Guy Berger
Guy Berger

Tribute to a less famous Coetzee


David Coetzee isn’t a fraction as famous as his novelist brother JM. Yet he’s a clear example of how an individual life, despite being out of the limelight, can nevertheless be of tremendous significance.

This emerged from tributes paid to the late journalist at a memorial service in Johannesburg this week. Fittingly, the occasion was held at the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism. David would have been well pleased at the venue.

The contrast between the respect shown this journalist, and the slurs currently being cast on the profession by the ANC Youth League, is vast. Their unsubstantiated claims about hypocritical journalists certainly ring completely hollow in relation to the life and work of David.

This is a man best known as the founder and publisher of SouthScan, a must-read briefing on Southern Africa that ran from 1986 through to 2009. He put the better part of his life into the initiative, bringing in-depth analysis to audiences who valued insight.

Here’s a selection of the remarks made at the service:

Former SouthScan contributor David Niddrie:

David was stubborn about what he believed in, and yet he produced what people widely regarded as a highly trust-worth source of information. Amongst SouthScan’s scoops was the analysis of the battle in southern Angola at Cuito Cuanavale. David did the story weeks before any of the mainstream media recognised its importance. He was unquestioningly committed to good journalism. For example, he published the story about the questionable death of ANC operative Thami Zulu. He had no doubt about the necessity to publish what came his way if it was accurate. In the post-apartheid race for position and the appearance of change, it’s a tragedy that he wasn’t snapped up and brought into mainstream media.

Mandla Langa, deputy to the ANC’s chief representative in London in the 1980s:

It was a confusing time, and without David’s insight it would have been difficult to brief the public. David played a role in helping our people to be sceptical about their own truth and information. We had a host of people who were giving us information, but the information that came from SouthScan was held as priority. As a Zulu saying goes, when someone who has done remarkable things passes on, their praise songs will remain in the work they are doing.

Akwe Amosu, David’s partner:

David was not just free of prejudice, he was also able to keep anger in its proper place. Many people in the UK, wondering what was he doing there, assumed that he must have been a spy. He lived alongside that attitude and did not become bitter. When he came back to South Africa after liberation, prejudices were also present. But again he never became bitter. [But] David would be disgusted and embarrassed to be presented at this service as a paragon. He was completely capable of coming up with crackpot theories. Yet he was also a person of great kindness, gentleness and integrity.

Caroline Southey, family friend:

David gave life lessons in how to be a mensch. He did this by living his values. He was the most “aligned” person I have ever known. His actions always resonated with his beliefs. He never lived a lie. His legacy is that he lived his life in a way that helped each one of us to be better parents, better partners, better political activists, better human beings and better citizens of the world.

My own remarks:

I sketched out features of David’s journalism that have strong resonance today. He was a multi-skilled media entrepreneur who combined a passion for justice with a respect for independence and the facts. Above all, he was a master at explaining the significance of a multitude of news developments. That’s a gap that is hard to replace, but his record should be a beacon for today’s journalists. Someone should create an award or scholarship in his honour.