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Zach de Beer was born in 1928 in Cape Town, South Africa. Throughout his life De Beer maintained that his father shaped his persona politically. He attended Diocesan College (Bishops) in Rondebosch from 1963 to 1945 and completed an MB ChB degree at the University of Cape Town in 1951.
At UCT his political career began to take shape and he became active in the affairs of the United Party. In 1949 he stood for membership of the Student Representative Council at the university, becoming its president in 1950 as the candidate of the Student's Liberal Association. In 1952 De Beer completed his medical housemanship at Groote Schuur Hospital, and the following year was elected as Member of Parliament for Maitland. At age 23 he became the youngest MP. In 1958 he was re-elected to be an MP under the banner of the United Party. In 1959 he left the United Party to form the Progressive Party (PP). He sold his medical practice in order to concentrate on politics full-time. He retained his seat in parliament until 1961 when he lost it in the general election. He was offered a job in an advertising and public relations agency in Johannesburg and headed the firm's marketing and research department.
In January 1968 De Beer joined the public relations department at the Anglo American Corporation (AAC). After six months he was transferred to the corporation's headquarters. He was appointed marketing adviser in the Industrial division. In 1969 he was appointed secretary to the executive committee of AAC. In 1972 he became chairman of Anglo American Central Africa and lived in Zambia until 1974. De Beer was a director at Anglo American, serving on its board until 1988. During this period he briefly returned to politics as MP for Parktown from 1977 to 1980. He continued to serve on the finance committee of the Progressive Federal Party (PFP) and was the chairman of the Van Zyl Slabbert Trust, which was renamed Progressive Trust for a New South Africa.
In 1988 he became the leader of the Progressive Federal Party. Under his leadership the PFP, the Independent Party and National Democratic Movement joined forces and formed the Democratic Party (DP). In 1989 he was elected chairman of the newly formed DP. He opened the Convention for Democratic South Africa (CODESA) and later chaired its committee.
He handed over leadership of the Democratic Party (DP) to Tony Leon in 1994 following the first democratic elections in South Africa. He was appointed Ambassador to the Netherlands by President Nelson Mandela shortly after the 1994 general election, but retired because of health reasons.
De Beer died of a stroke at the age of 70 at his Cape Town home.
Source: Gastrow, S (1992). Who's Who in South African Politics, Vol 4, Johannesburg: Ravan.