Over a hundred of us gathered at the Friends Meeting House in Washington DC on 29 January to pay tribute to David Coetzee, a pioneering spirit in African journalism, who had died ten days earlier after a year’s brave battle with the rare lung disease, mesothelioma. Friends read out witty anecdotes, plaintive letters and poetry by Pablo Neruda to the assembled crowd of family, activists, journalists and diplomats. The readings were punctuated with Angolan freedom songs, violin sonatas and finally the Leadbelly classic, ‘Goodnight Irene.’ Born in 1943, Coetzee left his native South Africa in the mid-1960s after studying African government and law under the radical academic Jack Simons at the University of Cape Town and a brief stint as a wool trader. Paying his way across Europe by teaching English in Greece and sub-editing on trade papers in north London, he campaigned for the anti-apartheid cause in his spare time. In 1979, Coetzee had his first son Sam with his partner, Irene Fick. After working on other diaspora publications in London, Coetzee co-founded Africa Now with veteran Nigerian journalist Peter Enahoro, building up a network of energetic correspondents across the continent and investigating political corruption, human rights abuses and the excesses of Western corporations. That editorial menu eventually proved too indigestible for Africa Now’s financiers and Coetzee left. In 1986, he launched Southscan, an insider newsletter on Southern African politics, just as the Nationalist regime in South Africa launched its second state of emergency. Well ahead of its technological time, Southscan equipped its reporters in the townships with modems with which they evaded the state censors to relay accounts of the heightening repression. After Nelson Mandela’s release on 11 February 1990, Coetzee made lengthy forays back to South Africa, then took a further degree at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies before moving to Washington DC with his Nigerian wife, the journalist and broadcaster, Akwe Amosu, and their son Corin. There he stayed, apart from a two-year interregnum in Addis Ababa, publishing Southscan and writing a book on President Thabo Mbeki’s Africa policy, which he recently finished revising. He remained close to his writer brother John, whom he saw earlier this year. Coetzee died at home with his family.
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