Maxed out

David Bullard reviews Helen Zille's interview with Max du Preez



I’ve been following Helen Zille’s IRR sponsored “Tea with Helen” on YouTube with great interest since it’s inception four weeks ago. Its production quality is streets ahead of some of its rivals which is understandable given the investment in the project.

Because of the laptop angle, too many “Skyped” interviews give a wonderful view up the nostrils of the interviewee which rather detracts from what they have to say. Another problem is the lack of post production editing in some of the other “online” videos and, indeed, many podcasts. Most of us don’t have either the time or the inclination to spend over an hour listening to repetitious waffle.

Helen Zille’s first guest on her maiden programme was former Business Day editor and one time praise singer for Cyril Ramaphosa, Peter Bruce. Fascinating as Peter Bruce may be I did feel that 1 hour and 23 minutes was a little too much for me. That’s the equivalent of a complete episode of Inspector Morse or a short Puccini opera.

Her second guest was former City Press and Mail &d Guardian editor Ferial Haffajee (now with the Daily Maverick) and that interview ran to a far more digestible 49 minutes.

Her third programme, which ran to just over an hour, was with that self anointed legend of journalism and notorious Twitter blocker, Max du Preez. At the time of writing this column the comparative viewing figures on YouTube were as follows: Peter Bruce 7 640, Ferial Haffajee 3 553 and Max du Preez 11 337 (and rising fast) but this can perhaps be explained by the sheer freakishness of Max’s performance rather than his overweening geniality as a chat show guest.

When I rather abruptly parted company with the Sunday Times back in 2008 a motley collection of lesser scribes leapt at the opportunity to put the boot in. One of them was Max du Preez who said:

“David Bullard….a man whose writings I have always found ignorant, arrogant and prejudiced”.

Of course, Max is quite entitled to his view and he may well be right on at least two of those counts but what puzzled me is the fact that he had managed to remain silent for fourteen whole years. As he tirelessly reminds us, he has been recognized with awards for his journalistic derring-do and bravery so one might have thought he would have brought my failings to public attention earlier rather than waiting to kick a man when he’s down.

Not that I was terribly surprised. I had referred to Du Preez way back in 2002 in my iconic Out to Lunch column with what he would have regarded as less than due reverence. Mark Shuttleworth had decided to spend $20 million of his own money to train in Russia and send himself into space and the radio station Cape Talk decided to ask Max what he thought of the idea. Not surprisingly for a leftie, Max thought that the money could have been “better spent”. I wrote the following:

“Max prefaced his comments by admitting that he had an aversion to rich people, thus leaving the audience free to dismiss his contribution as the ramblings of an embittered, underpaid hack who probably doesn’t even know how many noughts there are in a billion”.

So you can see why there may have been some bad blood, although that doesn’t excuse Mad Max from automatically blocking anybody who either follows or interacts with me on Twitter.

Having only once glimpsed his scowling, grim visage briefly at a Franschhoek Literary festival many years ago I was eager to learn more about the real Max on “Tea with Helen”. Surely he must have some redeeming features which would make our little spat of 2008 seem unimportant? Apparently not.

Despite the fact that both Helen Zille and Max du Preez were born within a week of one another in March 1951, the viewer might be forgiven for thinking that there is a 20 year age gap between interviewer and interviewee with the interviewer having the clear advantage. Years of pent up anger and envy have turned poor Max into a confused, grizzled and belligerent old man.

To his credit he does admit to being “screwed up” two minutes and fourteen seconds (2.14) into the interview but does qualify that admission by saying that anyone who doesn’t admit to being a bit screwed up is very screwed up. Which just proves how screwed up Max really is.

At 4.35 Max becomes very vague and rambling and the PW Botha style finger wagging begins. When questioned about an article he wrote saying Die Stem should be removed from the national anthem he denies it vehemently (6.26) as he denies so many other things later in the interview.

Fortunately technology allows us to add things post production so just as he is denying things up come his words on the screen, rather like the ghostly writing on the wall at Belshazzar’s Feast. Clearly Max was unaware during his many denials that technology had advanced this far. At 9.27 Max accuses Helen of “making things up as you go along” little suspecting that his words will literally come back to haunt him not seven minutes later.

At 12.54 while discussing when they first met, poor Max appears to be very confused and defiantly states that 1978 was NOT forty years ago. By 15.28 he has become completely disorientated and is denying that he applied for a job at the Nat Party friendly Die Burger despite the words of his own book appearing to differ with that version of events. By 15.51 he is frothing away and trying in vain to convince Helen that there is no difference between being recruited for a job and applying for one.

At this stage things are not looking good for Max but he ignores popular advice and continues to dig while he is deep in a hole. By 21.45 he has denied that he wrote an article back in 2008 suggesting Jacob Zuma should go for a plea bargain and not be prosecuted, before taking up the presidency, but challenges Helen to put it up on the “podcast” (sic), so she does which rather weakens his lament at 26.10 that “you can’t just make stuff up”.

At 38.07 Max accuses his interviewer of “being fundamentally dishonest” and twisting his words when she quotes a speech of Max’s which suggests that whites should wave the white flag of surrender, remove themselves from the political arena and “accept that there will be very limited scope for whites in South African public life in our lifetime”. The evidence is there for all to see on the screen.

All in all it makes a very sad hour’s viewing and while I wouldn’t quote the bard and go as far as saying “what a noble mind was here o’erthrown” I do think that the grim realization that he’s backed the wrong horse for the past twenty five years is taking its toll on poor Max.

While getting old does play tricks on the memory one would assume that an author would remember what he had written in his memoirs and, more importantly, if challenged with hard evidence to the contrary would have graciously accepted his mistake. But there’s not much that’s gracious about Max du Preez as this episode of “Tea with Helen” makes very clear.

Max’s didactic style seems to suggest that only he knows what is best for black South Africans; no doubt a legacy from his apartheid era entry into journalism.

One hates to be judgmental but would “Ignorant, arrogant and prejudiced” be an unfair criticism?