How To Be A Political Optimist

How To Be A Political Optimist


Max du Preez is a rare breed. Somehow he has managed to remain one of South Africa’s most influential political voices for the last three decades – during the country’s most dramatic political, economic and cultural transformation.

What has kept him at the top of his game for so long?

“To be truthful,” he says, “To speak truth to power, to be fair and balanced, to give all sides a voice, and to be entertaining, informative and accessible enough so people listen to me and read what I write.”

One of the most fascinating aspects of du Preez’s approach to journalism is his level of optimism, despite having been an observer of a country on the brink of anarchy for so long. So, what is his method for maintaining a silver-linings approach to his work?

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Here are 5 lessons in optimism from Max du Preez:

1. When you find yourself surrounded by ignorance, rise above it

“I grew up in an Afrikaner nationalist home in the rural Free State,” he says to put things into perspective. “It was a highly politicised environment, but it was only when I went to University and became a journalist that I realised that the world I grew up in was isolated, prejudiced, small-minded and racist. The only way for me to deal with this dichotomy was to dig myself into politics.”

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Du Preez graduated in Political Science at the University of Stellenbosch in 1973. He went on to become a political correspondent for the Financial Mail, Sunday Times and Business Day.

In 1987, he was a member of the Frederik van Zyl Slabbert group that held talks with the ANC’s exiled leadership in Dakar, Senegal. His most pivotal move at the time, however, came in 1988 when he founded and edited the anti-apartheid weekly, Vrye Weekblad.

2. When the tide turns, stand fast (and adapt)

Staying relevant throughout the shift from the old South Africa to the new has turned Max du Preez into a journalistic icon, but over and above his challenges in the political arena, he has also had to adapt to the changing face of journalism.

“Mainstream media has shrunk because of the internet and social media,” he admits, “but it is still the most reliable source of information and insights. More than ever before, it is the media – rather than parliament or the opposition parties – that keeps government honest,” adding, “Well, kind of.”

At the first sign of pessimism, the cogs of optimism slip right back into gear: “But we wouldn’t even know about Nkandla and the Gupta family if we hadn’t had a free and independent media.”

Rather than treating new technology as the enemy, du Preez has embraced it – boasting over 126 000 followers on Twitter and over 24 000 likes on Facebook. And while he is not (yet) in the habit of posting selfies on Instagram of his new specs, he has managed to make himself relevant to a younger generation of South Africans that is also trying to make sense of their country’s often confusing political state.

3. When your society is falling apart, give them hope

“I believe that, if a society has no hope and optimism about the future, it becomes paralysed – passive,” he says philosophically, but there is a sharp ring of truth behind his words – especially when considering the precarious circumstances in which today’s youth find themselves.

The developing world’s circumstances aside, a whole generation of British and American twenty-to-thirty-somethings find themselves at risk of never gaining financial independence or, indeed, having a home of their own – but worse yet – feel powerless to do anything about it. Looking at the recent outbreak of student riots in South Africa, discontentedness amongst the youth is starting to seem universal.

“South Africa is in a very depressed cycle right now,” says du Preez, “and most citizens talk themselves further into depression. It helps to put the other side of the picture to people and inspire them to work for change rather than to accept that we’re on a slippery slope to a failed state.”

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4. When all you can see are the negatives, side-step them

Rule number one in the Max du Preez handbook of credible journalism is to consider all sides of the story, which means you cannot ignore unpleasantness. But allowing yourself to give up on the good news behind the bad is too easy in du Preez’s opinion.

To use an example of the optimist’s mind in action, “When Zuma fired finance minister, Nhlanhla Nene in December last year, our economy and national optimism took a huge knock,” says du Preez, “Yet it signalled a good day for democracy, accountability and a heightened understanding of the real economic powers at play.”

5. When everyone tells you otherwise, mix business with politics

“The most critical component of our democracy is the treasury. Without it, everything else fails,” du Preez states. In his mind, when President Jacob Zuma initiated an action that impacted the treasury, the business world got a much-needed wake-up call.

“Business has played virtually no role in the South African political arena since 1994,” says du Preez, “but since December last year, it has played a vital part in supporting Pravin Gordhan’s efforts to tell the ratings agencies a good story.”

Looking at an even more pressing matter, “Business should get more involved in fixing the rotten education system that is failing our youth so dramatically,” du Preez says. “It should show society what good leadership can achieve.”

But even Max du Preez must have an Achilles heel when it comes to maintaining his levels of optimism. “I struggle to depict the upside to corruption, state capture, tenderpreneurship and President Zuma’s antics,” he admits.

Max du Preez will be speaking at nlighten’s business leadership event, Exec Think Tank, on 11 August 2016 – a week after municipal elections. The event will be hosted at Equinox, Alice Lane, Sandton. To find out more about Exec Think Tank, visit or contact Nicola on 021 794 7533 or email

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