Table Talk

Max du Preez's Vrye Weekblad revival: It's not nostalgia, it's an intervention!

Max du Preez was 36 when he started Vrye Weekblad in 1987, the Afrikaans publication that exposed Apartheid atrocities. Now 67, he is back with an online version of the ground-breaking paper

07 April 2019 - 00:00 By TANYA FARBER

Looking back at those who exposed apartheid atrocities in the '80s, Max du Preez was undoubtedly one of the heavyweights. As editor of Vrye Weekblad he and his team punched way above their weight, laying bare the heart of state criminality and brutality.
Well, Max is back. Vrye Weekblad relaunched on Friday, more than 30 years after it first took on the might of the state. This version is online and the country has changed enormously, but for Du Preez and his gang the struggle continues.
Du Preez is an icon himself, the original "renegade reporter", as he refers to himself in the title of his book, Pale Native. He has only lived in his house in Rondebosch in Cape Town for 18 months now, having moved back from the countryside. He says he is still trying to get used to suburban life. Four dogs pad along the vintage wooden floors and a bird chirps from the kitchen.
The house is a patchwork of colours, paintings and quirky furniture. Du Preez puts all this down to his wife, who is an artist and has an excellent eye. His office, a small room outside the house, is more plain.
Getting straight to the point of Vrye Weekblad's revival, he says the Afrikaans media is extremely healthy financially speaking, but "a mediocrity has set in because people have bought into AfriForum's push for Afrikaners to see themselves as victims who've been alienated".
"It's not about nostalgia. It is time for an intervention in journalism. Things are not going well for us and this is particularly true of Afrikaans journalism," he says. People are "so confused and running scared" because of all the extreme rhetoric and populism that's about.
Du Preez says he hopes the new Vrye Weekblad will be an antidote to this.
"People are desperate for some certainty, of what they can and can't believe," he says. He believes with all the changes in the media industry and social media, the new publication can "leapfrog over all those problems" because, though it hasn't been in business for decades, it is an iconic title.
"Back then, we knew who the enemy was."
The country of the '80s was, in a sense, easier for journalists, says Du Preez. The enemy was definable. "It was pretty clear. We knew these were the bad guys and these were the freedom fighters and we fought on the right side. Now it is completely different."
But he has remained resolute in sticking to his principles: "a representative government, a clean government, dignity, freedom of speech .
"Those issues are as alive now as they were then. It's just more complicated knowing who to blame."
The legacies of colonialism and apartheid loom large but Du Preez asks how much the maladministration on the part of the ANC can be blamed for the mess.
He answers his own question: "A lot. And that is an uncomfortable thing to say. If you look at the huge uprising in Alex today, people's lives haven't changed. I am not going to say, 'shame, the poor black government couldn't get their act together'. I blame them for not getting it together."
He says the ANC's job was to build a new SA on top of those ruins. "Now they say, 'Oh, but we were given ruins'."
That said, he believes the country is far more open and tolerant, and "that is a magnificent thing".
"It is the best insurance policy against becoming a failed state."
On the downside: "It is just astonishing how politicians and senior officials are entitled to screw the black guy in the township and steal money. There is evil in every country but these guys seem to have gotten away with it. So now, we cling to Cyril."
Du Preez predicts a disastrous future for the country if the ANC runs into the arms of the EFF for a coalition in the wake of flagging votes. "The ANC will win, but the question is - where is the magic point where Cyril gets strengthened or weakened? At a certain percentage, the enemy could feel emboldened and then he would have to be extra careful not to be recalled before the next election."
Du Preez has been criticised, "hysterically so", especially by the DA, when saying people should vote for the ANC. But he stands by it to fend off an EFF hand in governance.
"If the ANC comes in at under 50%, we have a possible coalition between the ANC and the EFF. Deputy president Julius Malema? That would be a disaster."
He says the EFF is an inherently violent party.
"Everything they do has violence under the surface. Their titles, names, the way they act, every time they open their mouths. The EFF is a proto-fascist party. It hates freedom of speech and it hates the media. It has these North Korean ideas, the type which I think would destroy our country's freedom. Our economy will collapse and we will end up like Venezuela. That is a very serious thing."
While a coalition between the ANC and DA is "not a politically feasible thing", Du Preez thinks we need to start talking about that. His message to the DA is this: "You've seen the EFF's policies, what they say, what they believe, yet you would go into a coalition with them?"
Du Preez takes an incisive view of our democratic decades. He counts the years under former president Jacob Zuma as catastrophic and having done "astonishing damage to both the ANC and the country". Now, even the party's "new messiah" might be too late.
"You can't get a better guy than Cyril. He has huge integrity. But even he is failing, so we know the ANC is going to die between this election and the next two."
He says people have no idea of the sensitive transition that had to be made when apartheid fell and that this happened "quite magnificently under Mandela".
"This cheap, youthful nonsense about Mandela the sellout is just crap and it can go away," he says, "If that transition went wrong, we would not be sitting here today. The competency of the newly elected government and its civil service went up and up and then crashed under Zuma."
But for the tragedy of his Aids denialism, which Du Preez describes as "sheer and utter stupidity", Mbeki was a super diplomat who had things under control.
"It is a cheap shot to say that what happened under Zuma began under Mbeki. Thabo stole nothing. Nobody ever pointed a finger at him for taking money. Nothing!"
Du Preez pauses and says: "God, I never thought I would stick up for Thabo like this!"
"We should be more intolerant of those who are intolerant. It's as simple as that."
Du Preez cites the Christchurch killer, the white supremacist who opened fire at two New Zealand mosques, killing 50 people, as an example of someone from the fringe who "truly believed he was doing a good thing by killing Muslims because his head has been filled with shit". He had a gun licence and was carrying five "modified" firearms during the massacre.
He says that for Malema to say things like "we don't call for whites to be wiped out - at least not yet" is something that should not be tolerated, but everyone is too scared to do anything.
"The Human Rights Commission is scared of him. The Hawks are scared of him. The NPA ... everybody. That is the zeitgeist. It is the new populism of rather erring to the left than risk being called a racist."
Du Preez says that some journalists, especially younger ones, are terrified of being called a puppet or a racist by Malema so they treat him "softly". Then they get to DA leader Mmusi Maimane, and "destroy the poor man" because that will make them look good.
"We are filling people's heads with filth. We have a potential Barend Strydom again among us. Strydom was a mad guy who truly believed Jesus wanted him to kill innocent black people on the square. And he did that. Now we potentially have one black guy out there who is willing to lead the process after his head has been filled with crap."
And so we come full circle. The new Vrye Weekblad's raison d'ĂȘtre is the same as its predecessor - giving people all the information they need in context, with many voices.
Du Preez will be looking after the political writing, award-winning journalist Jacques Pauw the investigative side, and veteran Annelise Burgess is there as managing editor. They are the only staff members and the rest will be the "fresh voices" of commissioned writers, experts and activists.
Du Preez was 36 when he started Vrye Weekblad in 1987. He is now 67 but says this is the last hurrah before the end of his career.
"Retirement? What is that? I haven't had a job with an employer since 1987 so there's no big pension that kicks in for me. But yes, it is my last stand in journalism. I will work until I can't.
"It is a journalistic intervention in which we want to ask questions and find credible answers and there will be times when I sincerely regret having done this. It is going to be a wild ride. I was living a happy existence in my suburban home."
It is in this suburban home that Du Preez will be working closely with Burgess and Pauw, yet geographically they will be miles apart.
"Annelise sits in a village outside East London. Jacques sits in Riebeek-Kasteel in the Swartland and I am in suburbia in Rondebosch.
"We have no office but that is a nice thing. The last time we had an office they came to blow it up."
When the Vrye Weekblad was launched in the 1980s, no advertiser would touch the newspaper.
Editor Max du Preez sold his art collection and cashed in his pension and insurance policies to finance the publication.
Security police bombed the newspaper's offices and twice tried to kill Du Preez

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