Journalist, campaigner and founder of SouthScan
The journalist David Coetzee, who has died aged 66 of the asbestos-related cancer mesothelioma, was one of his generation’s most talented and respected Africa specialists. He was publisher of SouthScan for more than 20 years. The newsletter provided – first weekly and then fortnightly – informed and intelligent coverage of the whole of southern Africa at a crucial time in the region’s political history. He worked unobtrusively but efficiently, building a strong reputation for the publication until its closure last year.
Coetzee was born in Johannesburg, the son of a lawyer and a teacher. His early years were spent moving around with his mother and elder brother, the writer JM Coetzee, including a spell on a sheep farm in the central Karoo, but he came to consider Cape Town as his home from 1951 onwards.
He was educated at the Catholic St Joseph’s college in Cape Town, and then Rondebosch boys’ high school. He studied art at evening school, worked as a wool buyer and then went to the University of Cape Town, taking a degree in comparative African government and law in 1964, under the anti-apartheid communist Jack Simons. After a year at the Cape Argus newspaper as a trainee and then a court reporter, he left the country, appalled by its politics.
After teaching English in Greece, he reached Britain in 1966, found jobs on trade publications and north London newspapers, and joined the anti-apartheid movement. In 1971, armed with a British passport, he went back to South Africa, believing he could become more politically engaged. He took a job on the Cape Argus, but was one day “virtually frog-marched out of the building”. Coetzee believed he was fired because the management had been tipped off over his anti-apartheid activities. Back in London, he gravitated towards African publications, then experiencing a boom. After a year at the Travellers Guide to Africa as production editor, he moved to Afif Ben Yedder’s magazine empire, becoming foreign editor of New African for three years.
In 1980 he joined the Nigerian journalist Peter Enahoro in launching another monthly, Africa Now, where he remained for five years. He also continued to campaign against apartheid, and began to learn about ways that new technology could be deployed to avoid apartheid censorship.
Unhappy at some of the political leanings of Africa Now, he launched SouthScan in London in 1986. With excellent liberation movement sources, and close links to many ANC leaders, it soon became indispensable reading for those interested in the rapidly evolving situation. After 1990 he went home to re-familiarise himself, even voting in the 1994 election, but decided not to return permanently.
In 2000 Coetzee moved to Washington DC when his wife, Akwe Amosu, found employment there (they had married in 1994). He continued to produce SouthScan, casting a sympathetic but detached eye on the 15 years of ANC rule, while writing a book on Thabo Mbeki’s African policy. The newsletter remains a valuable, detailed archive of South Africa’s transition.
He is survived by Akwe, their son Corin and another son, Sam, from an earlier partnership with Irene Flick.
• David Keith Coetzee, publisher and editor, born 8 April 1943; died 19 January 2010