Frederick van Zyl Slabbert died last week. He was one of the good South Africans.
Mark Gevisser, Thabo Mbeki’s biographer, wrote in the Mail and Guardian on Friday of his first encounter, aged 12, with the young, virile, handsome Slabbert: ‘…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….I remember thinking, on the drive home, that I would go to the trenches for him…and that I wanted to be like him when I grew up: passionate, principled, engaged.’
The one and only time I ever voted, under the apartheid regime, was for Van Zyl Slabbert and his Progs. I voted in his constituency, Rondebosch, and Van Zyl won.
Van Zyl’s history, in a way, is a ‘white’ history – not because the man could not transcend his race, or his Afrikaner background: he did so with integrity and passion. And not because – or not only because – there would always be those who would typecast him, whose interests were served by playing the race card. No, at a deeper level, Van Zyl’s story is the story of a good man marginalised, an intellect and passion for this country set deliberately to one side by those in power. And his race, I think, in our re-racialised democracy, made it easier to do him in.
Gevisser again: ‘I have written elsewhere that Slabbert was ‘seduced’ by a highly instrumentalist Mbeki as part of the latter’s strategy to shatter the monolith of white South African support for apartheid. Slabbert himself believed this to be true….Slabbert remained outside until his death, and many – including the man himself – believe he was denied an active role in post-apartheid politics because he refused to be a yes-man to Mbeki, from whom he became estranged.’
It was Van Zyl’s tragedy, but it was also the tragedy of the country: not just for the man, but for many more like him who have found their passionate belief in and loyalty to our young democracy cynically abused, because, in the end, they just can’t brown-nose like they are supposed to. ‘He loathed the “patronage, favouritism, cunning and manipulation” of the new order as much as he did that of the old and although he was an ambitious man who wanted to play his part, he wore his alienation from the new power elite as a badge of pride.’
‘Get out of the way,’ a white leftie friend said to me he was warned recently, ‘of the black bourgeoisie stampeding to the trough, setting up their family dynasties. Stand, and you will simply be run over.’
‘In the end,’ Gevisser writes, despite his years in Parliament, Frederick van Zyl Slabbert was ‘simply not a politician.’ Maybe. But there is more to life than politics and politicians, and Van knew it.
To my mind, Thabo Mbeki will always be an exile. History, in a sense, chose him; but he chose his path, too, and forged his own identity. Van Zyl Slabbert always was, and always will be, a citizen.
Meanwhile, of course, ordinary lives go on, as they must and should. Rob and I have now settled on a date: 21 December, the summer solstice in the southern hemisphere, and winter in the north, is the date we will be married. We have chosen one of the top ten restaurants in South Africa, Roots, in the Cradle of Humankind, for a celebratory dinner with family and friends. And, as we look ahead to a life together, one of the questions I guess will be, not ‘where do we want to live’ but, ‘where do we belong?’