Democratic Party

Delegates at the 1988 Federal Congress of the Progressive Federal Party were eager for closer cooperation with two new independent parliamentary groups, the Independent Party of Denis Worrall and the National Democratic Movement of Wynand Malan (Swart 1991, 198). Various verligte (“enlightened”) Afrikaners, mostly associated with the National Party, were also involved in the negotiations that followed. The PFP’s principles were accepted as the basis of the new Democratic Party, founded on 7 April 1989. The co-leaders of the party would be Zach de Beer, Worrall, and Malan (ibid., 199–201).

At the same time, the National Party itself started adopting positions historically advanced by liberals, now realizing that keeping South Africa committed to Apartheid would be disastrous. Such was the agenda of Frederik Willem de Klerk, the reformist and pragmatist National Party leader (Swart 1991, 200). His predecessor Pieter Willem Botha had declared at the opening of Parliament in 1986:

“We believe in the sovereignty of the law as a basis for the protection of the fundamental rights of individuals as well as groups. We believe in the sanctity and indivisibility of law and the just application thereof. . . . We believe that human dignity, life, liberty and property of all must be protected, regardless of colour, race, creed or religion.” (quoted in Du Toit 1988, 240–241. Du Toit cites the parliamentary Hansard: House of Assembly Debates 31/1/1986.)

The last general election to take place in Apartheid South Africa was on 6 September 1989. The strife within the National Party between the reformist faction of De Klerk and the conservative faction, combined with the ailing state of the economy as well as the relative principledness of its opponents, led to the Nationalists losing much ground to the Conservative and Democratic parties. The Conservatives, still the official opposition, won 39 seats and the Democrats 33, with the latter up from 21 in the 1987 election. The National Party lost 29 seats, but still emerged victorious with 94 total seats. This was the first time since the 1961 election that the Nationalists received less than 50 percent of the vote—having taken 48.2 percent. Nonetheless De Klerk, now State President, considered his party’s victory as an endorsement of his reformist agenda, and he pressed forward (Swart 1991, 202).

On 2 February 1990, what could be described as the death of Apartheid occurred, when De Klerk announced the unbanning of the African National Congress (ANC) and other anti-Apartheid groups, as well as the releasing of Nelson Mandela from prison. By this time, various Apartheid laws and restrictions had been repealed, with more repealed thereafter. These actions paved the way for the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) and the first multi-racial democratic elections on 27 April 1994. The Nationalists had by now adopted practically every substantial proposal made by liberals throughout South Africa’s history, at least in principle. In 1994, the Democratic Party itself attracted less than 5 percent of national popular support according to survey data and received only 1.73 percent of the vote in the April elections. But the former chief opponents of liberalism—Afrikaner and black nationalists—had adopted many liberal values during the transitional period (Hughes 1994, viii). At the time, the Institute of Race Relations considered the Democratic Party as “the oldest party-political vehicle for liberalism in South Africa” (Kane-Berman 1994, 1).

O’Malley makes the point that even though liberals thought their work to be over by the mid-1990s, that was incorrect. During the years approaching the start of the political transition in 1990, liberals suffered political defeat after defeat. It was the left that had forced the situation:

“The [National Party’s] sudden adoption in the early 1990s of many of the liberal policies of the [Democratic Party] was thus not a voluntary and considered adoption of liberal policies, but a forced retreat from a defeated ideological position towards the centre.” (O’Malley 1994, 33)

Helen Suzman disputed O’Malley’s characterization of political liberalism as a failure, given how the Progressives had achieved the status of official opposition within Parliament at one stage and that the party was largely responsible for the acceptance of the notions of a bill of rights, universal suffrage, and freedom of expression (Kane-Berman 1994, 41).

In a June 1995 speech in Parliament, the Democratic parliamentarian Tony Leon said that there was “clear blue water” separating the National and Democratic parties, not simply because the parties had long disagreed about key policy issues, but because they had fundamentally different political philosophies. For the Nationalists after the end of Apartheid, their core philosophy was built around the notion of power-sharing. The Democrats, on the other hand, placed “the liberty of the individual as the highest priority of public policy” (Leon 1998, 34). A year later, Leon became the leader of the Democratic Party, “introducing a more aggressive approach to opposition politics.” The DP became the official opposition again in 1999, reclaiming the position they lost in 1987 as a result of this new approach and the NP’s growing irrelevance (Brand South Africa 2014). Helen Suzman wrote that Leon stood squarely in the South African liberal tradition, having “a staunch commitment to civil rights and to the rule of law, and a total opposition to racial discrimination” (Suzman 1998, ix).

The Democratic Party’s support grew quickly among white South Africans (Kenny 2019). The National Party now all but disintegrated as its historical purpose—Apartheid—was gone. The Democratic Party, under the leadership of Leon, was aggressively liberal and rejected the ANC’s new affirmative action policies on that basis. Former white Nationalist supporters now largely became Democratic Party supporters. In 2000, the “New” National Party (NNP), the Federal Alliance (FA), and the Democratic Party merged to form the Democratic Alliance. The NNP and FA later “left” the merger, but many of their members remained, and the new DA name was kept. The NNP merged with the ANC in 2005.

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