The TB Davie Academic Freedom Lecture 2014 – Max du Preez

mdpEarlier today, I had the privilege of introducing Max du Preez to the audience gathered for the 2014 TB Davie Lecture at UCT. The lecture was recorded, and once the video and podcast are available, I’ll be sure to let you know. In the meanwhile, here are my introductory remarks.


Over the course of a 40-year career in journalism, Max du Preez has earned multiple local and international awards for fearless and principled reporting, including the Nat Nakasa Award for Courageous Journalism, as well as having been named the Yale Globalist International Journalist.

He is the author of numerous books that draw on his long history in South African culture and politics, most recently “A rumour of spring”, in which he reflects on whether South Africa can expect “a long winter or an early spring” in relation to the evolution of our democracy.

In 1992, UCT awarded Max du Preez an honorary Master of Social Science degree, and the citation is worth re-visiting. It speaks of:

his fearless exposition of power corruption in high places, in the face of all kinds of attempts at silencing him, from criminal and civil proceedings in the Courts to extrajudicial strong-arm methods.

Max Du Preez has consistently made it clear that he is not serving any sectional interest, but that of all the people of this country, and his cause is to promote the values that should operate in the new South Africa.

After graduating from Stellenbosch University, he joined Die Burger as a cub reporter, and the Editor sent him to cover the Parliamentary sessions. This proved to be an error of judgement. Max Du Preez’ overall impression of the Parliament was one of moral corruption and intellectual poverty, and he conveyed this in his reports; Die Burger’s impression of Max Du Preez was that they had a problem reporter on their hands.

He was hastily transferred to Die Beeld in Johannesburg. There he reported on the Mozambiquan independence, and the Soweto riots of June 16 1976, but caused so many problems for the Government-supporting Nationale Pers that he was banished to the Siberia of South Africa, the Namibian desk.

In Windhoek, he was quickly branded a Swapo ally, and Du Preez and Nationale Pers soon parted company. In 1980 he joined the Financial Mail in the post of political editor, the only Afrikaner on the staff, and in his own words, “their token boer.”

Later he transferred within the same media group as political correspondent to the Sunday Times and Business Day.

In 1987 Dr Van Zyl Slabbert invited Du Preez to join the delegation of Afrikaner personalities who attended that highly controversial and historic meeting with the then banned African National Congress in Dakar, Senegal.

It was there that the idea of starting an independent Afrikaans language weekly newspaper was born.

That newspaper, launched in 1988, was die Vrye Weekblad- the Independent Weekly. The newspaper was almost immediately in court, thanks to the first few editions having to appear on the street illegally after the Minister of Justice responded to the threat it posed by raising the cost of registering a newspaper from R10 to R30 000.

At this newspaper, it was du Preez and his colleague Jacques Pauw who led the exposure of apartheid-era murder squads at Vlakplaas when other publications wanted no part of the story – or simply denied its truthfulness. Without their hard work and courage, many of these details might well have remained a secret to this day.

The paper was forced to close in February 1994, thanks to the costs incurred in defending its charge that South African Police General Lothar Neethling had supplied poison to security police to kill activists.

Du Preez went on to be the founder and editor of the television programmes Special Report (documenting the Truth and Reconciliation Commission) and Special Assignment.  Du Preez ended up being dismissed from Special Assignment for “gross insubordination towards management”, after objecting to a management decision to bar the screening of a segment on witchcraft.

That same weekend, Special Assignment won six awards at a television prize-giving.

If a more recent sort of threat, by actor and economic freedom fighter Fana Mokoena to “seize his farm” is more typical these days, it’s not because du Preez has slowed down, or toned down, his challenges to political authority and the abuse of power. Nor could it be because he has a farm, as he has none – but accuracy is seldom a primary concern for bullies.

It might instead be exactly because – thanks in part to him and other courageous editors – newspapers in South Africa no longer need fear being bombed, as the Vrye Weekblad offices were in 1991.

To return to the 1992 citation,

Mr Chancellor, the sensational disclosures which struck at the malignant core of apartheid are only part of Max Du Preez’ achievements. He is clearly a non-conformist, an independent thinker, a maverick. Some would use stronger terms. The French noun might be a sansculotte-  ‘without breeches”. In Afrikaans, the expression is earthier – he is hardegat.

Ladies and Gentlemen: please welcome Max du Preez.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.