Apartheid and the Courageous Legacy of Max du Preez and Jacques Pauw

There is journalism that seeks the truth above all other interests. The work of Max du Preez and Jacques Pauw is this kind of journalism. These two intrepid reporters from South Africa, had the courage to start the only openly anti-Apartheid newspaper during the height of white supremacist power in that country.

From 1988 to 1994, in their paper called Vyre Weekblad, they systematically exposed, as they put it, “a bloodcurdling tale that spanned three countries and included murder, arson, bombing, kidnapping, torture, assault, house breaking and car theft.”

Their greatest coup as journalists came when they convinced a former policeman and death squad commander to tell his story in public. After getting every grotesque detail published on record, they were able to arrange for the African National Congress (ANC) to harbor the ex-torturer from his former bosses.

The abuses that Captain Dick Coetzee participated in while helping to lead the hidden Section C-1 operation, are both unforgettable and unspeakable. This was the most secretive and elite unit in the South African Police. In the words of du Preez, “When C-1 designed a unit emblem, they chose the honey badger, an animal legendary for its tenacity and ferocity….Killing, bombing, kidnapping and torture were C-1’s business.”

To provide the clearest picture of just how depraved this “elite” unit really was, in June 1998, du Preez and Pauw helped produce extensive evidence of the apartheid government’s chemical and biological warfare program. “It was led,” they reported, “by Dr. Wouter Basson, who worked in the police force when General Lothar Neethling was assistant commissioner. It was much worse and much more extensive than Vyre Weekblad had reported: Basson had spent millions on concocting substances to paralyze people, make them talk, kill them without a trace of the cause. He devised rings with a hollow chamber to store the poison in an umbrella with retractable, poisoned tips.”

When all of this psychotic criminality was said and done, thousands were mutilated and killed. Most of the black activists who rose up in defiance of the government were brutally silenced. We know what happened to Nelson Mandela. They put a hanging monkey fetus on the property of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was that noble experiment in criminal justice which was established to investigate, examine, document, and sometimes punish these crimes against humanity, all the while maintaining a fierce commitment to confession, redemption, and national unity. Because of Max du Preez and Jacques Pauw, the TRC had proof that these allegations and testimonies were based on hardcore fact. It was true. Apartheid was that evil.

What was the price of telling the truth? In john Pilger’s outstanding book, Tell Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism That Changed the World, the holder of the Frank H. T. Rhodes Professorship at Cornell presents the sacrifice as vividly as possible. He does so by allowing the journalists to speak for themselves. As du Preez recounted, “The offices of Vyre Weekblad were bombed, right wing fanatics threatened us at gun point and we received death threats on a daily basis. A flood of criminal and civil prosecutions was released on us.”

The paper was ultimately disbanded in 1994, after it could no longer keep pace with the mounting defamation lawsuits waged against it. Numerous death threats and close attempts against their lives also took an immense toll.

Heroically, before the paper went under, it succeeded in taking some of the worst characters in the history of apartheid down with it. Eugene de Kock, the death squads commander was sentenced to 212 years imprisonment. He is the most senior member of the regime to be punished for his unspeakable actions during that reign of terror.

With all of that being said, a question emerges in my mind. What makes the apartheid regime of South Africa so different from an America which is divided by racial and economic lines through the white supremacist power structure of the presidency?

We know that white supremacist imagery was a common sight at Trump rallies. Pepe the Frog, a cartoon character appropriated by the white supremacist movement on social media, appeared on dozens of T-shirts and signs. The “Make America Great Again” motto was seen by many as an overt call back to the nation’s simpler, whiter, past. Trump fanned these fires and capitalized on these racist insinuations as often and as unnervingly as he could.  Trump’s appointment of white supremacist Steve Bannon, and his anti-Muslim travel bans, border wall, and denigration of Black Lives Matter, only confirmed what billions of people from all over the world already suspected. Trump is, at his core, a simple minded racist who believes color is irrelevant yet chooses to surround himself mainly around white people with money.

As I said, we are not there yet. We are not South Africa during apartheid. The Trump Administration is not the militarized government of P. W Botha. Nor is the Russian collusion story analogous to the unmasking of death squads hired and trained by the National Party. Yet if we are not determined to stand up for real journalism, genuine freedom, and the enshrinement of human rights, there is nothing preventing Trump’s entire administration from slipping into the criminal, blatantly racist, murderous ideology of a modernized form of apartheid. All of the parts are there. All it takes is for the press to continue to let down their guard-and for the citizenry to stop resisting policies that aim to divide people by race, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion, political affiliation, ability, and age.

Max du Preez wrote tellingly, “if the mainstream media had reflected and followed up these death squad confessions and revelations,  the government would have been forced to stop the torture, the assassinations. It would have saved many, many lives.”

Moreover, to du Preez’s everlasting credit, he would never let whites in his national audience escape the sense of their own complicity; he pointedly referred to them as ‘you’.

I ask: who is the ‘you’ in America today? Who voted for Trump? Who made Trump possible? Who continues to give him legitimacy? Who is responsible for the crimes which may have already been committed by his administration?

I say, it is the United States people. More specifically, it is those who voted for Trump; they are ultimately guilty of collusion with Russia; they are the ones who are responsible for whatever comes next; they are the ones who must be held accountable for their complicity.


Photograph by George Cassidy Payne

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