Max du Preez’s latest book brings spring early to SA

Winnie arrived here just now, Max du Preez tells me when I meet him at the Hyatt Hotel in Rosebank, Johannesburg. Three or four big black 4x4s, he says. Blue lights. "And she's just an ordinary MP!" 

When he saw her coming, he slipped out of the way, he says. He had a confrontation or two with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in the 1980s. That's when he was editing Vrye Weekblad, the radical Afrikaans paper that exposed apartheid hit squads, got its offices bombed, and finally succumbed after being sued for defamation by an apartheid general. 

Since then, and with detours through the SABC and the Sunday press, Du Preez has been writing often provocative commentary and a series of books, of which A Rumour of Spring is the latest. 

The book is a penetrating look at where South Africa is today and how we got here. As well as lining up the stats and reaching some startling conclusions about, for instance, organised crime, Du Preez draws on significant historical threads to explain tendencies in the present governing party. 

The best parts, though, are where he sums matters up in his characteristically blunt and pungent fashion. For example: "South Africans are like a bipolar patient with Tourette's syndrome."

As with his earlier book, Pale Native (published in Afrikaans and in an expanded edition as Dwars), history and autobiography overlap for a journalist who was present at so many key events – in Soweto in 1976, as a cub reporter, or travelling around Africa and Europe with Mbeki and others in the early stages of connection between white intellectuals from inside the country and the then exiled liberation movement.

As a result, Du Preez has many anecdotes up his sleeve, which are useful for illuminating events and, especially, the personalities involved. When he says, in A Rumour of Spring, that he thought the ANC in power would resemble the post-colonial government of Burkina Faso's Thomas Sankara more than that of Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko, he's speaking as one who chatted with (and sang Sarie Marais! to) Sankara shortly before the charismatic Burkinabé leader was assassinated. 

Du Preez has so many good stories, paired with insightful conclusions on the people involved, that it's easy to get off any one particular track – and many of his tales are too scurrilous to be printed, anyway. 

On living in East Germany for a time: "There was such solidarity among the people. Then I discovered why there was such solidarity – it was the people versus the government." 

On Pallo Jordan: "He's a clever guy; he's too clever in a way." On a minister who "went the extra yard" for Jacob Zuma: "He has that effect on people. He would charm anyone." On Zuma's political style: "He's the perfect traditional chief. He's certainly not the president of a modern democracy." 

We talk about the role alcohol has played at key moments in South African politics, including the famous bottles of whisky that Mbeki used to lubricate the "talks about talks" of the late 1980s. (This is a time, and a relationship, that Du Preez revisits in the new book, taking issue with Mbeki biographer Mark Gevisser's account of the "seductive" Mbeki and those who fell for him, such as Du Preez and the liberal Afrikaner politician Frederik van Zyl Slabbert.)

Du Preez, of course, having been a reporter since the 1970s, knows a great deal about alcohol and the last apartheid regimes. 

He compares the former presidents John Vorster and PW Botha: "Vorster was a heavy drinker, but not PW. Everyone around him was, though – Barend du Plessis, Magnus Malan, those guys were complete pisscats. 

"It's a nice little piece I might do one day, the story of the role alcohol played in making peace in the subcontinent. The whole Angola-Namibia issue, for instance, was sorted out between [then foreign minister] Pik Botha and the Cubans, who drank themselves silly on rum at Nyala or one of those bosberade [bush meetings]. 

"Theuns Eloff [one of the negotiators] told me this story. He says if it hadn't been for the fact that those guys got drunk together and then fell over and had to help each other up they wouldn't have seen the humanity in each other. 

"They bonded around being hopelessly drunk. The next morning, they were patting each other on the back like he-men, and they did a quick political deal."

Jumping to today's politics, Du Preez bemoans the level to which its rhetoric has sunk. He mentions a Twitter attack on him by his (former) friend and "homeboy", actor Fana Mokoena, who joined Julius Malema's Economic Freedom Fighters and was threatening Du Preez, in successive tweets, that they knew where his farm was and they'd be coming to seize it. 

"I really, really, don't have a farm," says Du Preez, shaking his head sadly.

Whatever one bemoans in South Africa today, though, there's reason for hope. So Du Preez argues in the conclusion to A Rumour of Spring, in which he wonders whether we're in for "a long winter or an early spring". 

Generally, he goes with journalist John Carlin, who wrote: "This is not Zimbabwe. This is not, for that matter, Russia, which arrived at democracy at the same time."

Du Preez writes: "I have witnessed the suppressed but still tangible tensions in Rwanda, and the dark anger, even hatred, among many Serbs, Croats, Albanians and Bosnians in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Kosovo. We are doing splendidly in comparison."

Author Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.


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