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Themes Why I Became a Dissident » 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. 

So if I look back at my life and my career and I ask myself why did I not travel the same route as most other Afrikaans young men of my age, of my time, I would say it’s because I went into journalism, because it made me see things—although I must also add I recently wrote my memoirs and struggled with this very question. Why did I not become a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church or a politician or a soldier or something in the old apartheid system? And I think my father had something to do with it.

My father was a member of the Broederbond. He was an Afrikaner nationalist. He supported apartheid quite strongly. And yet he had a fundamental sense of justice. He came from a poor background. His parents suffered greatly in the Anglo-Boer War and were victims of the scorched earth policies. And so he came—he made good, but he came from the poor background, and I think where his sort of sympathy with the underdog came from.

[The Afrikaner Broederbond, or Afrikaner Brotherhood in English, was a South African secret society composed of Afrikaans-speaking Protestant, white men over the age of 25 that was established in 1918. The Boer Wars of 1880-1881 and 1899-1902 were fought between the British Empire and the Dutch settlers (Afrikaners) of the Transvaal and Orange Free State located in Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. The British were ultimately victorious and established the autonomous Union of South Africa in 1910, including the Afrikaner territories.]

So I really remember walking the streets of my town where black people were—you know, if you walked down the sidewalk they would go to the sides because the white—it’s just the white man has the right of way. And my father was no different, and yet my father would pick conversations in Sesotho, the local language, with those people, and sometimes take up their battles for them, which they would then—because he could understand their language and he seemed to be sympathetic.

He would then help them, and I didn’t think of much of it at the time, but in hindsight that kind of fundamental sense of justice and decency, bizarrely within this framework of apartheid, had a very strong influence on me.

I remember, for instance, my father was a very religious man also, and he was at the local congregation in charge of the black minister of a neighboring congregation, of his payment and doing his books and helping him along, because the white church sort of financially supported the black church. And this man—the Reverend Ernest Bhuti was his name used to come once a week to our home in Kroonstad to bring the books and the invoices and stuff.

Now I’m talking about the ‘50s and early ‘60s. In those days the practice was that he would stop at the back, go through the backyard, and knock on the door of the kitchen because he’s a black man. Somehow this didn’t happen. He stopped in the street—we had a very big property—and he would walk the 200 meters to the front door where he would be greeted by hand by my parents, and they would either sit on the front veranda or they would go inside the home where my mother would serve tea and whatever. And I did not find this very strange because that’s how my parents behaved with anybody else.

The community didn’t think so and charged my father for alien conduct—conduct unbecoming an elder in the church. And I remember I took notice of this when someone was sent to come talk to my father about this, and I somehow overheard this—I was sitting there. And they said, “Well, why—we hear that you serve this black dominee with the same cups and from the same teapot. Why would you do that? And why doesn’t he come in the back door? Why do you make a spectacle of him walking through your front garden and then you greet him by hand?” And I remember my father getting extremely angry, saying, “So do you agree that this man is a messenger of God?” and the guy said, “Yeah, he’s a minister.” [“Dominee” is an Afrikaans word for a minister.]

And he said, “And do you want me to tell God that his messengers are only good enough for a chipped cup and for the back door?” And that’s what I remember. And my father paid a bit of a social price for that if I remember.

So this little bit of stuff stuck with me, and when I became a journalist they made the mistake of—because I was doing quite well in journalism. I think it was what I wanted to do. It was my talent. I was a good writer and I was naturally inquisitive and fairly confident. And so I became the youngest person to be sent to the parliamentary press gallery of the white parliament of South Africa—the whites-only parliament.

And I thought this was very exciting, so I sat there and the shock was tremendous because I grew up being taught about the fathers of the folk that God had sent to us and we have to respect them and they know better and don’t argue. And I looked at them up close because now I was working for a sympathetic Afrikaans newspaper, sympathetic to the government, and I’m in this inner sanctum as a journalist and I was supposed to be one of them. But I didn’t get the note. I didn’t understand the code and I went there as a reporter. And I saw the decadence and the amoral conduct and the lies from inside, and I was really—I didn’t expect this. I must’ve been very naïve.

And the crux came when once I was reporting on a minister—he was the Minister of Water Affairs or something. And I walked out to file the story on what the minister had just said, and my team leader, a fellow journalist, said, “No, we have to take your story to the minister first.” And I said, “Well, I reported him correctly.” He said, “No, but the minister always has to see the story to see if it suits him.” And I said, “Well, what if what he wants me to write is different from what Hansard writes, the official record of parliament?” And he said to me, “Who do you think Afrikaners will believe, Hansard or the minister?” And I said, “Well, I’m out of here. I can’t—this I can’t do.” 

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 on this theme from Max du Preez

Max Du Preez: Why I Became Dissident “And I saw the decadence and the amoral conduct and the lies from inside.” 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: Frustration “I was trying to live my conscience through my journalism.” More + 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?”