JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — A conflict that started as a minor party scuffle over the renaming of two historic streets in Cape Town last week resulted in one of the most important political realignments in post-apartheid South Africa.
The New National Party (NNP), the remaining stump of the party that built apartheid, announced last week that it would break its alliance with the opposition Democratic Party to partner with the African National Congress (ANC), the former liberation movement and party of anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela, which now controls 66 percent of the national Parliament.
Leaders of the NNP and ANC are calling the new alliance a landmark in South African history and evidence that the racial tensions of the past are over. The Democratic Party and other opposition parties are calling the new alliance political opportunism; they say the NNP is trading control over the Western Cape for more power in the national government.
"Although there are on both sides calculated political decisions, there is also something deeper: an emotional decision to make a success of the new South Africa," said NNP leader Marthinus van Schalkwyk to his party last week.
Mr. Van Schalkwyk says the policy differences between the two parties are no longer so different and that the interests of NNP voters, most of whom are white Afrikaners or mixed race South Africans, are best served by being part of a coalition government. For its part, the ANC has opened its arms to its former oppressor, saying the two parties are closer than ever on policy issues.
The looming question is whether the new arrangement is a move toward reconciliation in the still racially divided nation or a power-driven political sell-out by the NNP that will leave South Africa without a strong opposition voice.
With control of nearly 17 percent of the seats in South Africa's national Parliament and the strategic Western Cape Provincial government, the Democratic Alliance (DA) - former coalition of NNP and DP - was an important opposition voice in South African politics.
Although often accused of representing the interests of the country's white minority, the DA used its control of the Western Cape to push issues on a national agenda. When the government dragged its feet on the implementation of a program to reduce the transmission of AIDS from mother to child, for example, the DA government created its own provincial program.
Under the terms of the agreement, control of the Western Cape will be shared, and the NNP will receive a greater stake in the national government.
As the largest opposition party in South Africa's national Parliament, with nearly 10 percent of seats, the DP will likely continue to speak out on issues like AIDS.
One effect of the split may be to increase the importance of the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party, long-time ANC allies who form what is called the tripartite alliance. In recent months, both have become more outspoken on issues such as privatization and AIDS.
"On one hand, this could be a welcome thing in the politics of South Africa in that we'll see a lot less belligerence and a more consensus-oriented government. There's a real chance of addressing issues of social and economic inequalities," says Ebrahim Fakir, a political analyst for the Institute of Democracy in South Africa. On the downside, however, Mr. Fakir says the lack of a strong opposition voice could lessen the pressure on government to root out the corruption in its own ranks. "I think it's still early, and one wants to give it the benefit of the doubt."