Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, 70

Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, white anti-apartheid leader, dies at 70

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, 70, who helped South Africa chart a peaceful way out of apartheid by leading fellow whites into talks with exiled black leaders, died May 14 at his home in Johannesburg after being treated for a liver-related complication, Reuters reported.

Mr. Slabbert was a rugby-playing son of conservative Afrikaners, the descendants of early Dutch settlers known for their commitment to apartheid. But as a political figure, he symbolized the emergence of a new breed of Afrikaner: urbane, articulate and committed to racial equality.

He was also charming and telegenic, a creature of the modern age at a time when Arikanerdom was fracturing over many questions; the ultimate question was how to deal with modernity: resist it, ignore it, subvert it or try to lead it.

Mr. Slabbert tried to lead, leaving behind an early career as a sociologist in academia to enter politics. He represented the Progressive Federal Party, a precursor to the current opposition Democratic Alliance, in parliament during the apartheid years. He resigned as party leader and left parliament in 1985, during a crackdown on black activists, saying the whites-only legislature was no longer relevant.

Helen Suzman -- who had promoted him as the new face of Arikanerdom and a way of making her all-white, English-dominated progressive party more inclusive and influential -- was angry and saddened when he walked away from parliamentary politics.

Soon afterward, Mr. Slabbert and rights advocate Alex Boraine formed the Institute for a Democratic Alternative in South Africa, known as Idasa, to organize meetings between whites and blacks in apartheid South Africa. The group is now the Institute for Democracy in Africa.

In 1987, Mr. Slabbert led a delegation of white South Africans to Senegal to meet the African National Congress -- which was banned in South Africa at the time but is now the country's governing party. The white government labeled Mr. Slabbert's group traitors.

In a statement Friday, South African President Jacob Zuma said Mr. Slabbert showed "courage and foresight" by going to Senegal.

In his definitive book on South Africa's transformation, journalist Allister Sparks says the Senegal meetings proved that South African factions had enough common ground to find a peaceful solution to their country's crisis.

The Democratic Alliance said that Mr. Slabbert played a "leading role in opposing apartheid and facilitating South Africa's transition to democracy."

Frederik van Zyl Slabbert was born March 2, 1940, in Pretoria. He received multiple degrees from South Africa's University of Stellenbosch.

His marriage to Marie Jordaan ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife, Jane Stephens, whom he married in 1984; and two children from his first marriage.

His books included "The Last White Parliament: The Struggle for South Africa by the Leader of the White Opposition" (1986) and "Tough Choices: Reflections of an Afrikaner Africa" (2000).

"He went against the grain, broke ranks but established new alliances and friendships that transcended the old divisions," said Njabulo Ndebele, Idasa's chairman. "He was a remarkable South African who had a sharp and sensitive intelligence and a tremendous sense of humor."

-- From staff and news services

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