I first met Max in Johannesburg in 1994 when he and every other commie, pinko, lefty, kaffir-loving, democratically-inclined person of any possible colour gathered together at a wrap party to mourn the death of his newspaper, Vrye Weekblad (Free Weekly).
The evening was full of booze and angry speeches and tears because the death of a fine newspaper anywhere in the world is an excellent reason for booze, angry speeches and tears.
But Vrye Weekblad was more than just a fine newspaper. It had been a rare courageous voice in a country where most voices were, with excellent reason, terrified of the brutal, vindictive South African government.
Vrye Weekblad was particularly important because it was written in Afrikaans, the language of the white oppressor government. Yet it was militantly anti-apartheid and specialized in exposing government death squads, systemic torture of dissidents and political murders.
As a result Max, an Afrikaner himself, got death threats, his paper was bombed and he won a bunch of journalism awards including a 2006 Yale Globalist International Journalist of the Year award.
Vrye Weekblad died when it couldn’t afford lawyers to defend its story that a police general supplied his cops with poisoned beer so they could murder anti-government activists. (The story was later proved accurate).
Just before the election that would bring the African National Congress (ANC) to power and end centuries of white racism, Max was invited to join the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). It was a desperate effort by the state broadcaster to show it was more than just a government propaganda machine.
Max’s first assignment was to interview state president F.W. de Klerk. It was a huge moment in modern South African history. Two Afrikaners facing each other, one still the ruler of the brutal apartheid state, the other one of its fiercest and bravest critics.
I was in Johannesburg at the time training the SABC in the ways of democratic journalism so was asked to work with Max on the big interview.
We planned it so Max would ask the usual journalistic questions for roughly three quarters of the hour — De Klerk’s family, beliefs, education, background, best and worst moments etc. Then Max would pause significantly, lean forward and softly ask De Klerk the killer question:
“When you push our hands into the soil of (South Africa) and feel the earth, what does your heart tell you? Whose soil does your heart tell you it is?”
As Max reports in his book Pale Native, De Klerk “gave a diplomatic answer about Afrikaners sharing the soil of South Africa with all their compatriots.”
It was a magic moment. Three months later Nelson Mandela and the ANC took power.
Max is about as Afrikaner as you can get. Boere accent. Voortrekker beard. Strong views that soon got him fired from the SABC for publicly and loudly disagreeing with the deputy head of TV news and current affairs and telling him: “I don’t give a fuck what you think of my language. Get a life.”
Max du Preez also has strong views on Nelson Mandela and the South Africa that will survive Mandela.
For instance (excerpted from a couple of his recent newspaper columns):
We are the products of the same history and society that produced a Nelson Mandela.
There is a little Mandela in all of us.
Many people outside South Africa make the same mistake as many white South Africans: they think Nelson Mandela is an exception; an aberration. Mandela is not like other black people, they say.
This misconception lies at the heart of the paranoia among right-wing South Africans, recently repeated in some foreign media, that when Mandela dies, black people will drop the pretense of the last 20 years and start murdering whites.
We will cry on the day of his death because it will bring back memories of an exceptional life; of the wonder of his leadership and great spirit that helped us find freedom and a democratic settlement.
But it will not be a dark day, nor will it be a traumatic day. And the remark made by a columnist that “the day Mandela dies is the end of freedom” is just nonsense.
I am deeply annoyed by the (white) columnists and commentators who still peddle the story that whites fear the day of Mandela’s death because it will bring about a mass slaughter of whites and land grabs such as happened in Zimbabwe. These writers should really get out more.
I know that the lunatic fringe on the extreme right told the story years ago that Mandela’s death would signal the “Night of the Long Knives” and a slide into anarchy. But I seriously doubt if more than a few dozen or a few hundred crazies still believe that myth.
I have a strong view that the overwhelming majority of white South Africans, while skeptical of some of the goings-on in the ruling party, have made peace with the new order and don’t seriously think a Zimbabwe-type situation here is at all likely.
I wish Mandela a gentle, comfortable life for as long as his body is willing. I hope he knows that his leaving us will be his last act of bringing his nation together once again.
Latest report on 95-year-old Mandela’s condition comes from his youngest daughter, Zindzi Mandela.
Tata (father) now manages to sit up, like now he sits up in a chair for a few minutes in a day, every day you know he becomes more alert more responsive.
Tata is determined not to go anywhere anytime soon, I cannot stress this enough. People must stop saying to the family “let go let go,” we are just looking at this man who is saying I’m not going anywhere.
You know he just doesn’t have the strength of a man, he just has the strength that is beyond anything that can be explained.
Because even now with the challenges to his health, he somehow manages to bounce back when everyone assumes this is the end.
Mandela’s condition, however, is still officially listed as critical.
This article was originally published on the Huffington Post on Sept. 25, 2013: Mandela’s Death Will Not Be a Traumatic Day