One doesn’t expect a man who has been “in conflict with (his) immediate society for most of (his) adult life” to be as enthusiastic about his past as Max du Preez is.
By his own admittance, it has not been easy. In Pale native: Memories of a renegade reporter, Du Preez describes his life leading up to the mid-’90s as one “in conflict with my family, my ethnic group and my society; a life characterised by rage, secrecy, danger, isolation, hatred, resentment, bitterness Ã¢Â€Â“ an exhilarating life with very few dull moments, but essentially a life without love, gentleness and caring”.
Just over ten years later, Du Preez says he doesn’t think “anybody, anywhere, anytime” could ask for a more interesting and rewarding life. “I’ve been a witness to stuff that people hadn’t seen in hundreds of years and won’t see in hundreds of years. And I’ve been a witness sitting in the front row.”
Du Preez reported on the independence of Mozambique and Angola, the Soweto uprising, the war in Angola and Namibia, and the apartheid parliament. “I had the fantastic privilege to start a newspaper owned by journalists (Vrye Weekblad)… and (of) exposing the violent part of apartheid in my own language (Afrikaans).
Then I went to work for the public broadcaster and I did the main documentary series on the Truth Commission. “In every step of our nation’s emancipation and the subcontinent’s emancipation, I was there.”
Du Preez is the product of a “very conservative Afrikaner nationalist, Christian, Free State home, school and university”.
“My father was not happy to have someone in the family who is a journalist. So I studied law (at the University of Stellenbosch), but it bored me stiff.” Du Preez thought journalism would “take (him) places and introduce (him) to people”. It did more than that Ã¢Â€Â“ journalism allowed him to “witness things and see reality”; to discover for himself that the National Party was lying to Afrikaners.
Almost 30 years on, he remembers what he witnessed around 1979 in southern Angola as if it happened an hour ago Ã¢Â€Â“ an experience he regards as career-defining. “I was witness to the South African Defence Force blowing up a town called Chitado. We landed in the choppers and we walked around among the dead bodies.
“There was a SWAPO guerrilla in his uniform with his AK47. I stepped over him to take a picture of all of this death and destruction. And this man looked up Ã¢Â€Â“ he was not dead yet Ã¢Â€Â“ and said to me in Afrikaans: Ã¢Â€Â˜Het die baas vir my water?’ (!_LT_EMCould the master give me some water?!_LT_/EM)
“I was two countries from my own. And here was a man brave enough to fight and to die for his country. And one, he called me Ã¢Â€Â˜baas’ (Ã¢Â€Â˜the form of address enforced by whites on black people for centuries’), and two, he spoke my language. “That was a kick in the stomach.”
June 16, 1976 equally made an impression on the then 20-something Du Preez. “It was a real hard knock I took to my consciousness. It made me wake up and say: Ã¢Â€Â˜What I have lived so far was just a bizarre little dream. Ã¢Â€Â˜Here’s the reality.’ “
Du Preez says being contrary all the time is not a decision Ã¢Â€Â“ it comes with the job. “I know that my role is to investigate and report on the stuff that people don’t want to hear. I could have thought of better things to do in the ’80s than to sniff out death squads. But I knew there were things like Vlakplaas and the Civil Cooperation Bureau (CCB). Nobody was exposing it and that’s why I accepted it: This is my life. I am a journalist.”
He continues to ruffle feathers. When Du Preez recently proposed that a plea bargain should be considered in the Jacob Zuma case, people called him a whore and a turncoat. “And I read it (in the paper) and I wonder why is it that I don’t feel insulted by it all.
“In a sense, I wonder if it’s not a lack of sophistication on my part: I don’t know how to play a double role. I don’t know how to be false. It’s easier for me to just stick to what I know and see and to be honest and to say what I think.”
Du Preez is clearly not afraid of being unpopular. One thing that does scare him is the “current ANC”. He adds: “I have fears for our future in this country.” According to his autobiography, Du Preez is terrified of flying Ã¢Â€Â“ the result of several aeroplane and helicopter crashes and crash-landings.
He writes about a plane crash in 1978: “I knew for certain I was going to burn to death. My mind was filled with absolute, overwhelming terror. So this was my life, then. I was overcome with a deep sadness that my life so far had amounted to so little, and now I was going to die.”
Du Preez thwarted death on more than one occasion Ã¢Â€Â“ particularly during the Vrye Weekblad years. In 1991, for example, Vrye Weekblad‘s offices were bombed not long after the staff members had left the building. It is believed that he escaped a planned assassination when he failed to arrive home at the expected time one day.
Vrye Weekblad, however, was not as lucky as its editor. The paper closed down on 2 February 1994, not six years after its launch, following a successful defamation suit against it that resulted in bankruptcy. The suit followed the publication of reports claiming that Lothar Neethling, a former assistant commissioner of police, had prepared poison that was to be used to kill anti-apartheid activists.
Du Preez then joined the SABC, where he eventually cofounded and became the executive producer of the investigative programme “Special Assignment”.
The programme celebrated a decade on air in August this year Ã¢Â€Â“ without him. He was fired in 1999 Ã¢Â€Â“ “completely out of the blue”.
“I know Snuki Zikalala (the SABC’s group executive of news and current affairs) was not in a position to fire me, but he did boast afterwards that it was his work Ã¢Â€Â“ that he had Ã¢Â€Â˜killed the big white elephant’. I know I was a threat to people like him Ã¢Â€Â“ the ANC commissars in the SABC, because I had a long history of independent thinking and integrity in journalism. I was also far more experienced than any one of them.”
Various reasons were given for the decision to sack him. “In the end the reason they stuck with Ã¢Â€Â“ and that’s the official reason now Ã¢Â€Â“ was that I had lost respect for the management of the SABC. And I think that is absolutely correct.
“If that is a reason to fire someone, I should have been fired, because I did lose all respect for (them).”
Du Preez admits he was bitter initially. “Because I was shocked that that was allowed to happen to something I believed in so strongly (the public broadcaster).” His perspective has since changed. He believes the episode forced him to re-invent himself. “Who knows Ã¢Â€Â“ maybe I would still have been at Ã¢Â€Â˜Special Assignment’.
“I’ve written six books Ã¢Â€Â“ and I’m about to publish a seventh. I did fantastically interesting stuff. My heart is at peace.”
Du Preez hopes to continue writing and making television documentaries. He would like to finish his “pet project” in the next few years Ã¢Â€Â“ a book and possibly a television series about origins, spirituality and civilisation in pre-colonial, sub-Saharan Africa. “The story needs to be told: What really happened before colonialism Ã¢Â€Â“ who were we?”
Being associated with Nat Nakasa through his recent Nat Nakasa Award is significant to him. “Nat Nakasa was a politically incorrect maverick and a very clever, interesting man. “If I want anybody to compliment me they should say: Ã¢Â€Â˜He’s an intelligent, interesting maverick.’ “
Yes, his path is “littered with small mistakes and bad choices or judgement”, but he doesn’t regret any “big moves or principles”. “And that is where the Nat Nakasa Award is really worth a lot to me. Because I’ve been saying the same thing since the mid-’80s. My attitude towards South Africa, towards public life, towards journalism has been exactly the same. Maybe I’m wrong in most of the things I say, but at least I’ve been consistent. I didn’t turn around in ’94 and started making money. I didn’t switch sides. I was critical of the government then and I’m critical of the government now.”
Du Preez has not looked back since becoming a journalist Ã¢Â€Â“ “not for one nanosecond”. “I couldn’t have dreamt up a better life for myself. The worst thing in the world is boredom. I have not been bored in journalism in South Africa”.R
He said it…
Does anything in Afrikaans journalism today resemble what Vrye Weekblad did?
“Most definitely not. And it’s a bit of a disappointment. If I look at Die Burger and Beeld especially, I can sometimes see elements of, for instance, design and the fact that the language is used in a much looser way. And that I remember was stuff that we brought in.
“When Vrye Weekblad started it was !_LT_EMskryf soos jy praat!_LT_/EM (write the way you speak). “We see elements of that. But the sense of irreverence, the sense of adventure, of experimentation Ã¢Â€Â“ I’m sad to say Afrikaans newspapers are too scared of it. Well, there’s an Afrikaans expression that maybe applies here Ã¢Â€Â“ Afrikaans editors are !_LT_EMstok-in-die-hol!_LT_/EM (have sticks up their backsides).”
Do you think that local media measure up in terms of investigative journalism?
“Investigative journalism to me is not only about exposing government corruption. I think that’s the standard view in South Africa: In investigative journalism you must nail the crooked politicians. On the crooked politician side we are doing extremely well Ã¢Â€Â“ especially the Sunday Times and the Mail & Guardian. I think they are brave and they do proper work. I mean the M&G has done investigations over years and we didn’t see that before.
“Occasionally you also see investigative journalism in Afrikaans newspapers Ã¢Â€Â“ for example, medical and science journalism far advanced compared to any other form of media in the country. I think it’s disappointing to see that, while we realise that climate change is one of the most pressing issues in world Ã¢Â€Â“ more so than terrorism Ã¢Â€Â“ we haven’t seen South African journalists make a popular case.
“You see an occasional piece on new research, but if it’s the most pressing problem in the world today, you need to have it in the newspapers every day.”
Afrikaners Ã¢Â€Â“ “I love them and I hate them at the same time. But I am one of them.”
!_LT_STRONGFitting in!_LT_/STRONG Ã¢Â€Â“ “As a child, I always had the feeling that I was born in the wrong place at the wrong time… I did sometimes try to fit in and be accepted, especially to get girls, but mostly I accepted my plight as an outsider.”
Breyten Breytenbach Ã¢Â€Â“ “I still think he is the greatest Afrikaans poet ever, but I really don’t think he is much of a politician.”
!_LT_STRONGStephen Mulholland!_LT_/STRONG, his editor at Financial Mail Ã¢Â€Â“ “Almost 20 years after our first meeting, he wrote in a column in the !_LT_EMSunday Times!_LT_/EM I was the Ã¢Â€Â˜worst unguided missile’ he had ever come across. Coming from him, I took it as a compliment.”
!_LT_STRONGPW Botha!_LT_/STRONG Ã¢Â€Â“!_LT_STRONG !_LT_/STRONG”I sometimes miss the old guy.”
Nelson Mandela Ã¢Â€Â“ “For the first time in my life I looked at a politician and thought: I love this man.”
!_LT_STRONGPresident Thabo Mbeki !_LT_/STRONGÃ¢Â€Â“ “What on earth happened to the charming, smiling, generous, warm, straightforward Thabo Mbeki we got to know in Dakar?”
Source: Pale native: Memories of a renegade reporter
This profile first appeared in !_LT_EMThe Media!_LT_/EM magazine (September 2008).