I heard it again this past week. I still shake my head. There are still people saying: It wasn’t that bad. Those things didn’t happen. We had to do what we had to do. The education never would have worked together. Those killings were propaganda. I never saw an unhappy black person.
Yes, some people still say and believe it. That is why we must read the records and learn from the journalists who did the hard investigation at the risk of their own lives.
Du Preez’s Pale Native reads more like a high powered thriller than a journalist’s account of his life and mission. Self-described as: “a butt-kicking, hard-living, cynical, restless, maverick journalist”, Max was all these. Abrasive, tough, irritating, fearless, visceral and rough, he minced no words and took risks with grave consequences, but he never flinched in his role as “troublesome advocate of justice and fair play” (Sunday Independent).
With Max, the fight against apartheid was deeply personal. As an Afrikaner, and a member of the oppressive class, he keenly felt the injustice and his responsibility to speak out. Interwoven in the story are his reflections and feelings of guilt and shame of being part of the unfair side, though not by choice. For him the colors blend, the sides are not “right” and “wrong” and the stories have to be heard for the record to be set straight.
Why? In his chapter on Dirk Coetzee and Vlakplaas, du Preez explains why people go into denial: “because if what Dirk said was true, they were part of something very barbaric and unchristian.” Max willingly took on the dark, hidden, underside of the apartheid apparatus because there were few willing to pay the price. That price was high in his personal life, his professional career, and financial affairs.
Du Preez published the Vrye Weekblad, the only Afrikaans anti-apartheid journal, until he was bankrupted by a corrupt libel case. The journal featured the horrors of the Special Forces and how high the corruption went in the government.
The most difficult chapter for Max to write was “Let the Truth be Known” about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He followed the TRC for SABC and deeply believed in the process. He recognized that the nature of this commission forced white South Africans “to take the tales of horror from the past more seriously.” His expectations of the TRC included peace for his country and a personal peace as well. Undoubtedly he longed for justification of his activist life marginalized by this battle against apartheid.
He was deeply grieved when de Klerk’s opportunity came and he absolutely denied the atrocities and any knowledge of the workings of his underlings. Desmond Tutu, the chairperson, asked how de Klerk could not know when Tutu himself had personally informed de Klerk about the killings. Du Preez summed it up: “FW de Klerk wasted the most important moment a white South African leader will ever have to speak honestly to the black majority and ask them for forgiveness and full acceptance. It could have made such a huge difference. That moment will never come again.”
Despite that overwhelming sense of opportunity lost, Max remains hopeful for his country. He belongs to a heroic breed of reporter willing to take on a corrupt establishment. Nelson Mandela recognized his lonely role while other media groups and foreign correspondents chose safer, less volatile approaches. The abrasive exterior which enabled Max du Preez able to survive in such a tumultuous climate has made his settling into the new South Africa more complicated. We must still read the history with which he has enriched his new country.