Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert dies

2010-05-14 09:47

Former opposition leader and political analyst Frederik Van Zyl

Slabbert died at home in Johannesburg this morning, his daughter Tania


“He died peacefully, with his family. We are okay,” she said.

Slabbert, 70, once viewed as one of South Africa’s most gifted

public figures, had been admitted to Johannesburg’s Milpark Hospital and was

reportedly being treated for liver and other problems.

He is perhaps best remembered for his pioneering work in opening up

dialogue between Afrikaners and the then exiled African National Congress


He was born in Pretoria on March 2, 1940, and spent his formative

years in Pietersburg, now Polokwane, in what is now Limpopo, where he captained

his school’s first cricket and rugby teams.

He studied for 18 months at the Dutch Reformed Church theological

seminary at Stellenbosch University before deciding sociology was his


He completed a BA Honours at the university in 1962 and was awarded

a doctorate in 1967.

From 1964 to 1973 he lectured sociology at Stellenbosch, Rhodes and

the University of Cape Town.

During this period his interest in the position of the coloured

people of the Western Cape led him into confrontation with the National Party,

and he joined a multi-racial discussion group named Synthesis which sought to

promote black-white dialogue.

In 1973 he was appointed head of the department of sociology at the

University of the Witwatersrand.

The following year, standing for the Progressive Party (PP), he won

the Rondebosch parliamentary seat from the United Party.

He maintained afterwards he had been persuaded to stand only after

a hard night’s drinking with PP members.

In 1979 he accepted the leadership of the party – by then known as

the Progressive Federal Party – and of the official opposition in Parliament,

and led the PFP to substantial gains in the 1981 general election.

In 1985 he travelled to Lusaka for talks with the external wing of

the ANC and, with the Inkatha Freedom Party’s Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi,

launched the National Convention Movement in an unsuccessful attempt to pressure

the government to negotiate with all political groups.

By this time Slabbert, who was said by one acquaintance to have a

“non-existent boredom threshold” was becoming increasingly disillusioned with

the tricameral Parliament which, in his view, was a hopelessly flawed

constitutional experiment.

In February 1986 he publicly announced his resignation from

Parliament and the leadership of the PFP, which he had informed of his decision

only an hour earlier.

Fellow front-bencher Helen Suzman labelled it betrayal, but he

strongly defended his move, saying he refused to be “in the slipstream of the

government’s repression and incompetence”.

His desertion of the PFP sparked criticism that while he had the

brains for a politician, he lacked the balls.

“Ja,” he responded with a wry smile. “The trouble with this country

is you have too many politicians with balls but no brains.”

In July 1986 Slabbert, with another former PFP MP Alex Boraine,

formed the Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa


He became a director of Idasa, and undertook an intricate process

of shuttle diplomacy aimed at bringing resistance groups together with

influential figures in the white establishment in South Africa.

In July 1987, to the government’s fury, he took a group of about 60

influential white South Africans, most of them Afrikaners, to Dakar, Senegal,

for talks with an ANC delegation.

In the 1990s he branched out into business, becoming chairperson of

Caxton Publishers, Adcorp Holdings and Metro Cash ’n Carry, as well as holding

various directorships.

He also in 1990 co-founded Khula, a black investment trust.

In 2002 then-president Thabo Mbeki appointed him to head a team

investigating a new electoral system for the country.

Its recommendation, a more accountable mix of constituency-based

and proportional representation, was quietly shelved by government.

Slabbert accepted the position of chancellor of his alma mater,

Stellenbosch University, in 2008 but at the end of that year suffered a heart

attack, and had a pacemaker installed.

The following year he quit the Stellenbosch post, along with his

company directorships in order, he said, to spend more time with his wife and


He authored a number of books, including a semi-autobiographical

analysis of tricameral politics, The Last White Parliament, which appeared in


In May that year he wrote that his fear was not that there would

not be eventual consensus on the principles of a new democratic constitution for

South Africa.

“Far more disturbing are the expectations that people have of what

a democracy can deliver and which research shows it is incapable of doing. This

in the South African context is the real burden of democracy.”

He leaves his wife Jane and two adult children, Tania and Riko,

from a previous marriage. Funeral details would be released later.


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