Sir de Villiers Graaff (Div) was born on 8 December 1913 in Cape Town, Western Cape. He attended Western Province Preparatory School, Claremont, Cape Town from 1924 to 1927. He was an outstanding scholar and sportsperson and was head boy in his final year.
Graaff’s godfather was General Louis Botha, who became the first Prime Minister of the new Union of South Africa in 1910; his father, who received his baronetcy in 1912, served briefly as South African High Commissioner in London in 1914 and in Botha's cabinet, accompanying him to the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference.
He was the leader of the United Party (UP), the parliamentary opposition in South Africa for nearly half of the 46 years of the apartheid system. Although the UP struggled against the overwhelming popularity among whites of the National Party (NP), under Graaff's early leadership many UP parliamentary speeches - especially by the 1953 crop of MPs - were prophetic in their dissection of why apartheid would not work.
While studying law at the University of Cape Town (UCT), he played in two matches for the Western Province Currie Cup cricket side. He continued his legal studies at Oxford (England) and Leiden (Holland). Returning to Cape Town to pursue a legal career, he was admitted as an advocate in 1937 in the South African Supreme Court.
His career was interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War, in which he served with the South African forces in North Africa. In 1942 he was nominated for a parliamentary seat but he was captured by the Germans at Tobruk, and spent the rest of the war, apart from a few days of freedom following an escape, in Italian and German prison camps. He was awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) after the war for his relief work among prisoners.
In 1948, General Smuts had been ousted from office by Afrikaner nationalism. Dr DF Malan's NP captured power in 1948 and clung on until 1994, when President FW de Klerk surrendered office to the African National Congress (ANC).
After a few years, Smuts had handed over the UP leadership to the ineffectual JGN Strauss. In 1956 Strauss stood aside for Graaff. An Afrikaner was needed to lead the UP because without defections from the Afrikaner majority the UP could never aspire to power. But the Afrikaners were not swayed, and as apartheid ground on, white liberals belaboured the UP for "appeasement".
Back in Cape Town he practised as an advocate, living just outside the city in De Grendel, the baronial seat built by his father who had amassed considerable wealth from farming and other ventures. Graaff had inherited the baronetcy in his teens. He farmed dairy cattle and wheat, although much of the farm was later expropriated by the NP government for housing settlements.
He pursued his parliamentary brief with the discipline of the professional (although during quiet moments, sitting opposite NP prime ministers, he could be seen paging through the Farmers' Weekly). A journalist who tried repeatedly to eavesdrop on conversations between him and his colleagues gave up in frustration, exclaiming: "Div talks about nothing except his Friesians."
In the 1948 NP landslide victory, Graaff was the only UP candidate to win a seat from the NP - a personal triumph. When he took over as leader the NP government was busy removing "Coloured" voters from the common roll and the country was in constitutional crisis.
He remained a member of South Africa's Parliament from 1948 to 1977, representing a constituency in Cape Town for most of that time. From 1956 to 1977 he was the leader of the centrist United Party, the official opposition in the all-white Parliament that was dominated by the National Party.
Although in 1958 he lost his seat, he was soon back as an MP, representing a different constituency. In 1959, 12 UP members broke away to form the Progressive Party (PP). The UP's parliamentary strength then declined steadily until the 1970 election when, following rifts in the NP, it unexpectedly increased its seat total. Graaff’s political standing was never higher. The Progressives won one seat, Helen Suzman's. But the UP's triumph was short-lived. The 1974 elections saw its number of seats in Parliament fall, and the PP's rise. It was the writing on the wall for the UP.
In 1976, the youth of Soweto rose up against the imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in schools. Graaff went to see Prime Minister John Vorster - warning of disaster ahead. He achieved nothing. By 1977, although the NP still had a huge majority, the Progressive Federal Party (PFP) - precursor of the present Democratic Party (DP) - had replaced the UP as the official opposition. Graaff’s defeat was a "complete disaster". He retired from politics in 1977. Graaff was awarded South Africa's Decoration for Meritorious Service.
He stepped down as the United Party's leader in June 1977, and the party was dissolved after years of decline. By then the number of seats it held in the Parliament had dwindled to only 24, from 41 in 1974, after defections to the left and the right. By June 1977 the party had split four times and had been defeated in five general elections.
During his tenure as leader, he got mixed reviews in South Africa. David Welsh, senior lecturer in African government and law at the University of Cape Town, wrote in a book in 1975 that Sir de Villiers had ''shown strength and resilience in riding out storms within the party, but he has come under fire from left and right for equivocation and ambivalence.''
Sir de Villiers Graaff, died on 4 October 1999 in Cape Town, Western Cape. He is survived by his widow Helena, a son and a daughter.
Stanley U. (1999).Sir de Villiers Graaff from The Guardian, 11 October. Available at www.theguardian.com online. Accessed on 23 July 2014|Pace E. (1999). Sir de Villiers Graaff, 85, Leader Of South African Centrist Party from The New York Times, 8 October. Available at www.nytimes.com online. Accessed on 23 July 2014|