Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, 1940-2010: a progressive who told it as it was

Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, 1940-2010

Frederik van Zyl Slabbert was one of the architects of South Africa’s transition from apartheid and a noted writer on its politics and sociology.

Charming, telegenic and invariably known as ”Van”, he became an MP for the liberal Progressive Federal Party (PFP) in 1974, and its leader only three years later – serving as head of the official opposition from 1979 until his sudden resignation in 1986. When Slabbert and four others entered parliament, Helen Suzman was the only progressive; by the time he left there were 26, an increase which was seen as a personal victory for the still-youthful leader.

In his later years he built up a strong position as an independent observer of politics, working from the Institute for a Democratic Alternative in South Africa (now the Institute for Democracy in Africa), which he co-founded in 1986.

// Frederik van Zyl Slabbert was born on March 2, 1940, the son of conservative Afrikaners, descendants of early Dutch settlers known for their commitment to apartheid. He went to Pietersberg High School then the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg before going on to Stellenbosch University, the intellectual heartland of the Afrikaner nation, where he wrote his doctorate.

He played rugby for Stellenbosch, but later described the game as a social narcotic that stopped South Africans from thinking about more serious matters. The political scales fell from his eyes in the 1960s, when he was sent on mission work in the African township of Langa.

At 34, he went into politics, although the move was something of an accident. After being persuaded to stand as an MP, he joined the PFP – a predecessor to the Democratic Alliance – on the day he accepted the nomination, and was surprised to win.

In August 1979 Colin Eglin stepped down as leader of the party, which by then had 17 seats, and Slabbert beat the experienced Zach De Beer for the succession. Slabbert suddenly resigned in 1986, declaring himself disillusioned with the parliamentary process. His abrupt departure nearly wrecked the PFP but established his credibility in the eyes of blacks.

In August 1985 Slabbert’s career had moved into a new phase when, with Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi of the Inkatha Freedom Party, he formed the National Convention Movement in an unsuccessful attempt to force the government into negotiating with all political groups. Although the alliance was immediately condemned by the banned African National Congress, Slabbert travelled to meet them in exile in Lusaka. He spent nine hours with the ANC and emerged saying: ”A path away from violence can be negotiated.” After his resignation he remained in regular contact with the ANC in Zambia.

In August 1987 he was one of about 50 prominent white South Africans who went to Dakar to meet an ANC delegation. Afterwards the ANC expressed willingness to hold more talks with a broader cross-section of whites. The government, which was inching its way towards contact with the ANC, did not welcome the efforts of private groups.

After the transition to majority rule, Slabbert consolidated his position as a respected independent political observer and business consultant. He was appointed chairman of the Central Witwatersrand Metropolitan Chamber (1991-94), a government quango set up to improve the administration of black and white cities around Johannesburg. In 1993 he became the first chairman of George Soros’s Open Society Foundation and, in 1994, co-chairman of the task group for local government elections.

He maintained his academic links as visiting professor at several South African universities and co-wrote a book, Comrades in Business: Post-Liberation Politics in South Africa, which avoided hagiography.

Slabbert’s first marriage, to Mana Jordan, was dissolved. In 1984 he married Jane Catherine Stephens, who survives him with a son and a daughter of his first marriage.

Telegraph, London

About donny2811
Trots Nederlands, goed gereist en een begerige politieke centrist met een speciale afkeer voor basissen.

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