THE decision by five white legislators of the liberal Democratic Party to join the African National Congress (ANC) could spark a rapid political realignment in South Africa.
"The taboo against shifting allegiance has been broken," says Mervyn Frost, professor of political science at the University of Natal at Durban. "This could be the catalyst for a thorough shake-up of the party political system."
The rebel five Democrats - David Dalling, Jan van Eck, Jannie Momberg, Pierre Cronje, and Rob Haswell - had long been ANC sympathizers.
Professor Frost predicts that the switch will accelerate the formation of two main political blocs - one around the ANC and one around the ruling National Party.
In the whites-only referendum in March, the Democrats backed President Frederik de Klerk in his decisive pro-reform victory, consolidating a closer relationship between the Democrats and the ruling National Party. In the past two years the National Party has adopted most of the policies advocated by the Democrats.
The five rebels preempted a plan by a group of about a dozen Democrats to seek a closer alliance with the National Party. But party officials said that the break-away to the left could result in a temporary closing of ranks by the remaining 27 or so Democrats.
Frost says the National Party was likely to give way to a "national democratic alliance" which would include a significant section of the Democratic Party, possibly the majority of the 5 million mixed-race "coloreds," a large block of the Indian community, and some moderate blacks.
This could also hasten a split in the right-wing Conservative Party into a hard-line faction and a pro-reform faction that could eventually find its way into a centrist alliance.
In terms of a provisional agreement, the five legislators will remain in the minority three-chamber parliament as independents supporting the ANC.
"This will give the ANC its first white establishment faces and will prepare its supporters for the concept of interracial power-sharing in an interim government," a Western diplomat says.
The defectors did not consult voters in their districts before making the switch, and it remains to be seen whether there will be moves to repudiate them.
Political scientists thought it was unlikely that the five would take more than token white support with them into the ANC at this stage, particularly while it was in alliance with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and advocated radical economic policies.
"The ANC is in big trouble when it comes to the white and mixed-raced 'colored' communities," Frost says. "De Klerk is well ahead of the game."
ANC information head Pallo Jordan says the decision by the five would "further enhance the nonracial approach of the ANC."
They are the first influential whites who have not come through the ranks of the SACP to throw in their lot with the ANC.
"The second liberation struggle will start now," said Mr. Dalling, legislator for the Johannesburg neighborhood of Sandton, the most affluent voting district in the country.
"That liberation struggle is to rid South Africa of the legacies of apartheid: racism, distrust, the breakdown of law and order, inequality, poverty, and minority fears," Dalling said.
But party leader Zach de Beer, who suspended four of the five last week after it leaked out that they had had a secret meeting with ANC President Nelson Mandela, moved swiftly to prevent further defections. Dr. De Beer announced that the five would be formally expelled.