The journalist David Beresford, who has died aged 68 after a long illness, was renowned for his reporting for the Guardian and Observer on conflict in two regions a world apart – Northern Ireland and his native South Africa. Equally distinguished was his account of the impact of his Parkinson’s disease, diagnosed in 1991.
Posted to Northern Ireland in 1978, when the Troubles were at their peak, he turned his experience into a fine book, Ten Men Dead (1987), a harrowing investigation of the IRA hunger strike of 1981. The Observer newspaper, not then allied to the Guardian, described it as “possibly the best book to emerge from the past 20 years of conflict in Northern Ireland”.
He took the same qualities of courage, empathy and perceptiveness to South Africa in 1984, where his coverage of the death throes of apartheid soon brought him an international reporter of the year award. David was in his element. Black townships were becoming ungovernable, black trade unions were flexing their muscles and the country’s rulers were defending white rule by fighting its neighbours.
In 1990, Nelson Mandela was released, and David was in Cape Town for “the biggest story journalism had ever known, the biggest human interest story the world had ever seen”. However, as he reflected ruefully 25 years later, the media stampede when Mandela was sighted at the prison gates and pandemonium that erupted for his speech from the balcony of City Hall made it not quite the first-hand report he would have wished for.
For the local press it was a tumultuous time. In the 1990s there was a combative new weekly, the Mail & Guardian, in which the London Guardian had a financial stake. David gave it his enthusiastic support, from editing copy to leading several of the paper’s investigations into the abuse of state power. It was a passion for David, who played a pivotal role, unpaid and often unacknowledged, in making it so influential.
On one occasion he wrote an editorial saying that Mandela should stand down at the end of his term as president, from 1994 to 1999. He noted later that when asked why he had done just that, Mandela replied with a mischievous grin: “Because the Mail & Guardian told me to.”
Particularly admired was David’s magisterial obituary in 2013 of Mandela for the Guardian, well written, judicious and authoritative, drawing on a perspective that stretched back a lifetime.
David’s reaction to Parkinson’s disease provoked some of his best work. Variously comparing himself to a soldier trapped behind enemy lines, to a foreign correspondent sending despatches from a far-off land, or to a prisoner held for an unspecified offence, he used his writing skills to share with readers his experience of this debilitating condition.
His account of an operation to ease the symptoms – though not cure the condition – performed in Grenoble, south-east France, in 2002 is compelling. He had to be fully conscious throughout, his head bolted into a steel contraption while surgeons inserted an electrode into his brain.
David frankly admitted his terror, gripped by claustrophobia, yet provided an entertaining and moving commentary on the 13-hour procedure: “The helmet was rather like being pinned down to the table like an ant by a massive thumb … When it was all over and I was unbolted by Brad [the surgeon] and wheeled away, I found myself weeping. Brad, bless his soul, could not figure that one out.
“‘But it is all over,’ he kept repeating. ‘You’ve done it!’
“I couldn’t find the words to explain to Brad that the operation was nothing … I was weeping at what had driven me to them: 10 years of living in another country known as Parkinson’s disease.”
David was born in Johannesburg, the youngest of three sons of St John, a banker, and his wife, Faith (nee Ashby). When he was seven, the family moved to Salisbury, in Rhodesia (now Harare, in Zimbabwe). He went to a boarding school, Falcon college, in Matabeleland. When he was 14, his brother Norman, the middle son and a hero to him, died.
After dropping out of his English and law degree course at the University of Cape Town, he was a reluctant office worker, but then turned to journalism, with the Salisbury Herald and Cape Town Herald. Like many of his friends, in the mid-1970s he moved to Britain. His first job in the UK was with the South Wales Echo, and he also worked for the Argus group in Brighton and Hove, East Sussex, before joining the Guardian.
Although a sociable man, generous to colleagues who sought his advice, he avoided being part of the “hack pack”. Contrarian by nature, scornful of authority, impatient with bureaucracy, he was a man who worked best alone. He was also a very striking figure: while most people run a comb through their hair when preparing to face the world, David gave the impression that he must have begun his day by deliberately dishevelling himself, with tousled hair, heavy-lidded eyes, wearing a crumpled shirt and stained trousers, for all the world like a South African farmer after a long night at the country club.
He had told me of his Parkinson’s while we were at a funeral in Soweto surrounded by mourners dancing the toyi-toyi. The illness we shared created a lasting bond. We parted. I rejoined colleagues, but David, unkempt as ever, his battered canvas bag slung over his shoulder, notebook in hand, went on alone, and was soon swallowed by the crowd.
His last years were gruelling for him, but made easier by two remarkable friends – Alois Rwiyegura, his Rwandan researcher, and his full-time carer, Pasca Selepe.
In 1968 he married Marianne Morrell. She survives him, along with their children, Belinda and Norman; his partner, Ellen Elmendorp, and their son, Joris; and his eldest brother, Garth.
Peter Preston writes: David Beresford was a great Guardian reporter because he brought empathy and understanding to the areas he covered: deeply as well as wisely. Maybe that wasn’t immediately apparent on first acquaintance. David – shambling, shrugging, shy and sometimes stubborn – could be awkward or dismissive over general newsroom assignments that didn’t excite him. He needed stories he could get his teeth into.
Northern Ireland, of course, was one: hard, often brutal news that needed explanation and sense of history. We learned then that, put to the test, David could report vividly and investigate in close detail, as well as follow the convolutions of crisis politics. He was a man for all seasons. And if he was occasionally a little difficult to handle, then that was fine too: talent and independence set him apart.
I was, to be frank, reluctant to send him home to South Africa. We’d seen what he could do handling unfamiliar situations and distilling their essence. Would life in Johannesburg be too familiar, the reporting too stereotypical? But David retained all the gifts we’d seen in Belfast. He was swiftly the finest chronicler of apartheid’s disintegration, a correspondent who caught the excitement of a momentous story but always paused to analyse how and why the plates of repression were shrinking.
The onset of Parkinson’s, stoically borne, meant there could be no more moves along foreign trails. David worked bravely on and on, taking some of the weight of developing the Mail & Guardian weekly in Johannesburg that we back at base camp helped rescue and develop. And his more personal pieces about battling against illness, about surviving, had an eloquence that defined his humanity. David Beresford wasn’t a showman, or in that sense a star. But he represented the very best of journalism.
• David Ross St John Beresford, journalist, born 1 July 1947; died 22 April 2016