Beresford, known for his writing about the Northern Ireland Troubles and the end of apartheid, has died in Johannesburg
David Beresford, the award-winning Guardian correspondent who covered Northern Ireland during the Troubles and South Africa during and after the end of the apartheid era, has died after a long illness at his home in Johannesburg, aged 68.
Beresford began journalistic life on the Guardian as a home news reporter and quickly established himself as an exceptional talent. But it was after he was appointed Irish correspondent that his work became more widely acknowledged.
Beresford had a knack of capturing the big moment in human affairs, be it through his reporting or his books. He combined a fluent writing style with a passion for accuracy and detail. He was, in addition, a man of immense charm, geniality and of fiercely independent spirit. He was also a foe to the pompousness and self-importance that can negatively affect journalists once they make a name for themselves.
A memorable example of his self-deprecatory style came in his account of his reporting of the day, in February 1990, of Nelson Mandelas release after 27 years in jail. Beresford described his meticulous preparations to ensure he had the best vantage point when the great man appeared, including a specially selected hotel room overlooking the street, binoculars, phone line and tape recorder. He was certain, he said, he would have a perfect view as Mandela reached the end of his long walk to freedom. Well, everyone knows what happened next. Everyone saw what happened. Nearly everyone, that is, he wrote years later. I hardly saw a thing. All that I know for certain is that a voice cried out, There he is. There was something like a collective sigh, a womans voice let out a piercing scream behind me and pandemonium broke out as the camera people stampeded. By the time I got to the spot where Id thought Id get a glimpse of him, all that was left was the receding roar of his motor escort and a cloud of dust.
It was a rare and temporary setback. During his years in South Africa, where he was based from 1984, and in covering the wider, sub-Saharan region, Beresford made a habit of being in the right place at the right time. He tellingly described, for example, the growing defiance of apartheid by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, speaking after he was enthroned as leader of South Africas Anglicans in 1986. Spare us your new-found altruism, he reported Tutu scolding the white establishment. It can never be the perpetrators of apartheid who can say apartheid is changing.
He covered the creation and work of South Africas post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which became a model for post-conflict truth-telling elsewhere in the world. His reporting from Zimbabwe, as the rule of Robert Mugabe grew ever more problematic, and from Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, was similarly memorable.
In 1991, when Operation Desert Storm the invasion of occupied Kuwait to expel Iraq forces by US, British and Arab troops reached a climax, Beresford was detached from his normal duties and sent to cover the story. He did so with aplomb.
Beresford was twice named foreign correspondent of the year. Yet all these international successes aside, it was his moving account of the ordeal of IRA hunger strikers, when he was covering Northern Ireland, that may prove to be the most powerful and lasting testament to his writing and journalism. In 1981, 10 men starved themselves to death inside the walls of Long Kesh prison in Belfast rather than give in to Margaret Thatchers government. Drawing on smuggled, contemporary IRA documents and letters from the prisoners, Beresford immortalised their gripping story in Ten Men Dead, published in 1987.
In 1991, Beresford was diagnosed with Parkinsons disease. Rather than give in to the illness, he insisted on carrying on his work as a foreign correspondent. As his condition deteriorated he remained courageous and resourceful, and after 10 years, opted to undergo a radical new treatment. With characteristic bravery, he subsequently wrote, movingly and with extraordinary humour, about his experience of being fully conscious during many hours of brain surgery that involved his head being bolted to the operating table. The procedure prolonged his life, but did not cure him.
Paul Webster, former foreign editor of the Guardian, said: David Beresford was one of the greatest correspondents of his generation. He was a tenacious and brave reporter, a brilliant investigator, had a fine analytical mind, and was a wonderful, lucid, graphic writer a rare combination of skills. He was also disarmingly charismatic and charming to friends, colleagues, and the host of admirers of his shambling good looks.
For news editors, he had the infuriating habit of agreeing vigorously to carry out instructions, then ignoring them completely to pursue what he believed the story should be, with an apologetic shrug, a brief mumbled apology and a mischievous grin. He was invariably right to do so.