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Boeke | Books > Resensies | Reviews > English

Max du Preez’s Pale Native – a bluntly told historical narrative

Rob Gaylard - 2011-03-02

Untitled Document

Title: Pale Native: Memories of a Renegade Reporter
Author: Max du Preez
Publisher: ZEBRA PRESS
ISBN: 9781770220607

Click here to buy a copy from Kalahari.net.

For once the dust cover doesn’t exaggerate: “Max du Preez has one hell of a story to tell” – and he tells it in his familiar, blunt, no-holds-barred fashion. For readers who missed the first edition (2003), this is a gripping and highly readable guide to what we as a nation have been through over the past forty years or so. This new edition (completed in 2010 just before the Soccer World Cup) brings us up to date with Max’s take on recent events and controversies – the travail at the SABC, the horrors of the Rwandan genocide and “ethnic cleansing” in the former Yugoslavia, the Mbeki years (it was Du Preez who set the cat among the pigeons by calling him a “womaniser”), the Malema phenomenon, the Terre’Blanche murder, the “Reitz four” – and more.

His central focus is the extraordinary recent history of South Africa – from Soweto 1976 to the years of transition, repression and turmoil (the 1980s to 1994). At times we seemed to be teetering on the brink of civil war. However, this is not a straightforward historical narrative: these events are filtered through the perspective of this unusual “pale native”, a different kind of Afrikaner. Even when he decisively breaks from the values and ethos of his not-quite-white “tribe”, he retains an intimate, almost visceral, connection with their sentiments, fears and prejudices – a connection that would not be available to the typical foreign correspondent or liberal, English-speaking commentator. This, of course, is precisely why he became the man so many Afrikaners loved to hate: he didn’t just found a radical anti-apartheid weekly which provided a series of sensational exposés (Vlakplaas, the CCB, Dirk Coetzee, General Lothar Neethling, etc) – he did it in Afrikaans – and in a colloquial, non-standard kind of Afrikaans at that. In the process he demonstrated that Afrikaans could also be a language of resistance (thereby rescuing it from the clutch of grey Broederbonders in suits).

This is why the contribution of Vrye Weekblad to the political culture of this country can hardly be underestimated. Johannes Kerkorrel and company (remember the “Voëlvry” tour?) were kindred spirits: “They did what Vrye Weekblad was also doing: ‘showing a fat middle finger to the institutions of Afrikaner power’.” They were part of a powerful counter-cultural movement that helped to create the space for a new generation of radical Afrikaans-speaking students to express their opposition to apartheid, and the organisation in which they found a political home was the UDF.

Pale Native should be required reading for any student of journalism in this country – particularly in the present era of renewed threats to press freedom. The team at Vrye Weekblad showed a passion, energy and commitment that has rarely been matched:

To everyone who worked there, it was so much more than a job. There were no fixed working hours, dress codes or prescribed style. You knew you had to dig deeper, get more, write better. Press statements and news conferences were not sources of news, but tip-offs that there might be a story. We had to reflect the events of the country, but we also had to tell our readers who or what was behind it. We had to reflect the whole of society to itself, and especially to Afrikaners who had been shielded for so long. And we constantly had to smoke out crooks, killers, torturers and racists.

When asked about the sudden enforced closure of Vrye Weekblad in 1993 (after a crucial Appeal Court judgement went against them), Du Preez replied, “Ons fade nie, ons fokof.” After Vrye Weekblad Du Preez turned his hand to television journalism, founded Special Assignment, and led the team that produced Special Report on the Truth Commission every Sunday for the duration of the TRC hearings. This programme did more than anything else to bring the TRC into the consciousness of ordinary South Africans. In fact, as one researcher suggests, it was more than a documentary – it became “a primary performer of the commission”. It is partly for this reason that Du Preez regards himself as “very fortunate to have lived as a South African in the second half of the twentieth century” – often as a witness to atrocity, but also as a witness to the courage and decency of ordinary South  Africans. The TRC was a process which “changed all of us forever”.  It was also, as he points out, a lost opportunity (on the part of De Klerk in particular).

The new sections of the book deal, among other things, with the machinations at the SABC, and with his own abrupt dismissal. In retrospect, of course, it is highly unlikely that someone with Du Preez’s integrity and forthrightness could have survived for long at Auckland Park. Ironically, he was subsequently nominated to the Board of the SABC, and interviewed by the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee. (In the event the SABC reneged on an agreement with the opposition parties, and none of their candidates was accepted.)

Episodes such as these could have produced an embittered and disillusioned man, but this is not the case. Du Preez argues that we have reached a “tipping point” in our history. He is “desperately disappointed and angry at the way the ruling ANC has degenerated into a party that sees the state as an extension of itself, a party of greed, money politics, factionalism, corruption and power abuse” – but he is not ready to throw in the towel. Many of the pains supposedly experienced by whites are, he argues, “phantom pains”. Unlike Breytenbach, he would not advise young South Africans to emigrate “if they want to live their lives to the full and with some satisfaction and usefulness”. He responds to Breytenbach’s 2008 article by writing an open letter to him. Although he shares much of Breytenbach’s outrage, he would advise a young South African to “stay and help fight for a better society”. In fact, he sees this as the historical responsibility of those who are “pale natives”, like himself. White South Africans need to make a fundamental “paradigm shift” and redefine themselves as part of the South African nation (as Du Preez himself has done). He concludes his letter with the words, “Keep the faith, my broer.”

The final chapter is a lament for the loss of the political culture of the UDF: “The UDF not only preached non-racialism, it lived it.” This was a tradition that Mandela stood for, but one that was all but lost during the Mbeki years. It was, perhaps, historically inevitable that the UDF should have been swallowed up by the ANC, but Du Preez sees this as another lost opportunity. At the same time he resists the definition of the ANC as “inherently Stalinist and greedy”, and he denies that he and the other Afrikaners who made the pilgrimage to Dakar were simply “useful idiots”.

“My dreams for my country are far from dead.” Clearly, Du Preez is walking a fine tightrope. Deluded idealist? Hopeless romantic? Or clear-sighted realist? He avoids the slide into pessimism, cynicism and despair, and concludes with a call for all of us to put our shoulders to the wheel. Given his privileged position as “front-row witness” to much of our recent history that, it is a call that deserves to be taken seriously.