A Tribute to David Coetzee (1943-2010) By William Bowles

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By William Bowles
Featured Writer
Dandelion Salad
7 July, 2010

Many years ago, actually I think it was 1985, I was on a trip to London from New York and having discovered as it were a few years earlier, the online world of FidoNet, I was anxious to spread the word to the comrades. A year before I’d started New York Online (1983-92) that I ended up running on my first Macintosh computer and was busy networking independent journalism to the planet from my loft in Brooklyn.

In any case, I was in London trying to get the Morning Star newspaper online, or at least using email and I met with the then foreign editor of the Star, David Whitfield who was less than impressed with my vision but who nevertheless introduced me to David Coetzee, an exiled South African journalist who published a weekly digest on Southern African affairs called SouthScan – A Bulletin of Southern African Affairs. The meeting with David changed the entire trajectory of my life, in fact, I doubt I would be sitting here now writing this were it not for meeting up with David.

David was softly spoken, restrained, as if he were holding something back, a kind of pent-up energy that only really emerged during the long political discussions we had over the years, and on three different continents. And in spite of being very different people what we shared in common was an interest in just about everything. I can hear his quiet, intense voice, with his lilting, Cape accent quite clearly as I sit here typing these words.

Perhaps it was living in London in exile since the early sixties yet immersed in the internal events in South Africa that gave him a dual vision of the country. Analytical and passionate all at the same time. He definitely opened up my eyes to a very different kind of South Africa, instead of the stereotypes the left typically held, holds? about South Africa, especially the Boers and the issue of ‘race’ (uniquely, at least as far as I know, South Africa is the only country that talks of a ‘non-racial’ society). David after all, was a ‘Boer’, allegedly the enemy, yet it was clear that the ANC preferred to deal with the Boers to the later arrivals, the English-speaking whites, many of whom emigrated to South Africa in the post-war years.

And when I actually worked with and later for, the African National Congress it was informed by the many understandings he had given me, especially the intricacies, both personal and political of a movement composed of several parts, uniquely so given that its leadership operated mostly in exile for nearly thirty years. And when the day finally arrived in 1990 with the release of Mandela, the schisms between the internal movement and those in exile, shaped the entire trajectory of South Africa’s post-Apartheid development, largely to its detriment and in no small way, contributed to the increasingly rightwing programme of the new ANC government.

SouthScan’s content was so good, so authoritative that in the US it had subscribers from the CIA, the State Department, the UN, universities, ‘think tanks’, researchers and journalists. What struck me most about SouthScan was David’s writing: succinct, analytic but above all, honest in its assessments of the situation whether it be South Africa, Angola or Namibia. David had access to all manner of reliable sources, some of which was gathered under extremely dangerous circumstances.

Importantly, David managed to maintain a completely independent voice through SouthScan, something that didn’t sit too well with the ANC, even though it was to some degree an (unacknowledged) ANC publication.

David produced SouthScan on a weekly basis, by himself but behind him he had a large network of ‘stringers’ supplying him with raw copy from all over the place but mostly from Southern Africa, sent via fax (and even the odd email) and edited by David. Most of his subscribers were in Europe but he had a number in the US where I was based at the time. Given that much of the content was time dependent and expensive to post, getting it overseas as quickly as possible was vital. I suggested to David that he email me the final copy and I’d dump it into Pagemaker, format, print it out on my newly purchased laser printer and get them run off on a high-speed copier binder. In theory I could get the edition posted to the subscribers in a morning.

I have to admit that David was somewhat skeptical about the potential of using what was at that time a medium used either by ‘hackers’, who were mostly kids, large, transnational media corporations and of course ‘defence’. And in fact we argued about the impact of the IT revolution for years, not an uncommon position on the left, who mostly viewed computers as tools of the devil or at the very least elitist.

Back in the mid-80s, personal computers were still thin on the ground, let alone those that could network. Leased lines (the nearest thing to broadband) were so expensive that only corporates and governments could afford them (something like $2000 per month). The rest of us had to use dedicated phone lines with extremely slow modems, even sending emails from one continent to another was very much a hit-and-miss affair, let alone sending an attachment, and the idea of sending a complete publication was unheard of.

Yet it was the advent of computers that transformed the way liberation struggles communicated in the 1980s and early 1990s, something I was to experience directly when I visited El Salvador in 1991. And indeed, I ended up working in Southern Africa directly because of my meeting up with David.

In any case David agreed to try out the idea. We both belonged to a global network called Institute for Global Communications that had ‘branches’ in a number of countries. In South Africa it’s called SangoNet, in the US, PeaceNet and in the UK GreenNet. So late in 1985 we decided to give it try and it worked, albeit that sometimes copy would disappear somewhere between London and New York, but somehow we got it to work and I was able to turn the copy around in four hours and send it out to subscribers.

We collaborated for around six years on producing the US edition of SouthScan during which time I ended up working with the ANC in Zambia installing computers and training comrades, finally ending up relocating to South Africa in 1992, working for the ANC in the run-up to the 94 election creating an election information unit.

Unlike many on the left back in the early days of post-Apartheid South Africa, David had a less than dewey-eyed vision of the ANC programme given its neo-liberal agenda and I think he became very disillusioned and somewhat pessimistic about the future of the ‘rainbow nation’, a view that has been borne out during the intervening years as the ANC ‘mafia’ joined hands with big (white) capital, creating a new black exploiting class.

How he felt about these developments I can only hazard a guess at, as he was in Washington DC and I was in London and we didn’t meet up very often to talk about things but I’m pretty sure, like many other comrades who had devoted their entire lives to overthrowing Apartheid, he was totally disgusted but at the same time philosophical with how things turned out.

Hamba Kahle David, you are missed but definitely not forgotten.

David Coetzee, born in Capetown, South Africa, 8 April 1943 – died in Washington DC, 19 January, 2010