CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP)—President Thabo Mbeki welcomed on Sunday a decision by the New National Party to fight all future elections under the banner of his African National Congress—a move seen as the death knell of the party that gave South Africa apartheid.
The decision was announced Saturday by Marthinus van Schalkwyk, head of the NNP—the successor to the National Party that led apartheid—at the party’s federal council meeting in Johannesburg.
While the NNP is not formally disbanding, van Schalkwyk said he would be joining the ANC—his party’s chief foe during close to half a century of white-minority rule—within a few weeks and urged his followers to do the same. Van Schalkwyk serves as minister of environmental affairs and tourism in Mbeki’s government.
Under a special agreement with the ANC, Van Schalkwyk’s followers will be allowed to hold memberships of both parties. NNP parliamentarians who cross over to the ruling party during a two-week window starting in September 2005 will also retain their seats.
If all seven of the NNP’s representatives join the ANC, once banned by their party, the ANC will hold 286 or just over 71 percent of parliament’s 400 seats.
Speaking at a Women’s Day event in Johannesburg, Mbeki called the decision a historic one.
He said he “could not recall any other party of oppression saying: ‘We are defeated, we cease to exist, we join those that we had oppressed,” the South African Press Association reported.
“The ANC views this move as a positive step in South Africa’s political development and believes it will contribute to building an inclusive and nonracial society,” the party said in a separate statement issued Sunday.
Opposition parties, however, slammed the decision as a betrayal of NNP voters.
“Not one of the founding members of the National Party in 1914, or any of the party’s previous leaders, could have predicted that the party would be destroyed in such a tragic and dishonorable way by being swallowed up by the ANC,” said Pieter Mulder, head of the NNP’s former ally the right-wing Freedom Front Plus.
Helen Zille, spokeswoman for the main opposition Democratic Alliance, called the NNP decision “the final nail in their coffin.”
“The leadership—Van Schalkwyk—needs to keep a job. The party is dead,” Zille said.
Political analysts said the decision was inevitable, given the NNP’s dismal showing in recent elections.
The NNP’s predecessor, the National Party, could once count on the unquestioning support of most Afrikaners, the descendants of 17th century Dutch and French settlers. Elected in 1948, it presided over 48 years of systematic and often brutal oppression of the country’s black majority.
Under mounting domestic and international pressure, the National Party launched reforms in 1990 that led to the nation’s first all-race elections in 1994, in which Nelson Mandela became the country’s first black president.
Despite a name change, the New National Party failed to carve out a new identity for itself in post-apartheid South Africa and rapidly lost support. The NNP won less than 2 percent of the vote during April 14 elections that clinched a second term for Mbeki.