Loyal to the Max – how the billionaire who was once in Jacob Zuma’s crosshairs saved ‘Vrye Weekblad’
A South African-born angel investor with a history bound up with Jacob Zuma and the Arms Deal, has stepped in to rescue the progressive Afrikaans publication from the brink of closure.
Almost 30 years after it was forced into bankruptcy when apartheid-era deputy police commissioner Lothar Neethling sued it over its reporting on the poisoning of ANC activists, the Vrye Weekblad’s voice was again threatened with silencing, with the abrupt announcement by Arena Holdings on 1 September that it had become financially unviable.
Weeks before it was due to close for good, an angel investor stepped in to salvage the progressive Afrikaans publication.
Vrye Weekblad (VWB) bounced back under the independent control of veteran journalists and co-founders Max du Preez and Anneliese Burgess, with former head of News24’s investigations, Andrew Trench – whom Du Preez describes as “possibly the best digital media specialist in South Africa” – as chief operating officer. The acclaimed veteran journalist continues as editor-in-chief, with Burgess as co-editor.
Du Preez had never relinquished control of the VWB brand – the web domain, copyright, the title and the intellectual property of the combined nine years of the publication’s existence remained his.
In an announcement on Monday, 26 September headlined “Hier kom VryeWeekblad 3.0 #Kanniedood” (“Here comes Vrye Weekblad 3.0 #Willnotdie”), Du Preez revealed VWB’s “rebirth”, as the weekly publication would now be published by a new entity, the Nuwe Vrye Weekblad Mediagroep, with a new vision and ambitious plans.
He explained the publishing agreement with Arena Holdings, in place since April 2019 through Tiso Blackstar, had been cancelled, with the final edition to be published on Friday, 30 September.
The new company was made possible, he said, through an investment from a consortium of South African business leaders who live in the US and the UK, led by the Gqeberha-born billionaire André Pienaar.
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Pienaar is the founder of C5, a specialist venture capital firm with interests in cybersecurity, space and nuclear energy.
Asked about his links to Pienaar, Du Preez told DM168 that when he announced Arena’s decision to close VWB, the billionaire – an avid reader since their early print days – reached out to him.
“He contacted me a while ago, telling me how VWB had a profound impact on his political views and his view of life. He had left South Africa after he completed his law studies at UPE [the University of Port Elizabeth, now Nelson Mandela University] and studied in Wales.
“He would send me snippets of news and ask me [about political matters in the country] via WhatsApp.”
Then Pienaar’s name cropped up in the news when former president Jacob Zuma claimed he was a CIA operative who “handled” former Scorpions boss Leonard McCarthy in his 2021 challenge to the right of prosecutor Billy Downer to try him for Arms Deal-related corruption.
Zuma had claimed Pienaar, code-named “Luciano”, was responsible for getting McCarthy his job at the World Bank.
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Du Preez explained that he started researching the allegations against the man in Zuma’s crosshairs, after his name came up during the Zuma court case, while VWB was still in the Arena fold, and eventually conducted a telephonic interview with Pienaar, which was then published in VWB and in the Financial Mail. “I found mostly journalistic gossip and wild accusations by Pienaar’s political enemies in the RET faction and elements in intelligence, stemming from his involvement with the fight against organised crime during the Mandela era and the formation of the Scorpions.
“I grilled him on all these issues and could not find any contradictions or evasion in his responses… If I had the slightest suspicion that Pienaar had skeletons in his [closet], I would not have allowed his name to be associated with the iconic VWB name, or with me.”
Du Preez – an acclaimed journalist who won the Nat Nakasa Award in 2008 – was a thorn in the side of the apartheid government for his fearless reports of police death squads, the 1976 Soweto uprising and other crimes. He has published 14 books, including Pale Native: Memories of a Renegade Reporter, Unusual stories of South Africa’s Past and The Super-Afrikaners: Inside the Afrikaner Broederbond.
As someone who has kicked against the Afrikaner establishment all his life, the linguaphile in Du Preez stresses that Afrikaans is not the “white” language of apartheid – it’s a living African language, spoken by more than seven million mother-tongue speakers, both black and white.
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VWB 3.0, he explained, wants to help promote the acceptance of Afrikaans as a “rich, warm indigenous language and a national asset and better integrate the Afrikaans-speaking communities with the rest of South Africa”.
It is published on Fridays in the same current digital platform, with a daily offering to subscribers.
The “new” entity started off on a solid footing, with more than 5,000 subscribers and a registered readership of more than 90,000, he said.
At a later stage, some editorial content will also be available in English, isiXhosa and isiZulu.
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Trench was responsible for reviving VWB as a digital publication in 2019. “From my very early days of being a journalist, my head was always in the alternative press kind of space. I’ve always loved what [VWB] stood for.”
One of the things that “blew him away” about the publication was the level of engagement and passion for the brand among its audience, which he hadn’t seen before in more than 30 years working in media.
With vryeweekblad.com moving to a new company, every reader (even subscribers) will have to re-register on the website because subscriptions may not be transferred to the new company. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.