JOHANNESBURG – Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, who helped South Africa chart a peaceful way out of apartheid by leading fellow whites into talks with exiled black leaders, died Friday. He was 70.
The Institute for Democracy in Africa, known as Idasa, announced his death.
In the announcement, the think tank Van Zyl Slabbert founded to organize meetings between whites and blacks in apartheid South Africa called him a "visionary son of Africa."
Van Zyl Slabbert had been hospitalized recently with an undisclosed illness. Njabulo Ndebele, Idasa's board chairman, said he did not know the cause of death.
Van Zyl Slabbert was the rugby playing son of conservative Afrikaners, the descendants of early Dutch settlers known for their commitment to apartheid.
"He went against the grain, broke ranks, but established new alliances and friendships that transcended the old divisions," Ndebele said. "He was a remarkable South African who had a sharp and sensitive intelligence and a tremendous sense of humor."
The office of Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first black president, released a tribute calling Van Zyl Slabbert "a leader who had the vision and foresight to recognize that our national interest was to be found in our common humanity."
In 1987, Van Zyl Slabbert led a delegation of white South Africans to Senegal to meet the African National Congress — which was banned in South Africa at the time, but now is the governing party.
The white government labeled Van Zyl Slabbert's group traitors. In a statement Friday, President Jacob Zuma said Van Zyl Slabbert showed "courage and foresight" by going to Senegal.
In his definitive book on South Africa's transformation, journalist Allister Sparks says the Senegal meetings proved that South African factions had enough common ground to find a peaceful solution to their country's crisis.
The opposition Democratic Alliance said Friday that Van Zyl Slabbert played a "leading role in opposing apartheid and facilitating South Africa's transition to democracy."
Van Zyl Slabbert represented the liberal Progressive Federal Party, a predecessor to the Democratic Alliance, in parliament during the apartheid years. He resigned as party leader and left parliament in 1985, during a crackdown on black activists, saying the whites-only legislature was no longer relevant.
In 1986, he and Alex Boraine formed Idasa, which then stood for the Institute for a Democratic Alternative in South Africa. Today, Idasa lobbies to strengthen democracy across the continent.
Van Zyl Slabbert is survived by his wife, Jane, and children Tania and Riko.