Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, Mmusi Maimane and the crisis of liberalism

2019-10-25 06:00
Maimane Van Zyl Slabbert

Maimane Van Zyl Slabbert

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"Politics inevitably involves the compromise of one’s sense of personal integrity.  One reason for politics being called the art of the possible is because politicians have to justify their compromises. For me a time had come where my justifications simply could no longer square up to my compromises. I was beginning to feel obscene." – Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, in The Last White Parliament, 1986.

Late in 1985 Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, the handsome, erudite and dashing leader of the Progressive Federal Party (PFP) was growing increasingly worn down and melancholy.

He had been a parliamentarian in South Africa’s white parliament for 12 years, six of them as leader of the country’s main opposition and only liberal party.

The party had set itself some lofty goals, all of which were supposed to be a means to end apartheid, then still held in place by the steely determination of then president PW Botha and the state security management system.

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But at the end of that year Slabbert, who as an Afrikaner had become the unlikely leader of a liberal party, finally realised that the PFP was headed nowhere. It was operating in a system where the dice was permanently loaded against it. And even within the system, the PFP was failing to break down the the monolith that was the National Party.

Van Zyl Slabbert

Frederik van Zyl Slabbert is congratulated by supporters after the PFP won a by-election in Edenvale in 1979. (From The Last White Parliament)

As leader of the opposition he had met with Botha and various senior government officials and ministers during 1985, and it became clear that there was no chance of a political breakthrough to enable negotiations. After one meeting with Botha, Slabbert muttered to himself that "it is useless".

The PFP itself was losing support, starting to retreat from national support of 21% to around 16%. Slabbert put an ultimatum before the party’s senior leadership: there had to be changes to the party’s strategy. They acknowledged what he said but seemed content to continue in the same vein as before.

"At the end of 1985 my overriding personal and psychological disposition was a feeling of futility and of having been personally abused," he said.

On February 7, 1986, Slabbert quit as leader of the opposition in the House of Assembly and as leader of the PFP. It was a setback from which the party only recovered years later.

Similarities between Slabbert and Maimane

Mmusi Maimane’s resignation as leader of the party on Wednesday, and on Thursday as parliamentary leader and member, mirrors the frustrations that Slabbert had more than 30 years ago.

Although the political systems and environments they navigated differ vastly – Slabbert tried to build a liberal organisation in a racist and totalitarian South Africa, while Maimane operated in a democracy – there are marked similarities in the two liberal leaders’ histories.

Slabbert didn’t come from a traditional PFP background. A rugby player, he grew up in the then Northern Transvaal and studied at Stellenbosch University, the cradle of Afrikanerdom.

Maimane didn’t come from a traditional DA background. A theologian, he grew up in Soweto and earned two Master’s degrees in addition to being an ANC supporter.

Slabbert was touted as liberalism’s big hope when he became PFP leader, and it was believed that the only way for the liberal party to defeat the nationalist machine was with an Afrikaner at the helm.

Maimane was touted as liberalism’s big hope when he became DA leader, and it was believed that the only way for a liberal party to defeat the nationalist machine was with a black leader at the helm.


Maimane during the debate on the State of the Nation Address in February 2019. (Gallo Images) 

Slabbert was charismatic, attractive and well spoken. Because of his background he appealed to constituencies beyond the PFP’s traditional base, and he enjoyed initial electoral success.

Maimane was charismatic, attractive and well spoken. Because of his background he appealed to constituencies beyond the DA’s traditional base, and he enjoyed initial electoral success.

Slabbert was frustrated by the straitjacket of the political system which had an all-powerful apartheid state, propped up by the National Party as the dominant force.

Maimane was frustrated by the straitjacket of the political system which had an all-powerful state, riven by corruption and propped up by the ANC as the dominant force.

Slabbert was frustrated by the PFP’s reluctance to adapt its strategy and style. He wanted it to become more forceful, agile and sharper in its engagement with the ruling political elite.

Maimane was frustrated by the DA’s reluctance to adapt its strategy and style in relation to race. He wanted the party to become more agile and responsive when engaging with the matter.

Slabbert, committed to the cause, tried his best to persuade his party to change tack, but in the end grew exasperated by the slow pace of change.

van zyl slabbert

Maimane, committed to the cause, tried his best to persuade his party to change tack, but in the end grew exasperated by the slow pace of change.

Slabbert left the party at the beginning of a parliamentary year, shortly after delivering a speech blasting Parliament, Botha and the political system in general.

Maimane left the party shortly after a general election, and in his resignation speech blasted the party, saying it is not the vehicle to create a "one South Africa for all".

Both left their national political perches at a relatively young age. Both left their parties in a state of flux. And both left questioning the liberal idea.

What they left behind

Slabbert was under no illusion how difficult his task was going to be when he was elected leader of the official opposition in September 1979. To build an effective liberal opposition to the juggernaut of Afrikaner nationalism was an enormous task.

And Maimane, who took over the leadership of the PFP’s descendant, the DA, in May 2015 also understood that the task of building a liberal cause in the face of identity politics and African nationalism was a heavy one.

Not to mention that both Slabbert and Maimane had their own formidable Helen in their corners: Slabbert was cheered on by Helen Suzman, and Maimane by Helen Zille.

Slabbert later explained that his vision for the PFP was premised on three strategies: firstly, to build electoral support inside the constriction of the white political system; secondly, to expand its support in the tricameral parliament to increase pressure on the apartheid rulers, and thirdly, to build an extra-parliamentary coalition of anti-apartheid organisations as diverse as the United Democratic Front and Inkatha.

All this "not to campaign or protest against apartheid… but to change it," he later said.

Maimane had at the centre of his political conviction a desire to grow the DA into a party that reflected the country in which it was incorporated, i.e. a party that was increasingly black, but remained committed to the rights and needs of the individual.  

OPINION | Steven Friedman: 'Imposter syndrome' explains why first black DA leader quit

He also believed that the DA could be the main driver of political change in the country and that it was the only vehicle resilient and qualified enough to challenge the ANC for power – either on its own, or at the head of a coalition.

But, like Slabbert, he challenged the liberal status quo. The PFP wasn’t about to change its "soft" approach, while the DA also wasn’t about to change its approach to race and redress.


Maimane visits the town of Schweizer-Reneke after allegations of racism were made against a local school teacher. It was later found to be untrue. (Gallo Images)

In fact, Maimane’s most overt attempt at amending the party’s philosophy about race was defeated at its federal congress in April 2018, with a watered-down amendment added to the DA’s constitution. Maimane originally wanted an amendment that commited the party to ensure diversity.

The amended clause however spoke of the party "promoting" diversity. A far cry from what Maimane wanted.

He also veered away from the party’s historical stance on redress, embracing an approach more akin to the ANC’s position on group rights, with race as the proxy. It all came to a head with the party’s review panel specifically rejecting Maimane’s ideas.

And as with Slabbert, his continuation as leader became untenable.

With the departure of both leaders the value and relevance of liberalism in the South African political context was questioned. The PFP was accused of being too soft, and the DA is being accused of being tone-deaf to the realities of race in present day South Africa.

van zyl slabbert

Slabbert and the ANC's Thabo Mbeki during the visit of a group of Afrikaner dissidents to the organisation in 1987. (Media24 Archives)

Maimane’s review panel – whose report triggered his demise – tries to make a case for liberalism and historical redress without relying on race to co-exist. It endorses redress policies, but puts the individual, and not the group or race, at the centre.

The PFP’s brand of liberalism failed in the context of its realities. If the DA’s brand is going to survive, it is going to have to do so in the context of increased hostility towards it.


One morning in the spring of 2006 Suzman was sitting on a white couch in the study of her spacious home in Rosebank, Johannesburg, gin-in-hand reminiscing about her political career. She spoke of the succession of apartheid prime ministers she opposed, visits to Robben Island and her relationship with Nelson Mandela.

And then she stood up and walked to the bookshelves lining one wall of the room, straight to a framed picture of her and the broad-shouldered Slabbert, both smiling.

After Slabbert left the PFP Suzman excommunicated him. She felt he betrayed the liberal cause.

"He made me so angry," she said staring at the picture frame, before adding, "But God he was attractive."

They reconciled years later.

It will be a while yet before Maimane and Zille will be able to do that, it seems.


Maimane delivers his resignation address on October 23, 2019, at the DA's head office in Bruma, Johannesburg. (Gallo Images)

Read more on:    frederik van zyl slabbert  |  mmusi maimane  |  helen zille  |  helen suzman  |  da

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