John Steenhuisen and Van Zyl Slabbert: A reply to Douglas Gibson

RW Johnson says he was not in favour of a DP-ANC coalition in WCape in 1999

I do not, as a rule, reply to remarks made about what I write, my view being that if I’ve had my say I should just leave others to have their say. I must, however, make an exception this time because I find myself under directly personal attack.

Douglas Gibson is, I’m afraid, way out of line. He criticises me for having encouraged Van Zyl Slabbert to run for premier of the Western Cape in 1999 with a view to a DP-ANC coalition. This is the exact opposite of the truth. I warned Van that the DP, running a “Fight Back” election campaign, could not possibly support such a stance.

Tony Leon and Lawrie Schlemmer both took the same view, as I recount in my book Foreign Native, which deals with this episode and with my general problem with Van’s post-1994 peregrination. But I have no recollection that Van then backed the ANC. I never heard him do that.

Douglas also goes on at length about Van’s deplorable decision to let down the PFP by resigning at short notice from Parliament in 1987. This is all quite correct. I have criticised Van quite equally for this. It was a huge mistake and was very disloyal to his party colleagues. There was a strange lack somewhere in Van.

He never persevered long with anything and he quite often let his friends down and was then surprised when they were upset. I speak from experience. Quite understandably Helen Suzman would not speak to Van for years after his resignation, but Van was much distressed by this.

However, that is all irrelevant to the point I was making which is that Van was undoubtedly the most talented leader that the Progs/DP/DA ever had. The party could undoubtedly use a leader with such talents now. That is surely indisputable.

As for my criticism of John Steenhuisen’s conduct I was surprised to hear myself accused of being “woke”. I’m afraid I’m never up to speed with such fashions. I must confess to a far more old-fashioned view based upon notions of how a gentleman should behave. I realise that sounds archaic.

In my view a gentleman should never make rude and unpleasant (and public!) remarks about a lady who is unable to answer back and, a fortiori, he should never do so in the case of someone he was married to and who has borne his children.

I find such behaviour despicable and if I am to be a gentleman I have to stand up against such behaviour. It is undeniable that no previous leader of the Progs/DA would ever have behaved like that and that such behaviour is quite incompatible with the leadership of a liberal party anywhere.

So I made it clear that I will not vote for an electoral list headed by John Steenhuisen. I did not call for others to do the same. In a democracy I have the perfect right to make my own choices about such things and make no apology for that. Other people must make their own choices and it is not my business to criticise them for that.

It would appear, however, that Douglas Gibson is quite comfortable with such despicable behaviour - so much so that he finds my criticism of it to be “shocking and surprising”.

Even more remarkable, Jeremy Gordin is so comfortable with such behaviour that he finds my criticism of it “gratuitous and nasty”. Both these gentlemen are, of course, welcome to their opinions. I will not say they are wrong, merely that my standards and theirs are very, very different. But that is their business.

RW Johnson