The National Party's announcement last Thursday that it was pulling out of South Africa's government of national unity shocked many. But analysts say the move could, in fact, strengthen democracy in the country by creating a viable opposition.
The mostly white NP was first the architect of apartheid. Later it helped lead the country to black-majority rule. Now it will withdraw from a two-year old coalition government with Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC), effective June 30. While it will maintain its seats in Parliament, Deputy President F. W. de Klerk and five ministers will leave their Cabinet posts.
The announcement came only a day after the NP delivered the necessary votes to approve a new Constitution, one of South Africa's most triumphant moments. The NP's decision weakened the South African currency, the rand; sent shaky South African financial markets temporarily tumbling; and brought concern that the era of rule by consensus was over.
But political analysts here say that instead of mourning the passing of a political partnership, South Africans and the world should see the NP's move as contributing to a truer multiparty democracy.
"Clearly this move by the NP is creating a viable opposition in South Africa," said Greg Mills, director of studies for the Southern Africa Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg.
"South Africa stands to gain immensely from this; De Klerk and the National Party also stand to gain. Now it is time to get down to the business of governing and practicing opposition politics," he said.
During the negotiations leading up to the 1994 elections, the then-ruling NP and the ANC agreed on a five-year coalition called the Government of National Unity (GNU). Under the GNU the second-strongest party was entitled to a deputy presidency; Cabinet seats were to be given to minority parties in proportion to their seats in parliament. NP negotiators insisted on a coalition government, believing it would increase their influence in policymaking.
But the NP has found itself increasingly losing influence as the ANC learned the ropes of government. The mainly white party saw itself further sidelined when the ANC succeeded in watering down NP demands in the new Constitution, including not continuing the GNU past the 1999 elections, while NP Deputy President De Klerk found himself more and more a figurehead.
In addition, the NP partnership with the ANC was causing an erosion among its traditional base of support among Afrikaners, who saw the NP as moving away from protecting their culture. Young NP members especially were beginning to move to the more conservative Freedom Front, led by the former South African Defense Force commander Gen. Constand Viljoen.
But the NP's move could also put the party in a better position to appeal to a broader section of the public by using this opportunity to replace some of the older members of the party. Many top members of the party were closely identified with the era of 1948 to 1992 when the party created and presided over the apartheid system.
The five NP Cabinet members - including veteran politician Pik Botha, the current Minister of Mineral and Energy Affairs - are likely to resign their seats in Parliament as well, making room for changes in the upper echelon of the NP, according to analysts here.
"You are likely to see some fresh faces up high in the party, including some black ones," said Glenn Oosthuysen, a political analyst at the Institute of International Affairs.
All these changes should help the NP in its bid to win in local elections in the Western Cape at the end of this month and make it a stronger opposition in the 1999 elections, according to Philip Frankel, a lecturer in political studies at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand.
"Younger people are becoming dissatisfied with the NP and moving out of the party," Dr. Frankel says. "At the local level the Freedom Front is gaining more ground, and the NP will look at trying to recapture some of that in the Western Cape elections."
Frankel also says the NP alliance with the ANC has resulted in vague party policies, while the Freedom Front and the Democratic Party have staked out more solid positions on the right.
The new vacancies mean a Cabinet reshuffle after the NP leaves on June 30. One of the biggest questions here is the future status of the Inkatha Freedom Party and its leader, Chief Mangosutho Buthelezi, Mandela's strongest black rival.
Although Frankel and others say Inkatha, a participant in the GNU, will also resign from the government, they also say President Mandela may opt to offer Mr. Buthelezi additional Cabinet seats.
Analysts here speculate that Mandela also might choose to increase the number of women in the Cabinet.
He may also choose to bring the Freedom Front into the Cabinet to try to weaken any possible coalition between the Freedom Front and the NP.