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Mark Gevisser

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Remembering Frederik van Zyl Slabbert

I first met Frederik van Zyl Slabbert in 1977 when I was 12, on a holiday our two families took together. My father, David Gevisser, had been one of the campaign managers to engineer the “Prog” victory that put Slabbert and five others into Parliament next to Helen Suzman, and had become an ardent supporter of his political aspirations.

Like my father, and like almost everyone else who would meet “Van” during his extraordinary life, I was immediately smitten. I had never met anyone like him: he seemed both glamorous and earthy, both intense and irreverent, both easily approachable and fiercely intellectual. He solicited my opinions on something political, possibly the Soweto Uprising; I remember my conversations with him and his wife, Mana, on that holiday as being the first seriously “adult” ones I ever had. I remember thinking, on the drive home, that I would go to the trenches for him (some trenches: door-to-door canvassing in a Bryanston by-election) and that I wanted to be like him when I grew up: passionate, principled, engaged.

When he became the leader of the Progressive Federal Party (PFP) two years later, I put a poster of him up in my room. I abandoned the “Progs” when I found the student left at university; three years later, when Slabbert stormed out of the “grotesque ritual of irrelevance” that was the white Parliament, I cheered. And as I watched him lead those vital encounters between white South Africans and ANC leaders, I felt a deep relief. His relationship with Thabo Mbeki in particular seemed to hold, in its affection and creativity, an answer to South Africa’s problems. I thought then — somewhat naively — that Slabbert would be South Africa’s transitional leader and that this would save us from civil war.

One of Slabbert’s great antagonists at the time was newspaper editor Ken Owen, who wrote recently that by quitting, the former PFP leader gave up the chance to become one of the architects of the South African Constitution. The historian Hermann Giliomee agrees: “There was a golden opportunity for an Afrikaner politician, unsullied by apartheid, to join FW de Klerk in trying to find a way out.”

But Slabbert had already accepted that there was only one possible way out: straightforward majority rule. As Jurgen Kogl puts it: “He rejected out of hand that he was the last white hope. ‘The last white hope to do what?’ he would ask. ‘To preserve white power by modernising apartheid? To fight for the qualified franchise?’ If that was to be his role, he wanted no part of it.”

 

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