CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- The day after South Africa celebrated the passage of its new constitution, the National Party that presided over the end of apartheid pulled out of the country's Government of National Unity, opting instead for the role of an opposition party.
"We are not taking this decision in a negative spirit," said F. W. De Klerk, the National Party leader. "It is not a crisis. We are not sour."
The decision means that De Klerk is ending his odd-couple partnership with President Nelson Mandela. When De Klerk was president -- the last under white rule -- he freed Mandela, who was imprisoned for 27 years for fighting the apartheid system of racial oppression imposed on South Africa by the National Party.
Mandela and De Klerk shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize and, though their personal relationship has soured in the past few years, their cooperation was often seen as a symbol of the ability of blacks and whites to bridge the enormous gap that separated them under apartheid.
Since Mandela was elected president two years ago in the first nonracial election, De Klerk has served as deputy president, furthering the image of cooperation and reconciliation. The decision to leave the government, which takes effect June 30, means he will vacate that post and give up the seven seats his party holds in the Cabinet as part of a power-sharing arrangement.
Mandela, whose ruling African National Congress (ANC) will now have all but the two Cabinet posts occupied by members of the Inkatha Freedom Party, said he regretted the decision but saw it as part of the inevitable process of the country's political growth.
"It would have been better if we had continued to work together as we had done, and that does not mean to say we haven't the confidence that we can carry the country alone," Mandela said shortly after the decision was announced yesterday.
"We hope their decision does not mean obstructing the process of transformation or defending apartheid privilege."
At a news conference, De Klerk emphasized that the move will enable his party to leave its role as a junior partner in the government, where it was inevitably overshadowed by the ANC, and instead become a full-fledged opposition party.
"We feel that the stage has now been reached where we will be able to serve the national interest more effectively by concentrating fully on a responsible opposition role," he said.
The move makes sense politically as the National Party tries to reinvent itself, moving from the standard-bearer of Afrikaner nationalism that propelled it into power in 1948 and kept it there until 1994 to the kind of broad-based multiracial party it needs to become to survive in the new South Africa.
Roelf Meyer, chief constitutional negotiator for the National Party, said the power-sharing arrangement was awkward politically.
"It affected not only the National Party, but also the ANC," he said. "Whatever we did, we had to be aware of each other. Now we will have a real opportunity to express ourselves on every matter where we differ from the ANC."
The National Party will likely seize upon crime, a hot button issue with whites and a growing concern among blacks, as a way to cut across racial boundaries that divide the political parties.
It undoubtedly will emphasize its support for the death penalty -- popular among blacks and whites -- which was effectively outlawed by the new constitution at the insistence of the ANC.
"It is the end of an era," Meyer said, indicating that the six years since Mandela was freed and the ANC legalized by then-President De Klerk, have been devoted to working out the foundation of a new democratic government. "It means we have seen the realization of a normal democracy. So it is the beginning of a new era."
The new constitution adopted Wednesday eliminates the Government of National Unity after the next election in 1999. The move was opposed by the National Party in constitutional negotiations, and the change was a factor in the decision to withdraw from the government, according to De Klerk.
"It would be unnatural to continue in the Government of National Unity while everybody knows that the principles on which it rests have already been discarded in the new constitution," he said.
The Government of National Unity was set up by negotiators who struck the deal that led to the country's first nonracial election in 1994. To placate fears that majority rule would trample on the rights of minorities, it was agreed to allow the smaller parties into the Cabinet. The president is required to seek a consensus of the Cabinet before making decisions.
The National Party received 20 percent of the vote, far behind the ANC's 62 percent. Inkatha, which received just over 10 percent, was the only other party to make the threshold necessary for Cabinet appointments.
Rumors of a possible National Party pullout began circulating shortly after the approval of the constitution on Wednesday. Though the National Party parliament members voted in favor of the document, De Klerk made clear his party's opposition to several sections. In the final days of negotiations on the constitution, the National Party was forced to give in to the ANC position on almost every point under debate.
Speculation about the National Party's intentions caused the already volatile currency markets to send the rand 11 cents lower against the dollar. The National Party had planned to take this decision at a meeting on Tuesday, but, fearing that several days of speculation would only damage the currency further, the party leadership gathered yesterday morning and approved the
Pub Date: 5/10/96