'Super Van': a voice and hope for moderation in South Africa

"There are two things in South Africa's future that I consider nonnegotiable, " says the broad-shouldered man behind the too-small desk. His accent is unmistakably that of an Afrikaner, a member of the dominant white ethnic group in white-rule South Africa.

But his "nonnegotiable" items do not, as might be expected, amount to continued white political and economic privilege.

Instead, they are a guarantee that South Africa will have "no statuatory or de facto racial discrimination" and that "no one group of people will dominate the others" in this multiracial, multi-ethnic society.

To some of his white countrymen, the views of Dr. Frederik van Zyl Slabbert are political heresy. But the surprising thing is that they have, according to a recent opinion poll here, propelled him to a position of popularity among whites topped only by the prime minister and one or two other Cabinent ministers.

And Dr. Slabbert has done this as leader of the official opposition in the South African Parliament -- a post traditionally distinguished only by the amount of derision heaped on the holder.

To some here, Dr. Slabbert embodies the hope that younger Afrikaners can be attracted away from the ruling National Party and its policy a apartheid (racial separation).

The jocular cartoonist of one Afrikaans-language newspaper regularly depicts Dr. Slabbert as "Super Van" or "Super Afrikaner."

His wife, Mana, says he is irked by such comparisons, preferring instead to be accepted "as a normal person, with human qualities." Nevertheless, characterization as a caped crusader is a grudging accolade for a man who, in just over half a year as leader of the opposition, has established himself as a political force to be reckoned with in South Africa.

Dr. Slabbert's background would more likely have suited him for a position in the ruling National Party government here. After childhood and schooling in the small town of Pietersburg, in conservative Transvaal Province, he graduated from Stellenbosch University -- the intellectual citadel of Afrikanerdom that has been alma mater of every Nationalist prime minister except the present one.

A career in academia -- notably sociological research -- led to entry into politics in 1974, when he was elected a member of Parliament for Cape Town. In September 1979 he became leader of the Progressive Federal Party (PFP), the official opposition in the South African Parliament.

Despite his rapid rise to political prominence here, he has so far shunned the trappings of power. His battered persimmon-colored Ford sedan stands in shabby contrast to the Mercedes and Jaguars parked in the parliamentary garage. He avoids state dinners and formal banquets when possible, preferring instead a braaivleis (traditional South African cook-out) in the backyard of his century-old stone house in suburban Cape Town.

Known as an easygoing man ("I've never seen him mad," says an aide), his biggest complaint is people who try to elevate him to larger-than-life status.

"He's got no time for that," remarks his wife, a criminologist at the University of Cape Town.

In the labyrinthine politics of South Africa, Afrikaners who desert the National Party are often accused of betraying the volk (people), of undermining their own ethnic group by advocating black rule.

But Dr. Slabbert rejects that view, arguing that it is perfectly consistent to treasure one's own ethnic heritage while demanding political rights for others.

"Afrikaans is a language I feel passionately strong about," he says, but adds that it cannot survive in Africa unless it becomes "part of the language of liberation."

If that is not enough to make right-wing whites blanch, his views of the future of apartheid might. He says the complicated system of discriminatory laws built up by the National Party over the past 32 years "has to fall to pieces."

While a number of other Afrikaners may not go that far, Dr. Slabbert says many are at least questioning the assumption that white political domination can continue forever in South Africa.

"There's a new awareness," he says, especially on the campuses of Afrikaans-language universities. Young Afrikaners are saying, "Look, we're tired to being sold nice cliches and stories. We're going to have to carry the gun [in a racial conflict]. Tell us what's going to happen. And tell us straight.'"

What he tells them, at frequent appearances on university campuses, is that South Africa needs a "national convention" in which representatives of all race groups negotiate a new constitution for South Africa.

"And I mean real negotiation," he told the Monitor.

"I'm not saying, 'Here's my hidden agenda, approve it and I'll tell you how you fit in.' I mean really negotiate."

Dr. Slabbert rejects the somewhat fashionable view that white parliamentary politics has become "irrelevant" in South Africa in the face of inevitable racial conflict.

"If you take constitutional change seriously, if you think it's desirable, then you're obliged to take white politics seriously," he says.

The other option -- overthrow of the government by revolution -- is not imminent, he says.

"If the revolution means a successful upheaval of the status quo and substitution of a liberation government, I would be hard pressed to argue that it's going to happen in the near future," he said in an interview.

He concedes that "there are people who violently disagree, in the real sense of the word" with that view. But that only lends greater urgency to the need to oppose the present South African government.

One role of the parliamentary opposition is to prod the government to "close the gap" between blacks and whites in terms of "jobs, housing, transport, pensions, hospitals," he says.

That may at least help create a climate in which violence does not escalate, says Dr. Slabbert.

From his seat just to the left of the Speaker of the House of Assembly, Dr. Slabbert frequently takes National Party leaders to task. Parliamentary observers say he generally avoids personal attacks, instead concentrating on issues. He deftly turns back hecklers from the government benches, sometimes with wry humor that leaves challengers chagrined if not chastened.

"He's got a very good sense of politics," says veteran opposition parliamentarian Helen Suzman. "He's tactful, but he's got firm views. He's articulate. He's analytical. And he's very good at communicating with people."

Dr. Slabbert's party favors a federal system for South Africa, but he concedes that a national convention could eventually lead to some other form of government.

But he says it need not be a system of one-man, one-vote in a unitary state.

"Majoritarianism means that everyone else is subject to the tyranny of the majority," he says.

Even under the limited form of white parliamentary democracy currently practiced in South Africa, he says, "Afrikaners have dominated the English-speakers."

Some Afrikaners argue that once they lose a grip on political power, they will lose the cohesive ethnic unity that has, in their view, assured their survival in Africa

But Dr. Slabbert disagrees.

"If unity means that there is visible and deliberate inequality in society, then that is too heavy a price to pay for that unity."

Unless the South African government starts repealing the morass of discriminatory laws passed in the name of preserving ethnicity, he warns that "the Group Area Act, the Immorality Act, the Mixed Marriages Act -- these acts will become monuments" to the failure of whites to assure a place for themselves in Africa.

"If you equate self-determination of the Afrikaner with maintaining racial exclusivity, his attempts at self-determination will lie at the root of the conflict we have in the future."

Is it too late to avoid that conflict?

"Maybe," he answers, "but no matter what happens, there's still going to be black and white together" here at the tip of the African continent.

"And no matter how long they fought and how bitter the struggle," he concludes, "they're still going to have to sit down and talk."

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