David Beresford: Respected journalist at the top of his field on two continents
DAVID Beresford, who has died in Johannesburg at the age of 68, was a South African journalist who covered the death throes of apartheid for the UK’s Guardian newspaper and wrote what the British media called one of the best books to come out of the conflict in Northern Ireland.
As the Guardian’s foreign correspondent responsible for Africa he covered the first Gulf war and the massacre of Tutsis in Rwanda.
He befriended Paul Kagame, who visited him in South Africa before he became president of Rwanda. And long before this happened he told anyone who cared to listen that Kagame was the man to watch.
He broke or had a hand in exposing some of the biggest stories to rock South Africa in the 1980s and ’90s.
These included the death-row confessions of Almond Nofomela that broke the existence of police hit squads wide open, and the role of Winnie Mandela in the abduction and murder of 14-year-old activist James Seipei, also known as Stompie Moeketsi.
Word had leaked out of Soweto that residents were furious about the disappearance and possible killing of Seipei, who was last seen in her care. At a time when most journalists were loath to touch the story, Beresford obtained details given to him off the record by a lawyer who was trying to unravel the truth.
He faxed a copy of what he was about to write to the Mandela family lawyer, who promptly passed it to her. Two hours later the key witness to Seipei’s murder, Soweto physician Dr Abu Baker Asvat, was himself murdered at his surgery.
Beresford believed he was killed to keep him quiet and was haunted by the thought that he may have caused his death by giving Winnie notice that the story was about to break.
He also played a major role in exposing the Inkathagate scandal after a security policeman leaked top-secret documents to DISPATCHES: David Beresford published his memoir of reporting on apartheid in 2010 him at the height of the war between the IFP and ANC that showed that the security police had been paying money into a secret account held by IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi.
The exposure cost two senior cabinet ministers their jobs and irreparably damaged Buthelezi’s standing.
Beresford was born in Johannesburg on July 1 1947. His family moved to Harare (then Salisbury) when he was seven and he was schooled at Falcon College in Matabeleland.
He dropped out of the University of Cape Town after embarking on a law degree. After an unsatisfying stint as an office worker he joined the Salisbury Herald as a cub reporter, and then the Argus group’s feisty “coloured” Cape Herald newspaper.
His wife, Marianne Morrell, who he had met at UCT and married in 1968, did weekly horoscopes for the paper. One day he forgot to take the column in and simply made the horoscopes up. No one seemed any the wiser.
In 1974 they left their child with her mother in South Africa so that he could achieve his dream of a job on Fleet Street in London. Just before his three-month visa expired, and after a stint on the South Wales Echo and some work for the Argus group, the Guardian gave in to his pestering and offered him a job. It was his paper for life.
In 1978 it sent him to cover the troubles in Northern Ireland. He lived in the gritty battle zone of Belfast for the best part of five years and covered the 1981 hunger strike that led to the death of Bobby Sands and nine other Irish Republican Army prisoners.
Beresford met Sands on the third day of the hunger strike and asked if he thought he would die on the fast. “Yes, I think I will,” said Sands, and they both “chuckled at the incongruity of the answer”.
The next time Beresford saw him, 63 days later, Sands was in his coffin.
Beresford wrote a book about the strike, Ten Men Dead, after the IRA gave him access to letters between the prisoners and the leadership, written on bits of cigarette paper and toilet paper and smuggled in and out by visitors.
Nobody had known these letters even existed, and persuading the IRA to give him access to them was an extraordinary coup.
The book was a bestseller. The Observer described it as “possibly the best book to emerge from the past 20 years of conflict in Northern Ireland”. It earned him the first of two British Foreign Correspondent of the Year awards and the respect and friendship of Irish republican leader Gerry Adams. After South Africa’s democratic elections the Sinn Féin leader visited Beresford at his home in Johannesburg accompanied by 16 bodyguards, eight outside and eight inside the house.
At the time of South Africa’s first state of emergency in 1985, the Guardian sent Beresford to open a bureau in South Africa. Although he had vowed never to return, Beresford could not refuse. And in his deceptively shambling, dishevelled, quiet, awkward and often solitary way, he became one of the most respected and keenly read journalists in the country.
He based himself at the Weekly Mail, which had just been started after the closure of the Rand Daily Mail. This was the beginning of a close collaboration that led to the Guardian investing in the Mail and saving it from bankruptcy.
In 1991 Beresford was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Eleven years later he went to Grenoble in the French Alps to have a brain pacemaker implanted.
This involved 13 hours of surgery while fully conscious and bolted down in a helmet, a “terrifying” ordeal he likened in a subsequent book to being “pinned down to the table like an ant by a massive thumb”.
British TV’s Channel Four filmed it for a documentary.
The operation returned him to just about normal, until he began deteriorating three years ago.
This did not stop him from writing a powerful obituary for Nelson Mandela in 2013, in which he argued that for all his undoubted greatness, Mandela had feet of clay. The best thing he did for South Africa as president was to resign after one term, wrote Beresford.
He is survived by his wife, their children, Belinda and Norman, and his partner of 37 years, Ellen Elmendorp, and their son, Joris. — Chris Barron
In his quiet, awkward and often solitary way, he became one of the country’s most keenly read journalists