Sea Point coffee shop, Ethan thinks it is time to offend Willem.
‘So how are you, how are you?’ he asks. ‘How’s Lumico?’
‘Um,’ Willem says, ‘I’m not with Lumico any more.’
For at least three seconds, there is complete silence at the table.
Finally, very faintly, Ethan says: ‘Whaaaat?’
‘Daniël Malherbe has … we’ve split up. I’m Lightspeed, he’s Lumico.’
Sharply, Ethan says: ‘You’re what?’
‘Lightspeed,’ Willem says to Ethan, who knows. ‘So I’m changing the business to much more consulting; taking companies across to the, uh, thingy, what you call it, digital,’ says the media luminary. If I did not have this sentence on tape, I would never have believed it.
Ethan says to Danie: ‘Hey, this is the first time I’m meeting you; I’ve heard so much about you!’
‘…’ says Danie.
The waiter arrives and she has a plate that nobody claims. Then Willem says to her, in English: ‘You can leave it for me … Maybe can I have some cream?’
Then conversation moves to one of Willem’s frequent ‘work trips’ to the countryside. He wants to tell a story about one evening in Calvinia, a town in the semi-desert of the Northern Cape. When he takes the more than four-hour drive from Cape Town, Willem says, ‘in the week I’m there with colleagues; over weekends I’m there with colleagues; but this particular Friday night, I’m there all alone, I can’t get food, I can’t get …’
Danie, maybe detecting a lecherous tone, suddenly comes alive to douse it. ‘The whole romantic idea of the countryside …’ he says to Ethan, ‘I’ve never been there with [Willem] and I don’t want to.’
‘Gumpf!’ laughs Willem slightly and highly.
‘I’m a city boy,’ says Danie. ‘I grew up on a farm, I’m from the countryside, but I’m a city boy.’
He turns to his life partner: ‘Willem, I’m sorry I say it, but you know. I’ve never gone with you because I really don’t want to go. I have no need to experience it.’
‘How long have you been together?’ says Ethan.
‘Twenty-two years. Twenty-three,’ says Willem. ‘Fuck. Twenty-four years? Twenty-three?’
‘I can’t … I don’t know. Um, twenty-two?’ says Danie, who is an accountant.
Willem says: ‘I will never … We have many … I will never have someone else.’
Ethan says: ‘Even back then you told me how special he is.’
Danie must be shaking his head, because Ethan says: ‘Really, I’m not lying to you!’
Willem tries to change the topic. He asks Ethan if he has been watching Boer Soek ’n Vrou (or Farmer Seeks a Wife), a reality-TV show that contains the premise in the title. Earlier in the year, it included farmer Damien and his search for a husband. Conservative Afrikaners wrote aggrievedly to the dailies and on Facebook.
But the show appalled Willem for a different reason: ‘I think those little moffies they got; couldn’t they have gotten better people?’ Then he clears his throat – ‘Uh-uh-hu-hgggmb!’ – and his voice ends back up in an octave incongruously high.
Among the media talk, Willem says to Ethan: ‘I really enjoy Netwerk24.’
Danie has another anecdotal surge: ‘I am always reading CNN and the BBC, and then he says “ooooh, but ooooh, have I read this story?” and then I say: “Where did you find that?” …’
‘… and then I say Netwerk24,’ Willem says, completing his sentence. ‘Netwerk24 gives me enough information. There is nothing on News24! It’s a scandal. There’s nothing!’
Six days later, there will be something on News24 to interest Willem.
But now Willem is looking at Ethan’s phone. He wants to show him an app. Ethan deftly stops recording.
Later, at the coffee shop’s largest table, Ethan leaves behind a squat, bald man and his life bullfrog. I do not know what Willem and Danie did afterwards. But off they would have driven, obliviously, to the waiting weekend and the end of an error.
Extract provided by Jenny Griesel Communications, on behalf of Penguin Random House