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S. Africa Opposition Coalition Crumbles - 2001-10-30

South Africa's main opposition coalition has fallen apart. The New National Party is withdrawing from the Democratic Alliance, leaving South Africa's opposition politics in disarray.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) was formed a little over a year ago, when the New National Party and the Democratic Party agreed to form a coalition, becoming the largest opposition group in South Africa. Although, they still lagged far behind the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

Marthinus van Schalkwyk is the leader of the New National Party (NNP). Until Friday, he was also second in command of the Democratic Alliance. But then he announced the NNP was suspending its participation in the coalition, with a plan to eventually pull out completely.

Mr. van Schalkwyk appeared on a South African state radio talk show to explain his motives. He indicated the NNP had too small a voice in the alliance. "What we wanted to do with the DA was, it should have been a broad church where everybody was at home," he said. "The DP wanted to make it just a bigger DP, and that is a huge difference in objective."

The split followed a very public power struggle between Mr. van Schalkwyk and DA leader Tony Leon, who came to the alliance from the Democratic Party. Over his deputy's vocal objections, Mr. Leon ousted the mayor of Cape Town, Peter Marais, a charismatic but controversial member of the NNP.

Mr. van Schalkwyk stood by Mr. Marais, but the battle that began in Cape Town has now shattered the Democratic Alliance.

From the beginning, many analysts believed it would never last. They said cultural differences between the two parties would prove too much for the DA to bear.

It was always a strange pairing. The NNP was descended from the National Party, which created apartheid. The precursor to the Democratic Party opposed white minority rule.

Steven Friedman, who heads the Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg, says seven years after the death of apartheid, people in South Africa still tend to vote along racial and ethnic lines. "I think what people tend to forget politics in this country is very much about identity, about who people are rather than yesterday's economic policy or whatever and you throw together groups with very different backgrounds, identities, etc., and it is very much like oil and water," he said.

The Democratic Party's largest single support base is English-speaking whites. Most support for the NNP comes from South Africa's two Afrikaans-speaking communities - white Afrikaners and the mixed-race, or colored, community.

Mr. van Schalkwyk accuses Mr. Leon of sidelining not just him, but his party's non-white members, who, he says, don't feel adequately represented by the governing African National Congress. "Let us put it quite bluntly, and put it on the table. The black majority has used their democratic right in governing the country," said Marthinus van Schalkwyk. "The ANC is the vehicle for that. The white and the colored communities are excluded. They are becoming [more] alienated by the day. They feel that this is not their country. What the DP has done is they have reduced the voice of the opposition to simply an angry white voice."

The Democratic Alliance, which is led by Mr. Leon, has been trying to attract more black voters in the townships and rural areas. Support for the party has grown among former ANC backers, who have become disillusioned with the ruling party.

But the Democratic Alliance remains a fairly minor force in national politics. It does, however, rule the Western Cape province and the city of Cape Town, where the colored community is the largest single voting group.

The question now is what happens to that province? Public support is believed to be evenly divided between the NNP and the ANC, with neither party having enough support to rule on its own.

The answer may be a coalition government between the ANC and the NNP. Mr. van Schalkwyk has openly said he would like to enter into some kind of agreement with his former rivals.

The leader of the ANC in the Western Cape, Ibrahim Rasool, is a little more circumspect. He spoke to South African state radio. "The ANC needs to weigh up the pros and cons of any relationship to fill the political vacuum that exists," he said. "And I think that we would want to take our time and not rush into a marriage, because the DA's death was the result of rushing into a desperate marriage between the DP and the NNP."

The marriage looks set to go ahead, though. The ANC says it plans to pass legislation that will allow elected officials to cross party lines, without losing their jobs. That means anybody elected under the DA banner will be able to leave the group with the NNP.

Mr. Friedman of the Center for Policy Studies believes the ANC will join some sort of alliance with the New National Party in the Western Cape. But he says that coalition would likely be a product of political expediency rather than ideology.

He says there are likely to be many in the ANC who are wary of working with the New National Party because of its past. But there are others, he says, who resent the Democratic Party - and Mr. Leon in particular - even more.

Mr. Friedman believes the split in the DA is not as catastrophic for opposition politics as local media have been portraying it. He says, when voters go to the polls, they will still have the same basic choice on the ballots. "Perhaps the only setback for multi-partyism is that you won't have an entirely opposition-controlled province," he said. "That is a setback. I think one must be honest about that. Obviously, if you have opposition parties with the power base of a province under their control, that does act as a check and balance."

Mr. Friedman believes this is the gradual extinction of the New National Party. He says if there is an alliance, the ANC will probably gradually swallow its partner.

Deep in his heart, Mr. van Schalkwyk may believe that too. He has admitted the future of South Africa's opposition is likely to come from the left of the ANC, not the right.