by Gillian Lusk, Associate Editor, Africa Confidential
In trench-coat and trilby, Stephen Ellis cut an imposing figure. He had a mind to match. When I arrived from Sudan to work at Africa Confidential in 1987, he had been Editor for about a year and was fastening his considerable investigative powers on ferreting out information about the rich and powerful.
This provided a fertile field for Stephen. A rearguard action was well under way in the apartheid government and its feared National Intelligence Service – still widely known by its previous name, the Bureau of State Security (BOSS) – was very active in London, a centre of opposition to the SA regime. He was later to devote those powers to an impressive series of scholarly books, including his controversial work on South Africa's African National Congress (see Obituary). Much of the research dates from that period at the paper and the comings and goings were memorable. As Communist regimes crumbled in Eastern Europe, change was coming to Southern Africa, too.
The air was heavy with plot and counter-plot and it did not need conspiracy theorists to feed the fear. In 1987, an attempt to murder SA civil activists in the British capital was foiled when a leading operative, a South African mysteriously carrying a UK Ministry of Defence ID card, was arrested for importuning in the toilets of the former Regent Palace Hotel in Piccadilly. The shock waves reverberated until overtaken by the murder of Dulcie September, the ANC Europe Representative, in Paris the following May. It was a time of tragedy and rapid political change.
Journalistically, it was an exciting time and Stephen was in his element. He took on European royalty, smugglers and Seychellois hitmen: I will never forget taking a telephone call to the office: 'I am one of them! You know, the shooting! I want to meet'. Then the pips went as his money ran out...
I also remember an angry call from the late Colonel David Stirling, founder of the Special Air Service: 'How could [........ a former Director of the newsletter] let this happen?!' Stephen was often out: perhaps it was the time he and a journalist from one of the nationals set off to 'doorstep' the man that we codenamed the 'Gay Nazi'. I struggled to persuade him to tell me where he was going, in case he didn't return on time.
Stephen will not return now and all the things so many of us meant to say will go unsaid. The world, and especially the Africa world, is a poorer place without him. However, it is immeasurably richer for his having been here.
Obituary: Stephen Ellis, 1953-2015
Stephen Ellis, 1953-2015, An obituary by Lansana Gberie
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