The news reaches me mid-Friday morning. My Dad, the journalist Hennie Serfontein is on the line with the sad news that Frederick Van Zyl Slabbert, the former Leader of the Opposition in South Africa died that morning. I can hear he is upset.
I promise to try and contact Theo Hanf, a friend of Dad’s since 1963 and like Van Zyl, a professor of Sociology in Germany. An old friend of both and a colleague who valued Van Zyl's intellectual contribution .
As I put down the phone the memories come flooding.
The first time I remember being in the Slabbert family home was as a child in 1972 in Fish Hoek, Cape Town when he was a young lecturer of Sociology at UCT. We two families had a normal Sunday lunch and we Serfontein girls were playing with his infant children on a sunny winter Cape day.
Long before he became a household name in South Africa they visited us Serfonteins quite often in the two years that they lived in Linden, Johannesburg. By then he was a young professor of Sociology at Wits and like Dad started the journey of no return from the fold of Afrikaner nationalism. As Mom said about Mona and Van Zyl’s time in Johannesburg in the Early Seventies: “It was a hard experience and they had problems adapting . Johannesburg then was NOT liberal Cape Town. They lived across from the Grosskopfs in Linden – Oom Gross was then a senior journalist or maybe even already editor of Beeld. He was also Hein’s father who would later turn into the most wanted Afrikaner in the late Eighties for planting an ANC car bomb. But back then the two families only knew of each other’s existence via us.
Dad and Van Zyl were much further out of the fold by then than the Grosskopfs. All these childhood memories flood my mind on this miserable May Friday that I hear of his death.
Flashes of how my friend Mina Coelho, a left Wits SRC member shouted Van Zyl down in the Wits Great Hall in the early Eighties because the White Left regarded him as a sell-out. Later she declared him to be the sexiest man she knew, because he put her in her place. She became a fan of his intellect and she was not the only one won over by his intellectual prowess.
Flashes of interviews I did with him as a TV news producer – he was always tight, precise and to the point. Or of clandestinely editing the Dakar film in Amsterdam in 1987 after Afrikaners for the first time openly met with ANC members in West Africa, under Van Zyl and Breyten Breytenbach’s guidance.
Flashes of his use of Afrikaans which rivalled any Afrikaans poet. The one word I still treasure was when he spoke about the lapelvreters – the collar gluttons is the nearest I can translate this. It must have been the Seventies. He referred to those Stellenbosch academics that would grab him by the collar after dark under the oak trees of that University town so rich in tradition. They would literally lick and eat his collar while passionately proclaiming their backing of his anti-apartheid thoughts. They were telling him how right he was to oppose John Vorster or PW Botha. However, the next day in the bright African daylight they suddenly hardly knew him. Having seen some of the tributes, I think Van Zyl may laugh about many of the lapelvreters that are now crying crocodile tears in broad daylight.
And while I laugh, I cry. I cry for my country that was incapable of making use of his enormous intellect and his leadership qualities: neither pre–1994 nor post-1994. Such a waste!
And I think back of that first conscious meeting in 1972 and so many afterwards. I mourn his and Dad's friendship spanning more than 40 years. Some of those years were very lonely and incredibly isolated for both: but their friendship endured everything and they remained Afrikaners first and foresmost. I remember one evening in 1984 having dinner with both of them and some German television journalists in Cologne. They were flown out to appear on some prime-time German TV programme. It was just after he had married Jane. He was not just talking politics but also telling us how he and Jane went jogging along the Rhine. Enjoying life and his surroundings.
A lot of his work was done silently. A former detainee writes on my Facebook page that Van, while still leader of the Opposition in the early Eighties established "contact" between him and his parents. "He facilitated the process of finding out where I was being held and then getting food and clothes parcels to me. I was very grateful for those thin strands of connection to the world outside!"
Dad and he trusted each other intrinsically. It was Dad who carried the message to the ANC leader, Oliver Tambo in Lusaka in February 1986 that Van Zyl and Alex Borraine were leaving Parliament and that Van was going to resign as the Leader of the Opposition. A few days later Dad had the only crew filming the dramatic resignation in Parliament. Now watching those scenes he used some of his most prosaic Afrikaans while a stony-faced PW Botha gleered.
And right to the end Dad and Van used each other as sounding boards for political and sometimes even personal matters. Both knew they could rely on each other to keep their lips sealed. Last year when Van was already sick and mostly staying in Swaziland, I was told over a Melville lunch by a mutual friend how much Van missed Hennie’s company and kept asking about him. I conveyed that to Dad. I am grateful for both of them that they still managed a few emotional lunches in the last year: to reflect and to remember all the places, all the people, the good times and the bad times. Both only adhered to one rule – they always followed their consciences, no matter what the personal consequences were. So many memories, so many brave decisions!
Mooi loop Van, you were a true son of Africa!