A Journalist with Words That Move

by Amira Valliani and Emma Vawter:

For Max du Preez, activism and journalism are not mutually exclusive endeavors. In an age in which “fair and balanced reporting” is a selling point for certain news outlets, Max du Preez, a South African reporter famous for his exposés on apartheid, stands out for his willingness to declare himself an activist. “ [Journalists] should all be activists for the truth, for the public interest, for an open society, for an end to racism, sexism, classism, and ignorance,” du Preez told the Globalist, emphasizing activism as a critical component of successful journalism.

Max de Preez at a panel at Yale University.

Du Preez began his career at Die Burger, a newspaper that supported the system of apartheid he would end up crusading against. As a reporter, he was forced to confront the cruelties of apartheid, the South African system that legalized racial segregation. One time, du Preez witnessed black students confronting hostile police forces during a protest in the black township of Soweto. Instead of acquiescing when the officers demanded they step aside, the students responded by throwing stones and yelling. Scenes like this showed du Preez the tensions that afflicted his society. After coming into conflict with his bosses about these political issues and working for English-language media that he felt paid only “lip service to the struggle against apartheid,” du Preez launched the first Afrikaans-language, anti-apartheid newspaper, Vrye Weekblad, in 1988.

Through Vrye Weekblad, du Preez spread information to white communities about the experiences of blacks under apartheid. Doing this, du Preez felt he was answering the primary question a journalist should ask himself: “Which parts of our nation’s reality are under-reported or under-reflected?” Covering issues otherwise ignored by the mainstream media, the newspaper exposed the white community to the sharp contrast between the lives of white and black South Africans. Du Preez acknowledges Vrye Weekblad as being a “strongly political newspaper” but told the Globalist that it was “always very careful to reflect all sides of a story and to separate reporting and editorial comment.” This way, du Preez educated his audience while retaining his credibility as a journalist.

A true journalist, du Preez doggedly followed his story, producing The Special Report, a television program that covered the truth commissions that were held after the abolition of apartheid in 1994. To keep his opinions from mixing with the facts, du Preez would always look directly at the camera, making it clear that he was stating his opinion. Maintaining credibility in this way was essential to the program’s goal of both relating the collective struggles of the black community and shocking white South Africans out of what he calls the “paralysis of guilt.” Delicately pursuing these goals, du Preez realized that “one can never sweeten the ugly truth, but one can tell the truth without telling every individual in the formerly privileged group that he [or] she is unredeemable.” Du Preez apparently achieved the right balance: the show became the most widely watched program in South Africa, and he won several awards for its content.

Over a decade after the end of apartheid, du Preez still strives to make South Africans aware of apartheid’s horrors. His current project involves compiling interviews that convey the racism and conflict in South African society in the 1980s and early 1990s. Du Preez insists on getting his work into schools because recreating the feel and texture of the period is central to his mission as a reporter. While he strives for a forward-looking South Africa, he ensures through this project that his country will remain aware of its past.

Activists choose a cause they are passionate about and fight for it. Journalists choose an issue and write about it. The two intersect when the journalist seeks to find the injustices that have not received coverage. Max du Preez demonstrates that by reporting an unknown story fairly and honestly, the journalist can do a great service by bringing a cause to light. After all, recognizing injustice is the first step towards rectifying it.