Frederik van Zyl Slabbert and his twin sister were born on 2 March 1940 in Pretoria to Barbara Zacharia Hagen and Petrus Johannes Slabbert.
Slabbert attended the Marabastad Farm School, later Eertsegoud Primary, and the Pietersburg Primary School, matriculating from the Pietersburg Afrikaans Hoërskool School in 1958. He was head boy and captain of the first rugby and cricket teams.
In 1959 he began studying towards a B.A. Classics degree at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in the hopes of becoming a Dutch Reformed Church Minister. He transferred to the University of Stellenbosch in his second year where he studied Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Sociology. He completed his M.A. degree in Sociology with distinction at Stellenbosch University in 1964, after giving up his theological studies. He was awarded the D.Phil in 1967 by the University of Stellenbosch. He was the first resident head of Majuba men's residence at Stellenbosch. van Zyl Slabbert was appointed a Professor of Sociology in 1973.
Through his work in sociology and his contact with Black people through his studies and the church, and students, Slabbert developed an interest in politics. His studies led him to reject separate development and he stood for the Students' Representative Council, a position he lost because he was considered to be too liberal. This did not deter him and he held discussions, seminars and lectures on politics, and even tried to start a student newspaper with an editorial approach opposite to that of the government.
Slabbert took up a position of temporary junior lecturer at the Department of Sociology in Stellenbosch and in 1965 became a permanent lecturer. He married Mana Jordaan, with whom he had two children. He played rugby, representing Western Province in 1962. He completed his doctorate in 1967 with a thesis titled “Structural Functional Analysis in Theory of Action – A Methodological Enquiry”. He was also the warden of the Majuba Post-Graduate Residence at the university.
In 1969 Slabbert and his wife moved to Grahamstown where he started teaching Sociology at Rhodes University. They returned to Stellenbosch in 1970, where he became a senior lecturer and warden of the Simonsberg Residence. 1972 saw another change of employment as he started work at the University of Cape Town as Acting Head of Department from September to June 1973. After leaving this position he became Head of the Department of Sociology at Wits in 1973.
He joined the Progressive Party and in 1974 Slabbert accepted anomination to stand for Rondebosch in the general election. He did not expect to win the seat, but triumphed over the National Party (NP) representative by 1 600 votes. He continued to hold the seat for the Progressive Federal party (PFP) in 1977 and 1981.
Slabbert played an important role in the development of the PFP's ideology and was chairman of its Constitutional Committee, which drafted the party's policy accepted in 1978. In 1979 he became leader of the PFP and the parliamentary opposition, a position he held until 1986. He had also been invited to become the Dean at the University of Cape Town.
He with Inkatha Freedom Party, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, launched the National Convention Movement in an unsuccessful attempt to pressure the government to negotiate with all political groups.
Slabbert resigned from his position as parliamentarian, in 1986, because he felt that Parliament was becoming an irrelevant institution in the context of South Africa's political problems. He felt that negotiation between Black and White people was better than conflict. In 1987 he re-entered politics and began contact with the ANC in exile, which resulted in the Dakar conference between the liberation movement and a group of mainly Afrikaner politicians, academics and businessmen. The conference was organised by IDASA, the Institute for a Democratic South Africa, of which he became director of policy and planning, co-formed with Alex Boraine in July 1986. He began a career in commerce by lecturing at the Wits Business School and engaged in political consultancy.
Slabbert received awards to visit several countries, like the Abe Bailey Travel Bursary to the United Kingdom in 1964. He also toured Kenya, Nigeria and Zambia with Colin Eglin in 1975 and won the American Cultural Exchange Award in 1976. He went to international conferences and delivered papers in the United States of America (USA) and Western Europe. In 1977 he was a research fellow at the Bergstraesser Institute for Social Research in Freiburg, West Germany. Slabbert jointly wrote a book with Professor D. Welsh called ‘South Africa's Options: Strategies for Sharing Power', which was published in 1979, as well as papers and articles for several publications.
He was conferred with honorary doctorates from Simon Fraser University in Canada and the Universities of Kwazulu-Natal and the Free State. He received both the Abe Bailey Travel Scholarship and the American Cultural Exchange Scholarship. He was a visiting scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in November 1982. He co-founded Khula, a Black investment trust in 1990.
In June 1983 Slabbert and his wife divorced and on 21 April 1984 he married Jane Stephens in Swaziland. He was one of the patrons of the MTN Foundation.
In 2002 then-president Thabo Mbeki appointed him to head a team investigating a new electoral system for South Africa. Its recommendation, a more accountable mix of constituency-based and proportional representation, was quietly shelved by the Government.
Van Zyl Slabbert was installed as Stellenbosch University's new Chancellor on 12 May 2008.
Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, passed away on 14 May 2010.