South Africa

David Beresford: Unfashionable liberal and master storyteller

By Phillip Van Niekerk 3 May 2016

David Beresford, the Guardian correspondent who died in Johannesburg last week, leaves a remarkable legacy. By PHILLIP VAN NIEKERK.

The skill of telling a good story, Oom Schalk Lourens said as he sat on the stoep of his Groot Marico farm, is to know when to tap your pipe against your velskoen and to know what parts to leave out.

David Beresford, the Guardian correspondent who died in Johannesburg last week, was a devotee of Oom Schalk’s creator Herman Charles Bosman and himself a masterful storyteller. He was 68.

But I would say that the parts that he left out were about himself and how he came to be one of the most influential South African journalists of his generation.

David was the long-term South African correspondent for what he affectionately called the “Graun”, so named because the paper was once published with a typo in the masthead. He won awards and accolades and was in the front rank of foreign correspondents covering the violent and heady final days of apartheid.

But he also led an almost secret double life as a guiding force in the Weekly Mail and its successor the Mail&Guardian.

Anyone who searches the archives under “David Beresford” will find some of the most haunting classics of journalism ever written on the African continent. It was writing that drove his colleagues to despair. “I should just have become a paint stripper,” said one otherwise respected journalist on reading something David had just turned out.

When he was 14, David’s elder brother Norman, whom he idolised, died, and he responded to the trauma by escaping into the sanctuary of libraries, a pastime that prepared him for his future career. But he was a poet at heart and a romantic who held a vagabond attraction for members of the opposite sex, a fact that was both envied and admired by his male colleagues.

David won his spurs as the Guardian correspondent in Northern Ireland in the early Eighties, a tour noted not just for keen reporting but for his visceral sympathy for the underdog at a time when Fleet Street viewed the Irish Republicans as anathema. His book about the 1981 Irish hunger strike, Ten Men Dead, told the personal stories of the paramilitaries who starved themselves to death demanding that Margaret Thatcher’s government recognise them as political prisoners.

Ten Men Dead was inspired by letters smuggled out of the Maze prison and had a symmetry with his final book (The Truth is a Strange Fruit, published in 2010) which also draws on letters from a prison cell: those between the so-called station bomber, John Harris, and his wife Anne as he awaited his execution in April 1965. Anne Wolfe died a few days before David.

David was an unfashionable liberal. His passions informed the grand themes of his journalism: racial injustice, incarceration and torture, the death penalty and the sanctity of life, and the Parkinson’s disease that afflicted him and which he stubbornly resisted for 25 years.

Often, when people assess the influence or importance of a journalist, they ask who were his friends in high places, what were his high-minded opinions, or how often was he on television.

David did none of that. But his self-deprecating laid-back style and absence of a dress code masked the seriousness with which he approached his craft. He had the sharpest of journalistic instincts that always sent him in the opposite direction to the pack, a fiercely competitive streak and a love of the game.

Moving back from Northern Ireland to South Africa was a strange transition. David told the story of how he wandered in to Exclusive Books in Hillbrow to discover some copies of his book on shelves at the back of the store, and offered to sign them to improve sales. The store manager, believing that the unkempt bearded man who had wandered off the street was unhinged, threatened to call security.

David grew up between Johannesburg and boarding school in then Rhodesia and his passion for journalism was stoked by reading the Rand Daily Mail in his youth.

By the time the Guardian sent him back on assignment to Johannesburg in 1985 the RDM had been closed by its owners, South African Associated Newspapers, and the rump of it was a thing called the Transvaal News Bureau, which housed a few refugees from the RDM, including myself.

The head of the bureau was one of his heroes, Mervyn Rees, the greatest investigative journalist of his generation who had led the RDM’s investigation into the Information Scandal, South Africa’s equivalent of Watergate that had brought down John Vorster and apartheid’s propaganda apparatus.

David sought out the inscrutable chain-smoking Mervyn and negotiated space in the newsroom, landing up at the desk next to mine.

That was how I came to know David Beresford and was privileged to be his fellow traveller and confidante for many years. I recall whiskey-fuelled discussions in outposts like Ovamboland, Quelimane or Naboomspruit, or in the Portugalia in downtown Johannesburg, fantasising about the day when we would have our own newspaper and resurrect the RDM for the coming new age.

When the bureau was closed down, David moved across to the Weekly Mail, the raggedy upstart that he saw as the successor in spirit to the RDM. While maintaining his day job at the Guardian, David felt he could not remain on the sidelines as the biggest story in the history of his country happened around him.

It was with the Mail and its successor, the Mail&Guardian, that he was to play a seminal behind-the-scenes role in shaping the paper as a friend and adviser to the previous editor, Anton Harber, and to myself when I took the helm in 1996.

Without David there might be no Mail&Guardian. It was he who brought the Guardian in to rescue the paper in 1993 after a financially disastrous attempt to transform itself into a daily.

Some may protest that having influence in the making of one small newspaper is too parochial a legacy. But the big stories that David helped break had significance well beyond the M&G. They were the defining stories of the new South Africa.

His reputation was such that it was to David that a dissident security branch warrant officer (subsequently identified as Brian Morrow) turned after the man had stolen a bunch of top secret documents from security police headquarters in Durban.

The documents were explosive, revealing, in typed black and white, that the Security Police had clandestinely funded Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi and his Inkatha Freedom Party, and were behind the creation of an Inkatha-affiliated trade union set up to oppose Cosatu that was responsible for horrific shop-floor violence.

David passed the papers to the Mail and worked with the team to turn it into an investigative exposé that came to be known as Inkathagate, a feat rightly honoured as the newspaper’s finest hour.

It was July 1991 and talks between the ANC and the ruling National Party that had been going on for more than a year were stuck. Hundreds of people were being slaughtered in the townships by a mysterious “third force”. President F W De Klerk and his team appeared to be getting the better of the ANC.

Inkathagate changed the story. It confirmed suspicions that the government was clandestinely funding opposition to the ANC and manipulating the violence to its advantage. Within weeks, the Cabinet hardliners Magnus Malan and Adriaan Vlok had been axed or demoted and the already unravelling national security state was further delegitimised. De Klerk’s team were knocked off balance and never recovered.

The great investigative journalist Phillip Knightley said that all good journalists are blessed with the luck of being in the right place at the right time. David was present at the birth of the alternative media’s other great scoop: the apartheid-era security police death squads.

In October 1989 he set out to profile a young Lawyers for Human Rights attorney known as “Shucks” – real name Huggins Sefanyetso – whose awful job it was every week to wait for the notices of execution for the condemned prisoners on death row and to use “every trick and talent” to save as many as he could. When David interviewed him Shucks had helped rescue from the gallows dozens of prisoners who had been sentenced to death without adequate legal representation.

The week of David’s interview was the very one that a former security policeman, Almon Nofomela, was to be executed for killing a white farmer. Rather than “taking the pain”, as his erstwhile colleagues had suggested, Nofomela spilled the beans, confessing to being a hitman who had participated in nine murders including the mutilation of civil rights lawyer Griffiths Mxenge.

The bizarre claims miraculously earned him a stay and David handed the story to the Weekly Mail. Ivor Powell’s scoop led the paper that Friday, and the government set up an enquiry under the Free State Attorney-General Tim McNally, in what was feared would be the usual whitewash.

Sensing that that they would make him the scapegoat, Nofomela’s former commander, Dirk Coetzee, fled into exile and unburdened the entire filthy story to the brave Afrikaans weekly Vrye Weekblad. That was how the world got to know the names of Vlakplaas, the notorious death squad farm near Pretoria, and Eugene de Kock, apartheid’s leading assassin, better known as Prime Evil.

David was also instrumental in the Mail’s publication of the story of Stompie Seipei, the 14-year-old activist who was kidnapped by the Mandela Football Team under the instructions of Winnie Mandela, and beaten to death. This was a particularly painful story for the newspaper to write because the subject was not only an icon of the liberation struggle but the wife of Nelson Mandela.

The Winnie story forced journalists at the Mail to see that to do an honest job in the post-apartheid South Africa that was fast approaching would mean applying the same rigorous principles as before, now to people we knew and admired. There could be no holy cows.

In April 1996 I was appointed editor of the Mail&Guardian and David and I rubbed our hands, celebrating the fact that achieving our dreams was within our grasp.

But, really, by the time I stepped into the breach the Mail’s transition was already under way, partly due to the fact that David had assumed an increasingly executive role at the paper. After the first democratic elections in 1994, the feisty rag, its mission seemingly accomplished, was tired and its founding editor Anton Harber, who deserves credit for the change, looked to David for support and advice.

David well understood that the task was to move the Mail from its struggle origins to a newspaper that would hold the new democratic rulers to account while retaining its combative edge. My job was merely to wrap the rest of the newspaper around that foundational principle.

It was a path-finding moment that helped define the mission of the media in the new era and the Mail&Guardian’s investigative reporting became a template for others to follow.

But it was not without pain. Exposing government corruption and criticism of the liberation movement and the new elite provoked a severe reaction, even from loyal readers and friends, and we found ourselves facing multiple libel writs and lawsuits and were hauled before the Human Rights Commission on charges of racism.

David was the paper’s rock even as the Parkinson’s devastated his health.

He would amble around the newsroom on deadline late on Wednesday nights, increasingly reliant on a cane, an almost mystical presence as he rewrote editorials and headlines, and provided advice that often, rather than tempering our indiscretions, forced us to into an even more confrontational stance.

He also understood the importance of training and preparation so that the media could be peopled by the qualified journalists who were necessary to make the new democracy meaningful. The mainstream media had failed South Africa in this regard and the Mail, despite its small size, made an outsize contribution to the country’s journalistic leadership.

Some of the most touching tributes that have flowed in since David’s death are from journalists that he mentored, with warmth and generosity. “I am most grateful for this quirk of fate that the great Beresford sat with us young reporters and helped us with our copy,” wrote Toby Shapshack. “He taught me the remarkable alchemy he brought to writing.”

The magic of that alchemy can be seen in the final article to appear under David’s byline in the Guardian, in December 2013, an obituary of Nelson Mandela that traced the extraordinary narrative of that great life with heartbreaking empathy and honesty about his weaknesses and frailties.

It was the resounding culmination of the career of a reporter, himself facing the end of life, who found all his larger themes wrapped up in the figure of Mandela, a man that he had covered, loved, and grappled with for almost three decades. It ends with a meditation on the roots of Mandela’s greatness in which David produced this startling insight:

Another way of understanding South Africa is to recognise it as something of an Old Testament story, a tale of people struggling to do right by their gods and failing time and time again. In the second half of the 20th century, these people, exhausted by the struggle with themselves and against one another, had need of a unifying figure to give them a vision of nationhood.”

David concluded that Mandela’s greatness came from his willingness to don the mask. It was an audacious twist that would have been a stretch in the hands of a lesser wordsmith, but in recognising the truth of that old saying: “Cometh the hour, cometh the man”, David pointed to his own greatness as well. DM

Photo: David Beresford (GuardianUK)

Phillip Van Niekerk is the President of Calabar Africa, a consulting company that operates through sub-Saharan Africa. In a previous life he spent 20 years as a journalist in South Africa, working as an Africa correspondent for the London Observer and Editor of the Mail&Guardian from 1996 to 2000.

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