The day was July 9 1987. The place was Dakar, Senegal. The participants – members of the then banned African National Congress and a group of 61 influential white Afrikaners. The mission – sketch a new, democratic future for South Africa. Amongst this delegation was a man who would become a giant in South African politics – Frederick Van Zyl Slabbert.
It is no wonder then, that South Africa was deeply saddened by the loss of one of her greatest sons.
But who was the man who is so fondly remembered by so many? Frederick Van Zyl Slabbert was born on 2 March 1940 in Pretoria. He lectured at University of Stellenbosch , Rhodes University ,the University of Cape Town and achieved his doctorate at 27. In 1973 he became professor of sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand.
Slabbert ventured into politics in 1974 and joined the Progressive party with Helen Suzman. This would mark his stand against apartheid. However, it soon became evident that this was not achieving his desired result and in 1986 he announced his resignation from both parliament and his party on the grounds that parliament “had become irrelevant to the future of South Africa”.
A year later, he became director of policy and planning for the Institute for a Democratic South Africa and led the delegation to Senegal, as described above, leading to the white government of the day denouncing Slabbert's group as traitors.
In the new South Africa, Frederick Van Zyl Slabbert continued to contribute to finding common ground amongst South Africans and remained committed to identifying a joint future for all until his death on 14 May 2010.
The blogosphere was abuzz with news of his death. It soon became clear that many South Africans realized that a huge debt was owed to the man known as “Van”.
The Daily Maverick describes him thus:
It is a measure of Van Zyl Slabbert’s importance and influence that he helped lead the country’s great change, exposed and out in the open. Teddy Roosevelt would certainly have said of him he was “the man in the arena”.
South African politicians don’t agree on too much, but on the death of Frederick Van Zyl Slabbert, the views were largely unanimous. President Zuma said,
His visionary leadership lives on in our efforts to build and strengthen democracy. He will be remembered as a principled and patriotic South African, who served his country diligently.
OFM reported similar sentiments attributed to the Freedom Front Plus, a political party largely representative of the Afrikaner community and Former President FW de Klerk:
Die leier van die Vryheidsfront-Plus, Pieter Mulder, sê Slabbert was altyd eerlik en het ‘n integriteit getoon wat vandag volgens hom nie meer bestaan nie. Oudpresident FW de Klerk het hom geloof as een van die mees uitsonderlike en briljante persoonlikhede op Suid-Afrika se politieke toneel.
The Democratic Alliance said:
As a politician, academic and businessman, he lived his life in devotion to improving his country. His leading role in opposing apartheid and facilitating South Africa's transition to democracy is testimony to his enduring contribution to the country he loved.
Tributes similarly flowed on Twitter. Anneroselt tweeted that Slabbert
was an awesome man who will always be rembered (sic)
John Clark stated that,
South Africa is the poorer for the loss of your intellect and humanity.
And perhaps the most poignant of all was from Tinus le Roux who tweeted:
Stil broers. Daar gaan ‘n groot man verby.
It is clear that South Africans owe a huge debt of gratitude to Dr Frederick Van Zyl Slabbert. His legacy will be remembered and celebrated in South Africa for years to come. It is also clear that his beliefs still hold true in present day South Africa. He once said:
When I look towards the future, I am fearful of the long darkness that may await us all. I am saddened by the human potential we have squandered. But we here in South Africa have problems to solve for which the rest of the world has found no solutions. That in itself is a great challenge.