Wilf Nussey: Legendary Africa correspondent and editor 1931-2018
‘Wild card’ newsman could face down any peril except Argus Group office politics
● 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.
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.
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.
Wilf Nussey, right, covering the Botswana election 1965.