David Coetzee, the founder of the alternative information bulletin SouthScan, for a number of years the most significant source of independent, uncensored information about what was going on in apartheid South Africa, passed away on 24 January 2010 at the age of 66.
What will stand as the most obvious public core of David Coetzee’s contribution to progressive politics in Southern Africa and the UK will be nearly 1000 issues of SouthScan, the journal he launched in 1986. It helped to deliver a continuous stream of carefully - and often perilously-sourced - insider intelligence on the complex spider-webs of Southern African politics and the wider geopolitical eddies of cold war and post-cold war ‘influence’, and ‘counter-influence’ in the region.
From the turbulent years running up to South Africa’s 1994 democratic breakthrough right until mid-2009, SouthScan was a thorn in the flesh of illegitimate power, a searchlight probing its dark corners and hidden secrets. Yet its analyses and powers of prediction were so acute that an extraordinary range of power-brokers worldwide became some of its most ‘loyal’ subscribers: intelligence services, securocrats, right-wing think-tanks, transnational corporations; all wanted to keep abreast of what SouthScan was digging up, revealing, thinking.
It must have irritated the apartheid intelligence services (who at least once crudely burgled his home) that he always seemed to know more about the subterranean undercurrents of Southern African politics than they could hope to discover for themselves.
Because of the unwavering quality of the output, the SouthScan body of work will remain an invaluable resource for scholars with an interest in ‘rubbing history against the grain’, as recommended by Walter Benjamin.
But I would like to take this opportunity to salute David Coetzee the man, the mensch – a complex, subtle, modest, deeply ironic, warm and witty human being; with the frame of a stick of biltong and the heart of an elephant.
It was my great privilege to be his friend from as far back as 1977. We first met in a smoky pub in Charing Cross Road, on a damp and gloomy London winter’s evening. He had just been appointed Foreign Editor of New African magazine. We had not known each other in South Africa, but were in different ways involved in the liberation movement politics of the period.
We very soon discovered a communion of the spirit (which went beyond but was undoubtedly warmed by Stolichnaya) and began a long-term exploration of the obscure accidents of history that had taken us on our respective journeys out of the stifling and surreal parochialism of sixties white South Africa and dumped us where we now found ourselves. By the time we left the pub that evening David had deftly moved the conversation from matters South African to Lenin, Gramsci, Brecht, Benjamin - and the problems and pitfalls of ‘actually existing socialism’.
David hated sectarianism and harboured a deep suspicion of triumphalist narratives, whether of the left or right. Some (very rare) people have an innate inability to think instrumentally. David was one such – and in spades. Think strategically, yes; think tactically, yes. But never deploy ‘historical materialism’ and ‘dialectical necessity’ to fabricate alibis for political greed and venal lust for power.
David saw and aligned himself with the human objects of power, never with its manipulators. While he had strong political discipline – and great courage in often dangerous circumstances – he always seemed to be just that key degree ‘off-side’ from the political movements he supported. Call it historical irreverence - informed by knowledge, reading, insight and respect for real, living individuals in all the suffering of their difficult and messy life circumstances.
David was a man with a profoundly tempered, continuously honed and re-thought grasp of the terrain of culture in all its richness, ambiguity and abjection - culture as the chemistry of artistic performance and sharing; culture as the simple rituals of everyday life; and culture as expressed in the ways social movements and individual identities are formed and textured in the vice grip of history’s twists and turns, leaps and dead-ends.
On the one hand, his personal experiences of hardship and uncertainty fed into his capacity for empathy, solidarity and appreciation of what the human capacity for creativity, joy and self-sacrifice can deliver; on the other, his political experience and the uncompromising intellectual rigor he applied to it led him towards an austere, almost tragic sense of culture as the always oppressed and deformed body-servant of power.
Walter Benjamin reappears here, in an aphorism I remember David quoting on a number of occasions: ‘There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism’. Benjamin of course still hoped, if a little wanly, that a revolutionary breakthrough might yet engender a new momentum of progress in which barbarism ceased to be the dominant driving force.
But, 50 years on from Benjamin – and well before the fall of the Berlin Wall - David saw very clearly that this was no longer a viable utopian option and began to pose and develop a set of questions that I can try to gloss as best I can along the following lines:
How, in today’s brutally resurgent conditions of accumulation, speculation, cynical environmental bargaining and mounting repression, can any striving for the economic and social gains that can lift millions of lives out of misery be re-imagined and pursued?
And how can the required organisational forms, solidarities and emancipatory narratives be rediscovered – only, this time round, modestly, critically, and with the degree of irony and the degree of respect that would make them powerful, liveable and sustainable?
I don’t think David had got to the answers yet. Who has? But his whole life was a shining testament to the fact that these are the only questions worth posing; and that they only retain their value to the extent that you attempt to live their solution in your own life - and in our own collective, shared, intertwined lives.
David – the thinker, the activist, the steadfast friend - and the man who loved to take things apart and fix and re-build them with his hands - will remain a source of continuing strength and renewal to all those of us for whom he posed and lived these questions.
Adrian R Crewe is the national director of the Public Policy Partnership.