By Mick Krever, CNN
When Nelson Mandela was still behind bars, the brutality of the apartheid regime was making its cruelty felt on the streets of South Africa.
Black anti-apartheid protesters had their whole community behind them; whites who joined the anti-apartheid movement were all-too often shunned by their friends, neighbors and family.
Max du Preez, a journalist, was one of the first to bring the stark realities of apartheid to the insulated white population. In 1988, he started the first Afrikaans newspaper to write about the government's official policy of violence and humiliation.
“There was a remarkable absence of understanding of what was really going on,” du Preez told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Monday.
“I was convinced if Afrikaans-speaking South Africans heard the full story of apartheid … that they would think again about the viability and the morality of apartheid.”
They had been sold a false story, he said, that apartheid was about separate but equal development of the races, and was not a “violent ideology.”
Because the African National Congress was banned in apartheid South Africa, du Preez said, the press could not quote or publish pictures of their members.
“White South Africans happily lived in a bubble, and we wanted to pierce that bubble and say, ‘You need to know.’”
His newspaper, Vrye Weekblad, published accounts of the townships – where so many black South Africans were forced to live – of the “violence with which apartheid had to be applied.”
“We wanted to say to people, this is the real face of South Africa. And it is in your interests to embrace change and to embrace a new move toward democracy.”
Eventually, he said, the beginning of a moral debate was sparked in pockets of the white community, and his paper showed that apartheid was a “highly immoral way to live.”
That debate, he said – combined with the economic pressure and international boycotts of South African sports and products – put pressure on the government to enter into negotiations.
As the world mourns Mandela and celebrates his life, du Preez said it is important to remember that he was not just an aberration, but a real product of Africa.
“I think there are too many South Africans – especially white South Africans, but especially people from overseas – who have this view that Africa is the Dark Continent of famine and AIDS and civil war and Idi Amin and Mobutu Sese Seko.”
Suddenly, when Mandela took the world stage after his release from prison, he was “revered more than anybody else … the biggest icon.”
“The tendency was to treat him as an exception … they're not really like that; he's a special guy; he's some kind of angel, some kind of saint.”
But Mandela was “not a fluke,” said du Preez.
He was a product of Africa, of South African society and culture.
“There have been Mandelas before him … hopefully there will be Mandela figures again.”
“He was just the right guy at the right time, but with a very special gift, to build bridges, to reassure people, to take his own people with him, and put all those things together and you have the magic that happened in 1994.”
As South Africa pushes forward towards its third decade of democracy, some have expressed worry about the future of the country.
“There's a lot of talk here of an African spring or becoming a failed state,” du Preez said. “There is no way that, in my lifetime, we're going to see a banana republic, a failed state, a Zimbabwe-type situation.”
“Democracy and freedom,” he said, “are written into the hearts of the people.”
Mandela “gave us confidence that we're not some little forgotten nation somewhere in Dark Africa. We're kind of special; we can do what other nations can do. We can be a successful nation.”