THE dramatic newspaper poster carried a larger-than-life portrait of former security policeman Capt. Dirk Coetzee, with the stark words in Dutch-descended Afrikaans: ``The Terror of the South African Police.'' That is how Vrye Weekblad (Free Weekly), the gutsy anti-apartheid tabloid founded a year ago by half-a-dozen left-wing Afrikaners, broke one of the most taboo political stories of the decade on November 17. It was the breakthrough they had been waiting for.
``For us the most important thing was to get this story out,'' says 38-year-old Max Du Preez, Weekblad's apparently fearless Afrikaner editor, who wears circular wire-rimmed spectacles like those of the late John Lennon.
``It was like a sore in the bosom of the nation. We had to pierce it open,'' he says in an interview in the walled courtyard of his modest home in Johannesburg. ``It was our kind of story. This is what we are all about.''
Under the headline, ``Bloodtrail of the South African Police'' the newspaper documented - over eight of its pages - detailed claims by Captain Coetzee, from his secret hideout-in-exile, that he had headed a police death squad.
In the three issues that followed, the Weekblad - which operates on a shoe-string budget from the cumbersome premises of a former bank - named more than a score of police officers connected to the squads and made connections with about a dozen of the 110 unsolved murders of left-wing activists over the past 12 years. According to human-rights groups, 49 have been asassinated inside South Africa and 61 outside the country.
THE unprecedented reports - which were published initially without being referred to the police first - created turmoil within police ranks.
``Coetzee told me the morale within the security police had hit an all-time low because they no longer had the free hand they are used to,'' says Jacques Pauw, the reporter who broke the story.
What makes Vrye Weekblad unique is that it is run by Afrikaners who have broken ranks with the establishment.
Afrikaners have long been conditioned to a subservient brand of journalism loyal to the ruling National Party, but the Weekblad's no-holds-barred approach has had a visible impact on the established Afrikaans press, which had already begun to follow a more independent line.
Du Preez says the frontier style will not change in the post-apartheid South Africa. ``We are an activist newspaper in the good journalistic sense that we expose things,'' he says. ``We go for the jugular. I know we will be an opposition paper after liberation, too. Ours is not an ideological struggle.''
The Weekblad's small staff of eight often work an 14-hour day, five days a week, and it's not for the money.
Du Preez - known affectionately as ``Mad Max'' by friends and colleagues - has already paid a price for his forthright and irreverent style of journalism.
In two separate incidents since he founded the newspaper, he has discovered the wheel-bolts of his automobile loosened.
For his professional activities, he has one conviction under security laws - for quoting a banned person - and is facing a string of further prosecutions and a number of libel suits.
They include charges of undermining national service, publishing pictures of police action, and furthering the aims of banned organizations.
The newspaper's circulation has grown modestly to about 8,000 copies a week. For the original death squad story, 18,000 were printed, and there were no returns. Other anti-apartheid newspapers like Weekly Mail (25,000) and New Nation (60,000) have far higher circulations.
But Du Preez says the newspaper's mission has less to do with numbers than providing a support system for the small band of Afrikaners who are trying to break with the monolithic establishment they are so formidably locked into.
``People need a voice. They need to know there are other Afrikaners who think the same way,'' he says.
When the Weekblad began a year ago, other journalists were skeptical and predicted that it would be fortunate to last a few weeks. It was largely due to Du Preez's tenacity and determination - qualities reminiscent of his pioneering Afrikaner ancestors - that the newspaper has survived.
``We had absolutely no money,'' says Du Preez. ``Nobody believed in a bunch of woolly-headed Afrikaner revolutionaries - that's how they saw us.''
There was no advertising forthcoming. Within three months, the unpaid-for computers were repossessed and the newspaper skipped an edition.
``Fortunately, it was Labor Day so we announced that - out of respect for the workers - we were not going to work that week and we didn't come out,'' says Du Preez with a twinkle in his eye.
BY the end of six months, Weekblad had received substantial foreign funding, and things were looking better. When Du Preez told a South African conference in Paris two weeks ago that he was facing a $200,000 libel suit from the head of the police forensic department named in the death squad articles, he won instant pledges of $400,000 from his French hosts.
Instead of meeting the police officer's demand for a published retraction, the Weekblad responded by publishing another front-page report with further evidence of the policeman's involvement in death squads.
Du Preez concedes that it is going to be difficult to defend the paper against the libel charge in the light of President Frederik de Klerk's failure to order a public inquiry.
``We will have to do our own police work and prove Coetzee's evidence correct,'' he says. ``It is too important to let it rest.''