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Freedom Collection

Interviews with Max du Preez

Interviewed December 10, 2023

In the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s there were formal pieces of legislation limiting what you’re allowed to write or say in public. There was—for instance, you were not allowed to quote anybody who was banned, and the entire ANC and a lot of the UDF and the Communist Party and the trade unions were banned. They were banned people. You couldn’t say anything that could be construed as furthering the aims of the enemies of the state, in other words the ANC [African National Congress]. You couldn’t report on police—on certain police conduct. You were not allowed to report on what happened in a township which was declared a state of emergency. There were Official Secrets Acts. Yeah, there was quite a lot of that, quite severe.

[Banning was a legal process during apartheid enabled primarily by the Suppression of Communism Act, where individuals were prohibited from communicating with more than one person at a time and from traveling domestically or internationally without permission. Organizations were also banned by the government. The media was restricted in covering banned individuals. The African National Congress (ANC) is a political party that served as the most prominent resistance movement against South Africa’s apartheid system, at times resorting to violence through its military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe. It was officially banned by the South African government from 1960 to 1990. As apartheid collapsed, the ANC’s leader, Nelson Mandela, was elected President of South Africa in 1994 and established a democratic government. The United Democratic Front was a multiracial anti-apartheid coalition. Under apartheid, townships were residential areas designated for non-white groups. Non-whites were prohibited from living in areas reserved for whites.]

But there was also a lot of self-censorship by all, by Afrikaans and English newspapers trying to sort of pacify the government, and at the same time to pacify the advertisers. Advertisers in newspapers were mostly big business. They didn’t want to annoy the apartheid government because they were making good money under apartheid.

So if you get a little bit radical, then they say, “Well, I don’t feel comfortable advertising in your newspaper.”

The newspaper that I ran, for instance, Vrye Weekblad, never got advertising. There was one brave guy who ran a mining company who completely agreed with what we were doing, and he promised me a series of full-page ads over a few months that would have paid for an awful lot. And the very next day because, you know, they listened to my phone and stuff—the very next day he was called in and warned that he would be fired if he spent a penny on me. That came from the government and then via his bosses.

But in the end our newspaper was closed down in February 1994 ironically, because we ran exposés of death squads, police death squads. We broke the story for the first time, that the South African police actually had a unit at a farm outside of Pretoria called Vlakplaas where they trained people to harass the ANC, kidnap them, torture them, assassinate them. And they used an awful lot of ANC guerillas who were forced to switch sides, either through torture or bribery or being compromised. And we exposed that story for the first time. Also the military had a similar—had two similar outfits. And we spent an awful lot over three or four years just running week after week confessions by more policemen about how they tortured and killed and stuff. [Vlakplaas was a farm near the city of Pretoria that was a training facility for counterinsurgency forces of the South African police under apartheid.]

But one of the stories that we ran was the head of the forensics laboratory in South Africa, a man called General Lothar Neethling, a brilliant chemist by training, he spent his time preparing toxins and all kinds of potions to put into people’s drink to kill them, to give them heart attacks that couldn’t be detected, or to just incapacitate them so they could be abducted, kidnapped and stuff. [General Lothar Paul Neethling (1935 – 2005) was deputy chief commissioner of the South African Police during apartheid. He was a scientist who was alleged to have used police forensic laboratories to produce chemical and biological weapons for use against anti-apartheid activists and South Africa’s black population.]

And we ran this exposé with his name, because we had to run his name; otherwise it’s just another allegation. And he ran a five-year court case against me, which we won in the Supreme Court, because everything we said was true. But in the appellate division the judges said they couldn’t—they didn’t know who to believe. And his legal costs were paid by the state, but we were then forced to pay our own—our own and his legal costs, which was more than we had spent in two years on the newspaper. So that’s why we had to close down, which I think was the original idea: close us down because we’d go bankrupt. So we closed down two months before South Africa became a democracy.