Over the last 23 years, it would be dishonest not to acknowledge that as part of the miracle that the world cherishes about our country, most black South Africans have witnessed great leaps forward in terms of race relations with Afrikaners. But occasionally black people have witnessed the last vestiges of Afrikaner cruelty that creates an almost love-hate relationship between the two racial groups and frustrates the logical conclusion of our reconciliation project.
There have been Afrikaners like Eugène Terre’Blanche and his AWB, white supremacist right-wingers who refused to disabuse themselves of old dogmas and a false sense of superiority. These Afrikaners have injected themselves with fear, frightened of their place in the new South Africa. There have been Afrikaners who have amassed arms and are stockpiling resources preparing for an imagined day of reckoning.
Less aggressive but no less profound have been Afrikaners who have fought tooth and nail against an imagined fear of the extinction of Afrikaans as a language at universities and schools and have used all manner of influence, including providing funding to bully universities to keep Afrikaans as a primary teaching language.
Then there are those who have fought to keep exclusive Afrikaans newspapers, magazines, books, and those who have fought for certain sporting codes, like rugby, to remain primarily and exclusively an Afrikaner endeavour.
Because of the role of business in society and livelihoods, Afrikaners’ infatuation with dominance has not been more pronounced than as in business. The labour abuse on farms, threatening us with food security because farmers are being killed, with Rupert and Nicky buying every essential product in order to ensure their leverage is secured in the event of D-Day.
Long ago however there was a “new Afrikaner”, a man so distinguished, so cognitively gifted, with an unmatched capacity to reflect and change course, his name is carved in the country’s most cherished history, the towering intellectual, Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert.
Like most young black South Africans, who sought to reconnect with their history through books and historical material, an encounter with Van Zyl Slabbert is almost accidental. You are most likely to find Van Zyl Slabbert if you have any interest in Thabo Mbeki. Their turn of the century history seems joined at the hip.
Most historians covering the ANC journey will tell you that even in the ‘80s, the ANC was still predicting at least another 30 to 40 years before freedom came to our land. It was not until Van Zyl Slabbert took a team of Afrikaners across the border to meet an Mbeki-led ANC delegation in Dakar, Senegal, that the erosion of the apartheid stronghold seemed inevitable, and much sooner.
Max du Preez, writer and friend to Van Zyl Slabbert, has made me understand Van Zyl Slabbert more intimately through telling his own journey of living in the presence of a great man. Mark Gevisser also shed great light, particularly on the Mbeki/Van Zyl Slabbert dynamics.
Ordinarily, no white person is worth celebrating in our history who remained within the country to enjoy his/her skin privileges, whatever illusion there may be about their deeds. Helen Zille’s “claim to fame” of housing Steven Biko is the biggest fuss of them all. White people thinking that because they helped a black child cross the road during apartheid, they stood up to the system, while waking up to an egg and bacon and white privilege for breakfast, is intensely offensive. Helen Suzman’s participation in an apartheid parliament, with a claim of fighting for minority rights, is the greatest insult to whites, like Joe Slovo and other white South Africans who were not ready to give the apartheid government even an inch, nor a quarter, until the complete emancipation of black people.
There are two major things that separate Van Zyl Slabbert from the white/Afrikaner cabal. First, as Du Preez puts it, a gifted Afrikaner like Van Zyl Slabbert was expected to join the National Party and was almost guaranteed a great future in the party.
When Van Zyl Slabbert chose to join the liberals instead, the Afrikaner backlash was inevitable. It was almost a betrayal to his own people. As black people who were cast out of our own country we can understand this, and we can appreciate it.
But Van Zyl Slabbert was not done turning his back on his own, as his enlightenment kept finding him. When he later turned his back on the very liberal Progressive Party he founded, again because of his ability to put himself in other people’s shoes, coloureds and Africans in particular, he just could not continue associating himself with a false narrative of fighting for black people’s rights while in all honesty the Progressive Party, same as the current Democratic Alliance, was all about preserving white interests.
Van Zyl Slabbert new that the real leaders of black people were other black people who were were stuck in exile and trampled in jail and if he wanted to be part of this process, he and those willing needed to honestly engage black people and their leaders, and not use a black cause to indulge white fears. Van Zyl Slabbert had had enough. Again, on turning his back on the liberals, the backlash and the name calling ensued, he was cast out as a fool who thought he was black and could bring redemption to his own people.
So by the time Van Zyl Slabbert reached Dakar, he had already cut ties with both the Afrikaner and liberal Democratic Alliance (then PP). His intelligence and reincarnation explains why Mbeki and the ANC found him a man of exceptional abilities and empathy. Van Zyl Slabbert was everything an apartheid Afrikaner was not. Smart, caring, ready to change his views when he gets new light.
It is Gevisser who helped me understand Van Zyl Slabbert’s role during the transition. I almost get sentimental when Gevisser speaks of Van Zyl Slabbert’s attempts to ensure the new ANC leaders, particularly Mbeki, did not find themselves indebted to the Afrikaner wealth of the Ruperts and Oppenheimers who suddenly opened their resources to court the newly arrived ANC leaders from exile.
Van Zyl Slabbert wanted the ANC to be completely independent and have a fresh start. He believed in Mbeki in ways that are unimaginable for an Afrikaner. When Van Zyl Slabbert asked Mbeki to move out of a hotel owned by the Oppenheimers to retain his independence I could not help but wonder if such Afrikaners have indeed perished from the earth.
It’s 2017, Afriforum and Solidarity are running amok, driving Afrikaners’ fears and using Afrikaner wealth to challenge the new South African order. They would like to give Afrikaners a country within a country. It seems, sadly, the dream died with Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert.
What drove Van Zyl Slabbert to be an Afrikaner light in the desert, leading them into a new country? Was Van Zyl Slabbert too smart, too exceptional, an outlier whose spirit can never be revived and whose ability to keep reinventing himself almost a touch of God that can never be expected from today’s Afrikaner?
Even progressive Afrikaners like Du Preez occasionally have undertones that insinuates that the country owes them something, that the ANC is not what they would have expected. Du Preez and others behave as spectators in their own country, giving and reserving applause as blacks perform on the national stage for their indulgence. Du Preez and his progressive Afrikaner gang have not truly defined their place in the new South Africa.
How can we revive the values of Van Zyl Slabbert? How can we put an end to the Afrikaner sense of minority and fear in their own country; most important, how can we make sure Van Zyl Slabbert’s values, particularly his ability to keep reinventing himself towards the light, spreads to all South Africans?
No one must continue to hold on to dogmas when they no longer make sense.
It’s something we must all work towards and resolve to accomplish. DM
"Joyfully to the breeze royal Odysseus spread his sail and with his rudder skillfully he steered." ~ Homer