Apartheid's founding party draws last breath

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The old apartheid-era National Party will draw its last breath practically unnoticed after capitulating to the party it tried to destroy when South Africans go to the polls today to vote in local government elections.

The party's lights have been slowly dimming - its former leader, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, switched sides, and is now ANC minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism. But now the party's death is assured. "These are its last painful agonies," explained Philip Frankel, professor of politics at Johannesburg's Witwatersrand University. "Its demise is cemented. There isn't much room for nationalist Afrikaner parties anymore."

In truth the writing has been on the wall for some time. Renamed the New National Party (NNP) in 1997, having sustained several election defeats and particularly since the party's comprehensive drubbing at the hands of the governing ANC in 2004, it was clear that the party's attempt to try to rebrand itself as a modern, multiracial party of the new South Africa had failed.

The successor to the party that introduced apartheid and enforced racist segregation for 46 years took a mere 2 per cent of the vote against the ANC's two-thirds majority. Finally, in August 2004 the NNP's national executive took a unanimous decision to dissolve the party.

As if to illustrate the party's reversal in fortunes, the one remaining executive member, secretary-general Darryl Swanepoel, has been busily campaigning for the ANC. "There are still some NPP members and councillors whose membership expires as soon as the results are certified," he says.

Nationally, the ANC's supremacy is unchallenged. "[The ANC] led us out of oppression, and [it] will lead us out of poverty," President Thabo Mbeki told Soweto residents during an election campaign yesterday, playing on his party's liberation credentials, which remain one of its strongest hands.

While Africa's biggest economy remains bullish and is predicted to grow at an impressive 5 per cent in 2006, there is widespread discontent over slow progress with social services.

In a vivid illustration of economic tensions, there has been unrest in Khutsong, just south of Johannesburg, where protests have led to violent riots, reminiscent of apartheid-era repression.

Although some see the demise of the NNP as laying the apartheid-era to rest, the legacy of its divisive policies remain strong. Professor Frankel said: "Most parties use coded racial rhetoric and people continue to vote along racial lines."

In the 1994 elections the party, then led by FW de Klerk, proved popular with Afrikaner whites and minorities, winning 20 per cent of the vote, and becoming the second-largest party in the country after the ANC. It renounced its racist legacy and pledged a new commitment to constitutional democracy, then joined Nelson Mandela's government of national unity, with Mr de Klerk one of two deputy presidents.

Since 1994 however, the party has seen its voter base haemorrhage away.

After sustaining heavy losses in the 1999 elections, the NNP joined forces with the predominantly white, liberal opposition Democratic Alliance led by Tony Leon in 2000, only to jump ship a year later.

Mr Swanepoel, explaining his party's switch to the ANC, said: "The best way to secure a united South Africa is to ensure inclusivity in decision-making. The minority communities must guard against isolating themselves from the political mainstream."

National Party's rise and fall

1914 Founded by Afrikaner nationalists soon after the Union of South Africa is established

1924 Comes to power. Grants voting rights to white women, but not black women, in 1930

1948 Returns to power and institutes apartheid, including segregated "Bantustans" for blacks. H F Verwoerd, premier from 1958 until his assassination in 1966, instigates much of the programme

1989 Rising political instability and economic problems cause P W Botha to resign as president and NP leader. Replaced by FW de Klerk, who has to promise to end apartheid

1994 NP renounces its racist legacy and joins Mandela's government of national unity after election defeat

1997 Renamed the New National Party after heavy election defeats

2004 Hammered in elections by the ANC. The NNP's national executive decides to dissolve the party; many members join the ANC

Oliver Duff