Destined for an outsider’s role

2010-04-14 00:00


Van Zyl Slabbert: The ­Passion for Reason

Edited by Alfred Le Maitre and Michael Savage

Jonathan Ball

BOOK blurbs are notoriously self-serving, but in this case there is no exaggeration: Frederick van Zyl Slabbert is indeed a “towering figure”. These essays “in honour of an Afrikaner African” are beautifully written whether they place Slabbert in historical context, or expound on issues close to his life’s work.

Almost all of them mention his ­controversial exit from parliament in 1986 and eventual political marginalisation. The general verdict is that he was an important and, as Max du Preez points out, brave promoter of the virtues of negotiation; and that his effective exclusion from post-1994 political life was a loss to the nation.

Ken Owen agrees and admits that the tricameral dispensation was a sham in a security state, but ­contests Slabbert’s decision to leave parliament and argues that he deserted the middle ground. Wilmot James on the other hand maintains that Slabbert’s gesture sapped the confidence of the National Party.

Heribert Adam extracts from Thabo Mbeki a reaction full of mystification at his estrangement from Slabbert long after their ground-breaking Dakar encounter that simply raises further questions. But Breyten Breytenbach provides the most forthright contribution, arguing that Slabbert was too trusting of a cynical African National Congress manipulated by a duplicitous Mbeki. Slabbert’s important work on ­electoral reform, which would have introduced greater accountability, has simply been ignored.

Michael Savage writes about the shameful treatment by the ANC of nonprofit organisations; Rhoda ­Kadalie contributes a chapter on women; and Errol Moorcroft provides a deeply depressing account of land restitution.

The general conclusion is that Slabbert, an immensely gifted and principled man with strong analytical ability and a deep sense of morality, was ultimately a politically tragic figure destined for an outsider’s role. Kadalie mentions his self doubt, a common failing of the intelligent.

Reading this impressive book one is left in despair that his talent could be squandered. Yet it was due to ­people like Slabbert that two illiberal nationalisms agreed to a distinctly liberal constitution that entrenched the rule of law. These essays — as will history — do him due justice.

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