Book review: Slabbert: Man on a Mission

(Albert Grundlingh, Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2021)

Albert Grundlingh’s biography of Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, Slabbert: Man on a Mission, left me in a state of some intellectual and even emotional conflict and unsatisfaction.

In a way, it is a profoundly unsatisfying biography to read. Don’t misunderstand me – it is without any doubt a biography worth reading, and my feeling unsatisfied in its reading is not because of unsatisfying writing or research by Grundlingh in his role as biographer. In fact, quite the opposite.

The greatest sin a biographer can commit is caricature. If a biography leaves the reader with neat and simple and satisfying certainty as to the heroism or villainy of its subject, this should be considered a mark of failure on the part of the biographer. After all, biographies should not be about taking sides, settling scores, worship or aversion, but about insight into the life, character, nature, humour, anxieties, mind, and heart of the unmet man or woman of prominence. Biographical insight into this, approached with integrity and sound research and writing, rarely falls into the trap of caricature. Part of why Slabbert: Man on a Mission is an unsatisfying read is precisely because this greatest sin of the biographer is not committed by its author.

The reader does not have the convenience of walking away from Grundlingh’s book with simple understanding and talking points about the life and accomplishments of its subject. Instead, intellectual and emotional complexity and corresponding uncertainty about Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert and his public life hangs around the mind like heavy cigar smoke at a meeting in Dakar.

Early on, Grundlingh introduces the youthful, sincere, and brief Christian faith of his subject, and this dimension of a ‘higher’ calling and existential pursuit of meaning or accomplishment becomes a powerful and recurring theme. Slabbert’s conversion from theology to sociology and the translation of his missional zeal from the religious to the secular provides a powerful framework that defined much of the rest of his life.

Ahead of its time

In history, as in this biography, Slabbert’s public life in his role as party leader and Leader of the Opposition attracts the most attention. The evolution of his thinking on a new constitutional settlement for South Africa is of particular importance in looking at his leadership of the Progressive Federal Party (PFP). The reader is left with no doubt that Slabbert’s constitutional framework was ahead of its time. Exercising the historian’s caution against strident attribution, the author sets out the believable argument that the liberalism baked into many vital elements of our Constitution today originated as possible political reality in Slabbert’s efforts to convince his party and his country of the merits and necessity of constitutional liberal democracy.

The vibrancy and exhausting excitement of his first entry into politics with the fast-paced election campaign of 1974 stands in stark contrast to Slabbert’s unexpected and arguably seminal departure from parliamentary politics and the leadership of the PFP in 1986. Rightly, Grundlingh takes time to explore the forces and flows at play that culminated in Slabbert’s exit from Parliament. The exploration of the uncertainty, frustration, hurt, and regret surrounding Slabbert’s resignation, a dramatic, defining, and sensitive moment in his subject’s life, shows Grundlingh at his best. It is in the biographical telling of this period of Slabbert’s life that the missional drive that so defined him is most touchingly explored in its devastating frustration. Lingering from this point on throughout the rest of the book is this uncomfortable sadness that Slabbert took on the system – a system he understood better than others, a system that he despised more than others, a system that feared him perhaps more than others – but that the system won to its own surprise. Slabbert might have wounded the beast, might have even wounded it fatally, but he wasn’t on the battlefield when it breathed its last. Nor was he on the battlefield when a new monster, once considered an ally, emerged.

There is some irony or symbolism in the fact that Slabbert’s latter years are now mostly associated with the somewhat fruitless attempt at electoral reform during the Mbeki Presidency. For Slabbert the experience of leading the task team investigating electoral reform was unpleasant and of little personal consequence. But with South Africa currently under constitutional obligation to review its electoral system to Parliament, as Grundlingh points out, perhaps there is still, more than a decade after his death, some role for Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert to play in shaping South Africa’s politics.

Historian’s distance

If Slabbert: Man on a Mission has one weakness, it is that it too often reads as history rather than biography. The differences between these are not immense, but they are significant. Grundlingh, being the highly respected historian that he is, sometimes maintains what could be considered a historian’s distance. This criticism is minor and forgivable, but Slabbert: Man on a Mission lacks a certain warmth that is highlighted perhaps in the inclusion of a recollection of Slabbert by his friend Breyten Breytenbach. Describing Slabbert’s extra-parliamentary political activities and his involvement in the Gorée Institute, Grundlingh quotes Breytenbach as he remembers

…how he [Slabbert] stands in the courtyard of the house on Gorée, early before sunrise, in bathing trunks and with a towel over the shoulder, whistling softly to wake me up so that we may go and swim as the light dawns silvery over the immense sadness of our continent.

The inclusion of this tender recollection highlights that, beneath the historical figure, there was a man that stood in a certain way, smoked in a certain way, whistled in a certain way. It might be crying with the loaf under the arm to want Breytenbach’s poetry and Grundlingh’s historiography to flow from the same pen, but its use reminds that, perhaps, other instances of description of mundane habits and moments, tics and traits, likes or dislikes or foibles would have brought forth more vividly Slabbert’s noted but under-demonstrated lebensfreude.

While this sort of warmth is in shorter supply than some might perhaps prefer, moments of human insight are not absent. Grundlingh writes powerfully of a beating Slabbert received from a teacher for his friendship with another boy that was black. Care is taken to avoid schmaltzy biopic-like dramatization of these moments, and they are responsibly not overburdened with sweeping psychoanalysis as portents of Slabbert’s historic future. It is perhaps in seeking to avoid this, that Grundlingh errs rather towards more clinical historiography. But this is no obstacle to Slabbert: Man on a Mission being an even-handed, affectionate, yet realistic biography.

Triumphs of his life

On the one hand, Slabbert: Man on a Mission presents the strengths of Slabbert’s character and the triumphs of his life, with an obvious focus on his career in parliamentary and extra-parliamentary politics, oftentimes looking at these from the point of view of political opponents – P.W. Botha and Thabo Mbeki’s perceptions of Slabbert being especially fascinating. On the other hand, I could not help but feel the weight of unfulfilled potential, of a lifelong ‘almostness’ hanging over Slabbert’s legacy, substantive as it was. From this ‘almostness’, Grundlingh does not shy away – a definite strength of Slabbert: Man on a Mission.

Too often with biographies, especially in the closely related genre of autobiography, one can avoid the trap of judging a book by its cover simply because of a by-the-numbers vacuity of title and cover design in so many cases. Bland books with bland covers.

I am reminded in this regard of Jon Meacham’s biography of George H. W. Bush. Now, Meacham is clearly an able biographer – I especially enjoyed his Franklin and Winston: A Portrait of a Friendship – but his treatment of the life of the forty-first President of the United States is an example of exactly the blandness of title and cover design that fails to convey anything more than platitudinous implied praise for a biographical subject: Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush. The first impression of Destiny and Power as somewhat uninspiring is not helped by the photo of Bush staring off into the distance. Afrikaans has a lovely word to describe this cover: niksseggend – not quite as connotatively potent a word as ‘meaningless’, but failing to communicate much of consequence.

The antonym of niksseggend is of course veelseggend. It is to Grundlingh and cover designer Michiel Botha’s credit that I am almost tempted to say that this is a book that can be judged by its veelseggende cover.

Botha’s design is a desaturated, sepia-like photo of Slabbert against a stark white background, mid-stride, books or papers held in his one hand, almost evoking a gunslinger having unholstered a weapon, and the man himself bearing an expression that conveys, all in one, determination and uncertainty, hesitancy and confidence, directness and shrewdness, head ever so slightly turned and tilted away from the photographer – the look of a man willing to engage, but not someone baring all. Visually, this cover design is the perfect support to Grundlingh’s title – Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, a man of ideas on a mission.

Golden thread

The astuteness of Grundlingh’s choice of title is a golden thread running from start to finish, assuring readers that they are in safe hands familiar with their subject. When and how Grundlingh decided on the title of this biography I don’t know, but it must have been a moment of pleasing creativity for him. In framing the study of Slabbert’s life as the exploration of a man at core defined by missional zeal, Grundlingh captures simply the complexity in triumph and almost-triumph of Slabbert’s life.

In this summation of Slabbert as a man on a mission, and in the supporting visuals of the cover design, we see the drive and zeal of the activist academic, of the dynamic politician, campaigner, and bridge-builder, but we also see a man always going somewhere and never arriving, always seeking and never finding. If there is one thing that seems to have eluded Slabbert in his public pursuit of calling, it must surely be the phrase ‘mission accomplished’.

There was undoubtedly something messianic in Slabbert. Grundlingh makes this point without judgement or criticism – and surely it would be unreasonable to expect someone to live in personal, committed pursuit of a higher calling, secular or religious, with the talents, admiration, and public attention Slabbert had without imbibing some hint of a messianic identity. It is in fact to Slabbert’s credit that his awareness of this, manifested perhaps most clearly in his disdainful eschewing of the label of ‘Great White Hope’, made him abhor the politics of personality. But it is perhaps hauntingly telling that for Slabbert, the messianic words he seemed doomed by his existential desire and pursuit of mission to never say were the simple ones of ultimate fulfilment: it is finished.

For him, to our unsatisfaction in reading about him, it never was.

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