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Interviews : Max du Preez

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Max du Preez is a South African journalist, author and documentary filmmaker. He was an anti-apartheid journalist who worked to expose government repression.

Born in 1951, Max du Preez grew up in Kroonstad, South Africa. Unlike many Afrikaners, descendants of Dutch colonial settlers who largely supported the apartheid government, his parents were open-minded toward integration of whites and non-whites.

After attending Stellenbosch University, an Afrikaner institution, du Preez began a career in journalism writing for Afrikaans and English language newspapers supportive of the apartheid government. Du Preez quickly became disenchanted by the South African media’s blatant political bias and abandoned his work in the mainstream media.

Du Preez became involved with anti-apartheid movements like the United Democratic Front. In 1988, he founded Vrye Weekblad, the first Afrikaans-language, anti-apartheid newspaper that offered alternative policy perspectives from mainstream media and was critical of the government. The government attempted to stifle the paper financially and legally by levying exorbitant registration fees and charging it with various infractions. In 1990, a member of the Civil Cooperation Bureau, a pro-apartheid group, bombed Vrye Weekblad’s headquarters. Vrye Weekblad survived, however, until 1994 when the government’s financial pressure finally forced its closure. Ironically, apartheid collapsed and South Africa transitioned to democracy later that same year.

During the transition, du Preez covered the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission on television, publicizing the body’s efforts to ease tension and promote a unified, post-apartheid South Africa.

Today, Du Preez remains a prominent South African columnist and media personality. He has received several awards including the Nat Nakasa Award for Courageous Journalism and been named the Yale Globalist International Journalist. 

In the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s there were formal pieces of legislation limiting what you’re allowed to write or say in public. There was—for instance, you were not allowed to quote anybody who was banned, and the entire ANC and a lot of the UDF and the Communist Party and the trade unions were banned. They were banned people. You couldn’t say anything that could be construed as furthering the aims of the enemies of the state, in other words the ANC [African National Congress]. You couldn’t report on police—on certain police conduct. You were not allowed to report on what happened in a township which was declared a state of emergency. There were Official Secrets Acts. Yeah, there was quite a lot of that, quite severe.

[Banning was a legal process during apartheid enabled primarily by the Suppression of Communism Act, where individuals were prohibited from communicating with more than one person at a time and from traveling domestically or internationally without permission. Organizations were also banned by the government. The media was restricted in covering banned individuals. The African National Congress (ANC) is a political party that served as the most prominent resistance movement against South Africa’s apartheid system, at times resorting to violence through its military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe. It was officially banned by the South African government from 1960 to 1990. As apartheid collapsed, the ANC’s leader, Nelson Mandela, was elected President of South Africa in 1994 and established a democratic government. The United Democratic Front was a multiracial anti-apartheid coalition. Under apartheid, townships were residential areas designated for non-white groups. Non-whites were prohibited from living in areas reserved for whites.]

But there was also a lot of self-censorship by all, by Afrikaans and English newspapers trying to sort of pacify the government, and at the same time to pacify the advertisers. Advertisers in newspapers were mostly big business. They didn’t want to annoy the apartheid government because they were making good money under apartheid.

So if you get a little bit radical, then they say, “Well, I don’t feel comfortable advertising in your newspaper.”

The newspaper that I ran, for instance, Vrye Weekblad, never got advertising. There was one brave guy who ran a mining company who completely agreed with what we were doing, and he promised me a series of full-page ads over a few months that would have paid for an awful lot. And the very next day because, you know, they listened to my phone and stuff—the very next day he was called in and warned that he would be fired if he spent a penny on me. That came from the government and then via his bosses.

But in the end our newspaper was closed down in February 1994 ironically, because we ran exposés of death squads, police death squads. We broke the story for the first time, that the South African police actually had a unit at a farm outside of Pretoria called Vlakplaas where they trained people to harass the ANC, kidnap them, torture them, assassinate them. And they used an awful lot of ANC guerillas who were forced to switch sides, either through torture or bribery or being compromised. And we exposed that story for the first time. Also the military had a similar—had two similar outfits. And we spent an awful lot over three or four years just running week after week confessions by more policemen about how they tortured and killed and stuff. [Vlakplaas was a farm near the city of Pretoria that was a training facility for counterinsurgency forces of the South African police under apartheid.]

But one of the stories that we ran was the head of the forensics laboratory in South Africa, a man called General Lothar Neethling, a brilliant chemist by training, he spent his time preparing toxins and all kinds of potions to put into people’s drink to kill them, to give them heart attacks that couldn’t be detected, or to just incapacitate them so they could be abducted, kidnapped and stuff. [General Lothar Paul Neethling (1935 – 2005) was deputy chief commissioner of the South African Police during apartheid. He was a scientist who was alleged to have used police forensic laboratories to produce chemical and biological weapons for use against anti-apartheid activists and South Africa’s black population.]

And we ran this exposé with his name, because we had to run his name; otherwise it’s just another allegation. And he ran a five-year court case against me, which we won in the Supreme Court, because everything we said was true. But in the appellate division the judges said they couldn’t—they didn’t know who to believe. And his legal costs were paid by the state, but we were then forced to pay our own—our own and his legal costs, which was more than we had spent in two years on the newspaper. So that’s why we had to close down, which I think was the original idea: close us down because we’d go bankrupt. So we closed down two months before South Africa became a democracy. 

South Africa is a nation of almost 53 million on the southern tip of Africa. The nation has a unique multicultural character and is approximately 80 percent African and 10 percent European, with the remaining 10 percent being of mixed race or Asian heritage. These broad racial categories include a multitude of ethnic and linguistic groups.

Although it has the largest economy on the continent, much of the nation remains in poverty and there is great economic disparity. Historically, the mining industry has played a key role in South Africa’s economy and it continues to remain an important industry today, alongside manufacturing, tourism, and financial services.

South Africa was first settled by non-natives in 1652, when the Dutch established an outpost in what would later become Cape Town. Soon after, British, French, and German settlers came to the area. The descendants of the original Dutch settlers became known as Afrikaners. Conflicts over land and power arose between the settling groups as well as between the settlers and the native people of the region. In 1910, Britain formally created the Union of South Africa as a self-governing dominion within the British Empire.

Throughout South Africa’s history, non-whites were subjected to widespread discrimination. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the government passed a series of laws institutionalizing discrimination and segregation. In the 1948 elections, the National Party, which served as a platform for Afrikaner nationalism, gained power. The National Party program was centered on the system of racial segregation known as apartheid. Supporters of apartheid argued that South Africa was made up of four distinct racial groups: white, black, “Coloured” or mixed-race, and Indian.

The white minority oppressed the African majority and other non-white groups. Black Africans were particularly disadvantaged in terms of education, housing, income, and health. Blacks were denied citizenship and not permitted to use the services and facilities accessible by the white minority. Many blacks were forced to relocate when their neighborhoods were declared “white.” A series of laws enacted in the 1950s further codified and expanded racial segregation. In part, the National Party justified its policies by branding its opponents as communists.

The African National Congress (ANC) was founded in 1912 to advocate for the rights of black South Africans. As apartheid expanded, the ANC and other groups used both nonviolent and violent actions to combat the government. The ANC and other groups were oppressed by the government, and many of their senior leaders were banned or imprisoned. Nelson Mandela, a prominent ANC leader, was imprisoned from 1962 to 1990.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the anti-apartheid movement gained strength. Foreign governments and the international community isolated South Africa. International sanctions damaged the economy and helped erode domestic support for apartheid. Meanwhile, the end of the Cold War weakened the government’s claim that yielding power would lead to a communist takeover.

In 1990, the government of South Africa took its first steps toward ending apartheid when it ended a ban on certain political organizations including the ANC. Nelson Mandela and other opposition leaders were released from prison and apartheid legislation was repealed. F.W. de Klerk, President from 1989-1994, helped to broker this transition of South Africa from the apartheid-era to a multi-racial democracy. In 1993, de Klerk and Mandela received the Nobel Peace Prize for their work.

In 1994, South Africa held its first election that allowed all adults to vote, regardless of race. The ANC gained power and Nelson Mandela was elected president. South Africa enacted a liberal, democratic constitution, backed by a strong and independent judiciary. While the ANC has remained the strongest party, elections are vigorously contested and democratic safeguards are respected. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigated abuses and crimes committed during the apartheid era.

Freedom House’s 2013 Freedom in the World report categorized South Africa as “free” with an overall freedom rating of two, with one being the most free and seven being the least. The country also received ratings of two in political rights and civil liberties. However, in the 2013 Freedom of the Press report, the nation was categorized as “party free” due to government restrictions on the press and the prevalence of civil cases brought against journalists for libel.

More from Max du Preez

Max Du Preez: Censorship under Apartheid “Our newspaper was closed down in February 1994, because we ran exposés of death squads.” Max Du Preez: Post-Apartheid Skepticism Max du Preez discusses the reaction of white South Africans to apartheid’s collapse. Max Du Preez: Why I Became Dissident “And I saw the decadence and the amoral conduct and the lies from inside.” More + Max Du Preez: Truth Commissions “People could get on a stage and share their stories, and share their pain with the nation.” Max Du Preez: Apartheid Collapses “You could not put five million people in jail. You could not keep them separate anymore.” Max Du Preez: Challenging Chaos “We had 10,000 people in jail at any given time without trial. We had death squads running around killing people.” Max Du Preez: Transition to Democracy “Freedom and democracy have been written onto the hearts of most of South Africa’s people.” Max Du Preez: Vrye Weekblad Max Du Preez: Vrye Weekblad Max Du Preez: Under Attack “They bombed our offices and they sabotaged some of our cars.” Max Du Preez: Media Under Apartheid “There was a separation of races in the media all along.” Max Du Preez: Frustration “I was trying to live my conscience through my journalism.” Max Du Preez: Religious Organizations “Whenever they had a march or a protest or a rally, the front line were clergy, were religious people.” Max Du Preez: Witnessing the Soweto Student Uprising “What motivates a 16- or 17-year old child to knowingly give his own life for freedom?” Max Du Preez: Background Max du Preez introduces himself. Max Du Preez: International Sanctions Max du Preez discusses the devastating effect of sanctions on the apartheid government.