Tributes to van Zyl Slabbert

Following the death of Frederik van Zyl Slabbert on 14th May, tributes have flowed in for the man who was pivotal in South African politics and contributed immensely to global democracy.
For Idasa’s tribute compilation, click here.

Share your tributes in the comment box below.

Some of the tributes sent to Idasa

He was always the same: thoughtful, witty, clever, and impatient to get things done, friendly, and charming. He knew his friends and he kept them. He told a brilliant story. He was a fleet-footed raconteur, enormously entertaining. His intellect was piercing, challenging and respectful.
The quality that gave stability to the dynamic personality that was Van Zyl Slabbert was his integrity, loyalty and lack of pretension.
Make no mistake. He could wipe the floor with those who contradicted his values or betrayed his trust and sense of fairness.
Those at the receiving of his sarcasm or targeted by his witty sense of irony often ran for cover. But Van was incapable of being nasty or mean over an intellectual disagreement because of the theologian in him. He wanted to persuade, never bully.
He had an unusual ability to distill complexity into an understandable proposition, to take an entire body of literature to frame a problem and used his quite remarkable intellect to proceed to answer the problem, confident but with the appropriate dose of self-doubt too.
I once described Van Zyl as a visceral democrat. By that I meant that he carried justice, fairness and a drive towards equality in his bones. His brainpower governed and refined his joyfully open temperament but he was not simply an intellectual democrat. Justice was written in his genome code.
He played a major and largely unacknowledged role in our country’s yearning for freedom and democracy. He put his comfort and his life in the service for justice. Excommunication from the Afrikaner community is no small thing and he never quite had that fate: still, he never enjoyed being made to feel that he was not a proper Afrikaner.
For the things we loved about Van were in fact that very qualities that came from his Afrikaner background: the lack of royal pretension, the respectfulness, the impatient earthiness of the frontiersman, the intellect put to the common good, the loyalty to family and friends.
The world stopped on Friday May 14 2010. I will miss you Van Zyl.
Dr Wilmot James

On meeting Van Zyl

It was November of 2004. I was late and in a panic. The tarmac at Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo international airport was soaked because of foul weather and our flight was backed up in the landing queue. Immigration was a nightmare. “Visa? How long are you staying? Where are you staying? What are you here for? How much money do you have? You must leave in 14 days!” Rubber-Stamp thud like a baton stick on and run.
Never one to miss a thing, he nabbed me as I walked stealthily into the room thinking I could sneak in unnoticed. Thud. Thud. Thud. The last drops of rain
from my umbrella fell on the carpet. “Welcome Bella. Take a seat”, or something convivial like that. During the meeting’s tea break he headed towards me. I was still cowering in my pity corner as I thought he was the
sort of man to hand out a delayed form of discipline. I was certain I was going to get a lecture on meeting etiquette. But not Van Zyl. His warm hand outstretched, he gave me a greeting that will go down as one of the warmest and sincerest I have ever had.
I hope I never forget the comfort of that firm grip. I would later learn it belonged to an ace rugby player, someone who could have taken the game professionally, but luckily for me, chose a different path. With that handshake came the biggest smile, reaching all the way to his eyes, and twinkling out of them.
He was wearing a white and brown cotton shirt of the pan-African tradition, the neat fabric of the hemline of the sleeves just grazing his rough elbows. The idea stuck. Since then my male friends get one regularly from me.
Van Zyl was generous of spirit. My country was going through difficult times. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better. But don’t doubt it. It will definitely get better. Zimbabwe will be the amazing country it should be”, he
said with such prescient confidence, I frankly thought some of his nuts and bolts were coming undone.
In the years to follow, he would be a constant source of encouragement. A kind man, of the way your maternal grandmother is when you are having a hard time with something she knows you can accomplish. A phone call would come through to me every so often. “I am just checking on you, no pressure”, his voice would boom, not with authoritarianism, but to give you a big boost. I could always tell there was a smile on the other side, trying to ease my pain.
He was a role model in autonomy, Van Zyl. If an institution or organization did not work for him, he wasn’t afraid to step out of it, and create something
of his own. He believed in human agency and worked tirelessly for it. He would craft a niche; find a place where his exuberance and intellect could always thrive, and where his ideas would rapidly take shape. Idasa is a poignant example.
He tools were optimism and a positive spirit that all would turn out right. I never quite figured where his reserves of relentless hope came from when the rest of us were slipping into deep caves of distress and despair. Once he had my email address, the reading instructions followed. “This might inspire you,” was the simple message.
Occasionally a text message would come through, “Hang in there, don’t give up, ” especially in 2006 when we were on trail for our belief in a society where the airwaves belong to all of us, not just a select few. The Radio Voice of the People case was arduous. Some friends chose to distance themselves from us because we were seen as “too controversial…too confrontational”.
Others spoke with their body language, or just became distant. Rather than play hide and seek, Van Zyl compiled a docket for me of case material on how
South Africa ensured the devolution of the airwaves.
In the years that I was born, Dr Frederick van Zyl Slabbert was already leader of the opposition in the South African parliament of mid-1975. A decade later
he was working as far afield as Dakar, Senegal, paving the way for South Africa’s talks about a transition to a plural and democratic state.
“Slabbert gave me all his wisdom, ” says Davie Malungisa, Executive Director of IDAZIM, a think tank that we set up as quickly as Slabbert has said the
name. “I think what Zimbabwe needs right now is an IDAZIM, an independent place for dialogue and capacity building to play the role that Idasa did during our own transition,” he’d said with a sweep of his hands.
And that was another of his abundant gifts – ideas. They would spew from his mind with his characteristically burly lucidity.
Dr Frederick Van Zyl Slabbert’s death on May 14, is not only a loss to his family, his friends and the society of South Africa. It is a loss to those of us in Africa who, through his selfless and unpaid contribution learned from him and keep alive our beliefs in the possibility of attaining in our life time: Open, Tolerant, Just and Equitable societies.
As the founding African board member for the Open Society Institute’s southern Africa foundation, he brought to our soils Karl Popper’s philosophy and expanded the depth and breadth of the work of the Soros Foundation’s OSI footprint across the African continent.
And so, as we fly our personal flags at half-mast in honour of Van Zyl, we no doubt feel a deep personal loss. Our ache is dulled a little by the knowledge
that bighearted as he was, Slabbert gave to our world his dues, and so much, much more.
Isabella Matambanadzo, Harare, Zimbabwe.

Frederik was an inspiring and towering personality. One of the many solid, heart warming South African politicians that I have come to learn, already during the struggle years. He was not an easy act, but an honest and courageous one. And I must say that when he explained to the delegation of Belgian parliamentarians in 1992 the difficulties at the Greater Johannesburg Council with getting taxation, service delivery, spacial politics, the call for dignity and all that stuff more right, it opened a microcosm of all the difficulties that South Africa would have to go through. He helped outsiders understand both passions and problems at the inside. When I wrote his portrait in a Flemish weekly, I titled it “the bridge builder”. As an anti-apartheid activist from Belgium, I was an outsider. But – as I keep on repeating – so privileged to have had the chance to learn from Frederik, from you and many, many others. My condolences go to family, and the huge network of friends.

Jan Vanheukelom, Kessel-lo
I speak on behalf of Disabled People South Africa (DPSA) – a civil society organisation formed by, and representing South Africa’s disabled people’s human and developmental rights – when saying we convey our condolences to the family, friends, colleagues, and associates of the late Dr Frederik van Zyl Slabbert.
His contributions to the strengthening of our country’s democratic culture within which our citizens and civil society formations has been immense. DPSA will ensure that his efforts at building a truly democratic South Africa are fortified further and consolidated through reinforcing the role of disabled citizens in South Africa, the continent and world at large.
Dr. van Zyl Slabbert will be remembered for his multifaceted contributions – through direct politics, economic participation, addressing our populations daily challenges, and the ensuring individuals’ rights to free association – in our country’s political lanscape.
Thank you,
Motsoakgomo I. “Papi” Nkoli

Condolences and that of the entiere embassy with the passing of Van Zyl Slabbert. I met him years ago several times. Truly a great man, who leaves us too early.

Peter Mollema. Deputy Head of Mission, Netherlands Embassy

It is with great sadness that I learned of the death of van Zyl and write to extend my deepest sympathy to you and all his colleagues in Idasa. The tributes to van Zyl have been wonderful and I do hope these help his family and friends to ease the pain of loss, even a little, at this very sad time.

With warm regards
Di Oliver

The range of voices I have met in the last few days who knew him or of him, and sing praises of him; are many. I had no opportunity to meet him personally and yet, somehow, I feel that I have. I have colleagues at OSISA who recall that he developed that institution from nothing; and of course looking back in history, I recall that I covered a lot meetings as both a political writer and a correspondent for the Associated Press, during the transition periods (the 80s and early 90s) between President Kaunda and the delegations from South Africa led by Dr Slabbert or certainly gatherings associated with progressive groups within the SA establishment. The founding member of the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), Akashambatwa Mbikusita Lewanika, upon learning that I had joined Idasa in 2002 had only one question for me: “How is Van Zyl Slabbert?”. Those moments represent some of the most important years of my life growing up in the face of historical events in southern Africa.

Its not easy for those of us who joined Idasa late in the day to comprehend the the full impact of this tragic event but we live in the shadow of the greatness of this incomparable intellectual who has passed and left us this indelible footprint called Idasa. May his soul rest in peace.
Kondwani Chirambo

I was very sad to hear about van Zyl’s death. I am of the generation of journalists who well remember the unique interventions made by him, in particular.

I sometimes wonder if there would have been elections in 1994 without van Zyl and Idasa.
Last year I was asked by a Dutch television company I have done quite a lot of work for to set up a documentary in which he would be a main player, along with Breyten and two ANC artists/poets to mark the 20 years since that particular meeting in Victoria Falls.
Despite the incredibly short time given me to set it up, I managed to arrange it, mainly through van Zyl’s delight that it would be made, and his energy to bully Breyten to delay his trip back to Paris, but then one of the key ANC personalities pulled out at the last minute, so the documentary was not made.
I was asked again last month to see if I could set it up again later this year. And now, alas, the main driver of that initiative is gone. And without him there isn’t anyone I can remember who was at the Victoria Falls meeting then who could drive accurate memories of that story within its context, and with its complexities, analysis, and humour too.
And of course, I, as a technician with a microphone, also remember van Zyl’s rich, compelling voice, strong enough to ensure we changed our world, and musical enough to engage any listerner prepared to hear.
This is the second or third important historical documentary which has been informally on my diary for a while and which will now not be made because one or more of the main players has died.
I will think of him at the memorial and think of IDASA, as I know what he and it meant in South Africa’s history.
Best regards to you all.
Peta Thornycroft

On behalf of the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Stellenbosch University, I wish to convey our condolences to Dr van Zyl Slabbert’s family and all his close associates. We honour his intellectual energy and integrity, as well as his contribution to the struggle to build a deeply democratic South Africa.

Cherryl Walker

I am sorry that I cannot be there to honour a remarkable man. He showed by personal example how possible it is to rise above petty cultural ties and engage the bigger questions. We will miss him and I am sad that he will not be here to guide Southern Africa through some very difficult times ahead.

Tony Reeler

At the Club of Madrid ( we are deeply saddened by the passing by of Frederik van Zyl Slabbert on May 14, 2010 in Johannesburg.
Van Zyl made enormous contributions to South Africa showing an unyielding commitment and dedication with the values of Democracy and the critical
importance of promoting dialogue in consensus building.
Within the outlook of the organisations dedicated to strength Democracy worldwide, the Club of Madrid has always admired the brilliant path of IDASA,
under the vision of your founder.
Both organisations have consolidated a tight link over the years, and we are pretty sure his legacy will remain in your work for a long time.
On this very sad moment, as Secretary General of the Club of Madrid allow me to express my sincerest condolences and, through you to the staff of IDASA.
Our thoughts are with you at this difficult time.
With my deepest sympathy,
Carlos Westerndorp

I met Van in 1975. I was active in the PFP and we met at meetings, campaigns and congresses. For years we had a chat every few years. The last time I saw him he was well except for getting gout. I then had two years of health troubles. I was hoping to make contact again as I had done in the past. I did not know he had had a serious health setback.The news of his death came as a great shock. I could not believe it. He was so strong, fit and young.

John Joslin, Smart Green Prosperity

Share your thoughts in the comment box below.


2 Responses

  1. I am so sorry to hear about Van Zyl.

    Obviously he has been an important part of Idasa, and of the development of South Africa. And I can see from the pictures from the memorial that he still was important to many. I remember him as very results-oriented, kind and humorous person.

    Best regards to you, Alex and Idasa. (I subscribe to your newsletter, and your activities are very in inspiring. Keep up a briliant work!)

    Tina Thorsell

  2. It is with a heart full with sorrow and at the same time encouraged by the word of God that say that is God for us to leave this world and Go to a well prepared place called Paradise full with hany and milk.

    we believe that after planting many seed and leading by good example that Mr Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert will never be forgotten by all of us. let his Soul not only rest by shine as a morning star.

    Rev. Mulumba Tshilenge
    Founder and Chairperson Christ Border Free.

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