JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- The National Party, the party of apartheid, is on the political ropes on the 50th anniversary of its infamous introduction of white supremacy here.
Three disastrous local election results in previous National Party strongholds and the defection of half a dozen die-hard councilors and a member of Parliament over recent days have stunned the party that is trying to put its whites-only past behind it and broaden its appeal to blacks and voters of mixed color.
"It looks pretty grim for them," said Hermann Giliomee, professor of political studies at the University of Cape Town. "It does seem as though the party is in really deep crisis."
The setback coincides with preparations for next year's general election, when President Nelson Mandela's African National Congress, which leads this country's first black majority government, will be seeking an unassailable two-thirds majority in Parliament. It won 62 percent, just short of two-thirds of the vote, in the 1994 general election.
May be out of reach
The latest opinion poll, by Markinor, puts ANC support at an all-time low of 54 percent, suggesting that a two-thirds majority may be out of its reach as voters become increasingly disillusioned with the tardiness of the government's delivery on election promises of better housing, services, education and jobs. The poll makes even worse reading for the National Party, which now is supported by just 10 percent of those questioned, half the support it drew in the election four years ago.
Ironically, the National Party's plight is not so much due to the sins of its past as to its present shortcomings.
"I don't think the past would have harmed it, if it had been prepared to organize itself effectively in Parliament, but it projects nothing," said Tom Lodge, professor of political science at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. "While presenting itself as the only viable opposition to the ANC, the National Party has failed conspicuously to attract whites, blacks or voters of mixed race into the broad political grouping it is now trying to create."
Losing safe constituencies
The latest proof of this failure came in three local government elections in white, blue-collar areas that traditionally have been safe constituencies for the National Party. In the Bergvleit area of Cape Town, Brakpan in the East Rand, and Rosettenville, south of Johannesburg, the swing away from the National Party was as much as 60 percent, as whites, disillusioned with black rule and equally disappointed with the NP, turned to the tiny Democratic Party to represent them.
The most dramatic turnaround for the Democratic Party, which took less than 2 percent of the national vote in 1994, came in Rosettenville, where it carried 90 percent of the vote in a constituency the National Party regarded as its strongest in the country.
Analysts attributed the Democratic Party's success partly to its consistent and aggressive defense of white interests. It is credited with focusing on government corruption and mismanagement, and crime, all major concerns of whites in post-apartheid South Africa.
Earlier this year the Democratic Party produced a pamphlet criticizing the government's policies, entitled "The Death of the Rainbow Nation -- Unmasking the ANC's Program of Re-Racialization."
It particularly attacked the ANC's affirmative-action policy to improve the job prospects of the previously disadvantaged black majority at the expense, if necessary, of white workers in both public and private sectors.
"The ANC has not done very much in the past couple of years to endear itself to whites," said Lodge, noting that in the election in Rosettenville the ANC took only 62 votes, compared with the 1,200 it won there in 1994.
The question now is whether the Democratic Party will replace the National Party as the official opposition after next year's election. The latest opinion poll suggested the support for the Democratic Party has risen from 3 to 5 percent, still leaving it only half as strong as the National Party.
In the other blow to the former ruling party in recent days, six National Party councilors in the working class white Johannesburg suburb of Benoni defected to the newly formed United Democratic Movement, a recently formed non-racial opposition group. This year, 64 local councilors have quit the National Party for smaller opposition parties.
And last week, a National Party member of Parliament, Donald Lee, crossed the aisle to join the Democratic Party.
The root cause for much of the disaffection appears to be the Nationalists' perceived failure to protect white interests during negotiations with the ANC on majority rule after the 1990 release of Mandela from prison, and during its participation in the government of national unity during the first two years after the 1994 election.
"There is a great deal of resentment among some white people," said Lodge, the University of Witwatersrand political science professor. "They feel the National Party played its negotiating cards badly."
But, in opposition, it has hardly been impressive either. Analyzing the National Party's plight, Business Day said in a recent editorial: "The NP has displayed no perceptible vision for the future. Its parliamentary performance is weak. Its stance on every significant issue is based on a combination of unhelpful political point-scoring and appeals to people's basest motives and deepest fears. Even this it has not done convincingly."
There is, too, a widespread perception of weakness at the top since the little-known Marthinus van Schalkwyk replaced former President F. W. de Klerk as party leader.
"I don't think he has the kind of image and sort of heavyweight quality you need for national leadership," said Lodge, who predicted that the demise of the National Party would be "a fairly slow process -- more like slow strangulation than sudden death.
"It's not going to be for some time that it's going to be buried, but it is going to shrink," said Lodge.
An Afrikaner heart
Writing in the latest edition of the weekly Financial Mail, political commentator Justice Malala said:
"The heart that still beats for the NP is in the Afrikaner community. To imagine that the sheep that the NP led faithfully for 46 fat years of misguided racial policies, corruption and mollycoddling would leave the flock so swiftly would be naive."
Van Schalkwyk, in a radio interview, played down the defections as insignificant and the local elections as a protest vote that would not carry over to next year's general election.
But, the National Party chief conceded: "There is significance in it. There is racial polarization taking place. People are frustrated and angry. But, on the other hand, it was not the earthquake the opposition propaganda is trying to make it. That the Nats are on their knees, that is not true."
Savoring his electoral triumphs, Democratic Party leader Tony Leon declared that the National Party's "role in history is over."
Pub Date: 5/26/98