David Beres­ford: Re­spected jour­nal­ist at the top of his field on two con­ti­nents


Sunday Times - - OBITUARIES -

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

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