Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The Idler, Monday, April 30, 2018

A man of Africa

THE newspaper world's leading specialist on Africa died last week. Wilf Nussey was known and respected through much of the continent; in the quality end of Fleet Street; and on quality American newspapers like the Washington Post and the New York Times.

Editor of the Argus Africa News Service, he ran a network of offices – Johannesburg, Salisbury (as it then was), Dar-es-Salaam, Nairobi, Accra, Luanda and Windhoek, plus a string of quality correspondents elsewhere in Africa, this during a time of unprecedented upheaval on the continent.

His lanky figure was familiar all over. Some of the foreign press corps called him "Stringbean" – "Senhor Stringbean" in the Portuguese-speaking territories.

Wilf made sure each of his staff in the Johannesburg office (I was one) was familiar with "running the desk" so that he could himself could go out into the field and report directly from the proliferating hotspots of the continent.

Running the desk was important because high octane material could be coming in on a daily basis, sometimes written in stilted English by a Francophone or Portuguese correspondent. Everything had to be knocked into shape and got out to the newspaper group as quickly as possible.

When you were not running the desk, you were likely to be somewhere out there in Africa.

Wilf always insisted, with understatement, that we were not war correspondents, we simply covered events in countries that happened to be at war.

It could be a spasmodic existence. You could find yourself on a flight to Angola, say, or Mozambique, with a roll of US dollars in your underpants, taken from the head office safe because there'd been no time for the niceties of foreign exchange. It could be a month or more before you returned.

Wilf was informed. He knew where to send his staffers. He was a stickler for accuracy. So much so that the Africa Service had an informal agreement with the BBC to share material.

There were times also when we served papers like the Washington Post and the New York Times.

Wilf was super-informed. He returned once from a sortie to the bush of Mozambique, where the Portuguese were fighting a desultory war against Frelimo insurgents.

He then knocked together a lengthy analytical piece headed something like: "What the Portuguese need to do to win this war." As you read it you realised Nussey was actually telling us the Portuguese had no hope whatever of winning this war. He went on to look at the implications for Ian Smith's Rhodesia, for South Africa itself. This was a foretaste of what was to come.

Every newspaper in the group gave it splash treatment – except one that ignored it. (No names, no packdrill – but it wasn't a Durban title).

One night in an army mess in the bush with a few senior Portuguese officers, Nussey had got wind of the impending coup d 'etat in Portugal by General Antonio de Spinola, which would lead to a withdrawal from Africa. That's the kind of contact he had.

And it was after the coup, and as the Portuguese were actually withdrawing, that the group title that had ignored Wilf's initial piece blew the dust off the type and filled a page: "What the Portuguese need to do to win this war". The easy-going Nussey was for once incandescent with rage.

Wilf Nussey was a superb analytical writer and a gutsy newspaperman. He was also intensely loyal to his staff, which must have sometimes been difficult because among the motley of Aussies, New Zealanders, Brits and Portuguese he had drawn about him, there were some decided oddballs.

He went on to other positions in newspapers, among them editor of the Pretoria News. But I'm sure the Africa Service was his high point. It certainly was for those of us who were with him.

In retirement, first in the Lowveld and then at Simonstown, Wilf continued writing, producing a number of books, often on nature and wildlife. The man was prodigious. He died aged 86 - a great innings - but is nevertheless sadly missed.



AN Englishman, an Irishman, a Scotsman, a priest, a nun, a rabbi, a Pole and Van der Merwe walk into a bar.

Barman: "What's this? Some kind of joke?"


Last word

Ex Africa semper aliquid novi – Out of Africa always something new – Pliny the Elder

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