Wilf Nussey: Leg­endary Africa cor­re­spon­dent and ed­i­tor 1931-2018

‘Wild card’ news­man could face down any peril ex­cept Ar­gus Group of­fice pol­i­tics

Sunday Times - - Obituaries | Obituaries -

● Wilf Nussey, who has died in Si­mon’s Town at the age of 86, was a leg­endary South African jour­nal­ist who cov­ered many of the most tu­mul­tuous events in Africa for al­most 30 years.

He re­ported on the Mau Mau up­ris­ing in Kenya and on wars in Mozam­bique, An­gola and Rhode­sia.

He re­ported on the at­tempts of South African prime min­is­ter HF Ver­wo­erd “to bait or bully” Bechua­na­land into South Africa’s grasp as it was be­ing pre­pared to be­come the in­de­pen­dent Botswana.

He was the first jour­nal­ist to in­ter­view Seretse Khama when he re­turned to Bechua­na­land with his white English-born wife, Ruth. Nussey drove thou­sands of kilo­me­tres through the Kala­hari cover­ing the elec­tion cam­paign and was a reg­u­lar vis­i­tor at State House af­ter in­de­pen­dence in 1966.

Other African lead­ers he in­ter­viewed in­cluded King Moshoeshoe and Le­sotho strong­man Le­abua Jonathan, pres­i­dent Julius Ny­erere of Tan­za­nia, Charles Njonjo of Kenya, and pres­i­dent Ken­neth Kaunda of Zam­bia.

His dis­patches from the then South West Africa so in­fu­ri­ated the apartheid gov­ern­ment that the for­eign min­is­ter, Eric Louw, at­tacked him by name in par­lia­ment.

When the then min­is­ter of de­fence, PW Botha, was in­tro­duced to him he re­fused to shake Nussey’s hand and turned his back.

Close shave

Nussey’s clos­est shave with death came while he was cover­ing the floods that dev­as­tated parts of Mozam­bique in 1965 when Cy­clone Claude hit the south­east African coast from the In­dian Ocean.

He tried to climb into a South African Air Force Alou­ette he­li­copter as it was leav­ing on a res­cue mis­sion, but the pi­lot told him it couldn’t take more weight. As it lifted off with­out him, an in­flat­able rub­ber boat at­tached to its un­der­side hit the tail ro­tor, which dis­in­te­grated. The chop­per plunged into the rag­ing Um­beluzi River right in front of Nussey, killing all on board.

Nussey was born in Jo­han­nes­burg on De­cem­ber 16 1931. He at­tended Potchef­stroom Boys’ High and joined the Pre­to­ria News.

He cov­ered the vi­ciously fought gen­eral elec­tion in 1953.

Once, egged on by the “Lion of the

North”, fu­ture prime min­is­ter JG Stri­j­dom, a mob of bay­ing Na­tional Party sup­port­ers turned on him and other mem­bers of the hated En­gelse Pers.

They were saved by the in­ter­ven­tion of Olympic boxer Robey Leib­brandt, a Nazi fa­natic who’d been sen­tenced to death for trea­son dur­ing the war, re­prieved by prime min­is­ter Jan Smuts and freed by the Nats in 1948.

The big story at the time was the Mau Mau up­ris­ing, which Nussey was de­ter­mined to cover. He wrote to the East African Stan­dard in Nairobi and was of­fered a job.

14 000 killed

The Mau Mau killed around 14 000 black peo­ple, but it was their 60 white vic­tims who got all the at­ten­tion.

By the time Nussey got there in early 1954, an­cient Royal Air Force planes were bomb­ing and straf­ing their hide­outs in the thickly forested Aber­dare moun­tains. He went on sev­eral hair-rais­ing mis­sions in rick­ety planes pi­loted by gung-ho for­mer World War 2 pi­lots who skimmed the tree­tops.

One day Nussey, in re­cov­ery mode, was sip­ping a cold Tusker at a bar in Nairobi when Ernest Hem­ing­way “stalked in car­ry­ing so many guns he clanked with ev­ery step”.

Nussey joined a free­lance out­fit and his sto­ries about RAF bomb­ing mis­sions against the Mau Mau were gob­bled up by the Bri­tish news­pa­pers.

Back in South Africa he joined the Ar­gus in Cape Town but man­age­ment found him dif­fi­cult to con­trol and sent him to the Ar­gus Africa News Ser­vice.

“Nussey was a bril­liant re­porter and fea­ture writer, but a bit of a wild card and some­times dif­fi­cult to han­dle,” said an Ar­gus Group ed­i­tor. “Hand­ing him over to the News Ser­vice was like re­leas­ing him back to the wild.”

He was made ed­i­tor of the Ar­gus Africa News Ser­vice, ex­panded its net­work of of­fices in Jo­han­nes­burg, Sal­is­bury (as it then was), Dar es Salaam, Nairobi, Ac­cra, Luanda and Wind­hoek.

Ex-mer­ce­nary cor­re­spon­dents

He re­cruited a new mix of cor­re­spon­dents and con­tacts that in­cluded ex-mer­ce­nar­ies, a French For­eign Le­gion de­serter, a laun­dry­man in Lubum­bashi (in the now Demo­cratic Repub­lic of the Congo) and an ex-World War 2 para­trooper with a fierce rep­u­ta­tion.

He made it clear that if their re­ports were in­ac­cu­rate they’d be fired, and some were. He also made it clear he had no time for gung-ho es­capades.

He told them they were not war cor­re­spon­dents, just cover­ing events in coun­tries that hap­pened to be at war.

When re­porters filed a piece about com­ing un­der fire in An­gola he telexed back: “Kindly re­mem­ber un­can [can’t] file if dead.”

In 1968 af­ter re­turn­ing from a sor­tie in the bush of Mozam­bique where the Por­tuguese were fight­ing Fre­limo, he wrote a de­tailed anal­y­sis of why the Por­tuguese wouldn’t win the war.

He made the same pre­dic­tion about Ian Smith’s chances in Rhode­sia. What was hap­pen­ing in both coun­tries was a fore­taste of what was to come in South Africa, he sug­gested.

He got wind be­fore any­one else of the

Hem­ing­way ‘stalked in car­ry­ing so many guns he clanked’

im­pend­ing coup d’état in Por­tu­gal by Gen­eral An­tónio de Spínola, which he pre­dicted would lead to the coun­try’s with­drawal from Africa.

In 1982 he de­cided in the in­ter­ests of fam­ily life to set­tle for a more sta­ble ex­is­tence and be­came ed­i­tor of the Pre­to­ria News.

Af­ter five years the in­ter­nal pol­i­tics be­came too much for him and he took early re­tire­ment.

He lived in a pri­vate wildlife re­serve for 11 years, where he con­tin­ued to write ar­ti­cles and books, be­fore mov­ing to a beach­side bun­ga­low in Si­mon’s Town.

He was di­ag­nosed with em­phy­sema six years ago, although he had quit smok­ing at 40.

He leaves Doreen, his wife of 60 years, and three sons.

Pic­ture: Sup­plied

Wilf Nussey, right, cover­ing the Botswana elec­tion 1965.

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