Max du Preez’s dangerous intention


Ever since I bought my first Vrye Weekblad in the early nineteen nineties, I have had respect for South African journalist Max du Preez. I have always considered him consistent in his principles. He also never allows himself to be intimidated by the powers of the day – and especially in the late eighties and early nineties there were many attempts to intimidate him, even to get rid of him completely. After 1994 he was initially rewarded for contributing to the struggle to establish a democratic dispensation in South Africa, but it wasn’t long before his opinions started annoying the dominant political group again. Over the past two decades he has continued to write books, articles, and opinion pieces on the Internet, still anchored in the same principles that had led him to start his progressive newspaper thirty years ago. Especially his opinion pieces are sometimes ruthlessly critical. One of his most controversial pieces was on how then South African president Jacob Zuma appeared to be on a one-man mission to destroy South Africa. As expected, the piece made him an even bigger enemy of some politicians than he had already been.

However, Max’s latest column for News24 strikes me as odd, to say the least. He refers to two incidents in which he was recently involved. The first one was when he wanted to buy a bottle of wine in a shop in a village on the Garden Route. One of the two cashiers was busy talking on her phone; the other one ignored him. When he asked her after a few minutes if he could pay, her response was that she was still busy with another customer and pointed to a person standing at the entrance talking to the security guard about crime in the town. After waiting a few more minutes, he approached the customer at the door and asked her if she could please complete her transaction – he was parked on a yellow line. She immediately got upset, called him arrogant, and asked him when “you people” were going to realise they were no longer the boss.

Max concedes that the situation embarrassed him very much because he is usually the person who intervenes when a white person is rude to a black employee in a store. He also admits that he was annoyed with himself because he knew he would have dealt with the other customer with much more confidence if she were white.

He also tells of an incident at a petrol station when another motorist almost drove into him as he was pulling out at the station. He reversed his car a little, and politely gestured to the other motorist to pull in. The other motorist, however, jumped out of his car and confronted Max. “What was that gesture about?” the motorist demanded, called Max a racist, and threatened him with violence.

Max believes there is a high probability that the two people expected rudeness and racism from whites because of past experiences. He comes to the conclusion that, rather than take offense, he should respect their willingness to confront him.

He also mentions that he is determined to appear “demurer and friendlier, extra polite and extra careful” when he interacts with black strangers in the future. He wondered if it would be racist and dishonest to treat black people differently than whites, but then decides it is simply the reality in South Africa today – that many South Africans are still struggling with the racial issue.

Later in the piece he also wrote that he felt it would be inappropriate for him as a white person to publicly express his opinion on the slaughter of a sheep on a beach in Clifton.

One gets the idea that Max is indeed struggling with the correct formula for how a white person should behave in South Africa almost three decades after the end of Apartheid. He acknowledges that it won’t be good for anyone if we all “tiptoed around matters of race”. He also reckons he is not one of the so-called good whites who believe white people should keep their mouths shut and not participate in public debate. He does express his belief, however, that whites have a responsibility to be more respectful and to choose their words more carefully when it comes to these matters. He hopes his grandchildren, if they are white, will be released from this burden.

I have to admit that I was a little taken aback. I think it’s generally a good idea to be respectful of anyone who is respectful to me, to be polite to any person I encounter, and not to treat someone differently just because they have a different skin colour or are from another ethnic group. And for the record: I’m willing to be polite first, to be the first one to say hello, and the first one to be kind. If the other person reciprocates, then all is well. If not, it’s that person’s problem. (I also have to mention that it won’t work out well for me not to be kind and polite to people of other races, seeing that I am one of only a few thousand pink skins who live and work amongst 23 million Taiwanese people and people of other ethnicities.)

Taken aback were I, because how long does Max believe whites in South Africa should be extra friendly and polite, and extra cautious before it would be expected from them? How long before a black guy slaps a white guy because he wasn’t demure enough on the street, or in a government building, or not extra careful or polite? How long before such a person would justify his action with the idea that by that time white people ought to know how to “deal” with the race issue in South Africa? (And would he be surprised by the support of bystanders who would agree that he had acted properly?) How long before a black pupil complains to his parents that his white teacher was not modest enough in the classroom, or was not friendly and polite enough, or was not careful enough when the teacher reprimanded the pupil? How long does Max think it would be before the parents of black pupils demand that white teachers be more careful about how they treat black pupils? And how long before somebody gets the idea that coloured and Indian South Africans didn’t suffer as much under Apartheid as black South Africans, and that it might be good if they also behaved more modestly and friendlier when they interact with black citizens, and extra polite and extra careful? Lastly, what kind of person would expect you to be friendlier to him or her than to citizens of another skin colour? What kind of person would expect you to demurer, more polite, and more careful with your words than with someone of a different ethnicity? Is this the type of world in which Max du Preez wants to live, and where he wants his children and grandchildren, and perhaps even great-grandchildren to live?

In the article, “The Fear of White Power”, Remi Adekoya refers to a conversation he had with a black friend in London about a black colleague of the friend. (I specify the race of the people because it is relevant, and because the author specified it himself.) The colleague was apparently quick to play the race card when he was stopped by a policeman after violating a traffic rule. “Why did you stop me?” the colleague asked the policeman. “Is it because you saw a black man driving an expensive car?” The policeman was immediately defensive and mumbled something about it not having anything to do with race. He ended up just giving the driver a warning. The driver’s friend who was in the car with him then asked him why he had brought up race if he knew he was in the wrong. “Dude,” came the response, “when in a tough spot with a white person, bring up racism and there’s a 99 percent chance they’ll get defensive and back down.”

The author of the article tells how the conversation with his friend continued. He shared his opinion with his friend that they should challenge black intellectuals who call “racism” for strategic reasons, and who use political correctness as a lever for psychological benefit. His friend did not agree with him. He explained that if white people in Britain weren’t kept on a leash by political correctness, things could easily return to the bad old days of a few decades ago: “In his view, the fear of being called racist is the only thing restraining whites from using their power to dominate us openly.” He concluded by reminding his friend, the author, of an important phenomenon in human relationships: “It’s not even about white or black, it’s about human nature, how people behave with unchecked power.”

This conversation took place in Britain between a black banker and a writer whose mother is Polish and whose father is from Nigeria. The banker’s opinion was to keep the power of white people in check, because human nature is human nature. In South Africa, nearly 80% of the population is black, just under 9% white, the same percentage brown, and about 2.5% Indian or of other Asian origin. It is a fact that the majority of black South Africans still live in poverty. But a significant percentage of South Africa’s middle class, and higher middle class, are also black. Millions of black children are nowadays born and raised in beautiful, leafy middle-class suburbs. And when they finish high school, they go to university, where many of them get involved in political movements. What will be the practical consequences if they agree with veteran political writer Max du Preez that whites should be “demurer and friendlier” in their interaction with black citizens, and “extra polite and extra careful”? What will be the practical implication when these young students enter the professional world? What will be the practical implication when they take over the political reins from their parents? Would the expectation for whites to be more modest and friendlier, and extra polite and extra careful be part of their thinking about racial relationships to such an extent that the expectation could just as well be made official? What will happen ten or twenty years from now if a critical percentage of South Africans agree with Max du Preez, and a white South African is not friendly enough, or polite enough, or not careful enough with their words? In short, what will happen if a white man or woman, or a white child, does not behave as expected of a white person in a country where they should be sorry for the actions of their ancestors?

I have always had respect for Max du Preez. I believe his vision has always been for a South Africa where people of different ethnicities, and different beliefs and cultures can work together to create one nation. It is still an ideal worthy of pursuit. But I’m afraid Max’s intention, and perhaps his suggestion for white South Africans until his great-grandchildren’s generation is simply too dangerous to seriously consider.


My perspective on these issues may be somewhat different to that of many middle-class white South Africans. I am not a financially comfortable white person surrounded by black poverty; I am a white person with an average income, surrounded by Taiwanese/Chinese people, of which most adults very likely have more money in the bank than me. The dominant group in this country where I have been living for almost twenty years also has a monopoly on political power.

Therefore, I find the idea outrageous that a minority group should make sure that they are friendly and polite enough, and modest enough and careful enough with their words when dealing with members of a majority group. As I have already explained, I find it even dangerous, and irresponsible, considering how full history is of how people begin to act if the scale tilts too far to the one side in terms of power dynamics.