A blow against the opposition

There can be no doubt about the ANC's overwhelming desire to strike a blow against the DA in the Western Cape.

THE DECISION BY the New National Party to quit the Democratic Alliance and cut a deal with the African National Congress marks the final stage of the NNP's decline. Its survival now hangs on the thread of a single strategic ploy.

When F.W. de Klerk abandoned apartheid in 1990 his intention was to negotiate the constitutional entrenchment of permanent power sharing and federalism. He pinned his hopes on winning a third of the vote for the National Party in a democratic election so that it could block amendments to such a constitution. But by 1994 he had had to settle for 20 per cent of the vote and a rubber-stamp role in government. By 1996 the NP electorate was visibly disenchanted with the failure of its leaders to temper the actions of the ANC. Marthinus van Schalkwyk rode this discontent first to topple the NP's crown prince, Roelf Meyer, and then to succeed De Klerk. He had more than ten times as many seats as Tony Leon's Democratic Party and enjoyed all the advantages of being the official leader of the opposition, yet Van Schalkwyk singularly failed to meet the challenge. When the NNP lost two thirds of its vote and fell behind the DP in 1999 the game was up. Post-election polls saw the DP surging ahead and NNP local councillors began defecting to it in droves.

Above all, the NNP was bankrupt. Indeed, Van Schalkwyk must have realised immediately that the party could never fight another election on its own. Election campaigns are fought on overdrafts which, if the fund-raising goes right, are then paid off by donors. With bad debts of R5.2 million it was clear that the NNP would never get either the overdraft or the donors it needed: it had fought its last battle. No wonder Van Schalkwyk joyfully accepted the DP's embrace in 2000, using the Democratic Alliance to hide just how weak his situation was. Blessedly, it meant that the NNP no longer faced opinion polls or municipal by-elections that would reveal its continuing collapse in the face of the DP's advance.

With hindsight, Van Schalkwyk seems to have accepted the job as number two to Leon on a strictly temporary basis, as a way of halting his party's public decline. From the first his concern seems not to have been to build the Democratic Alliance but rather to maintain a separate NNP organisation and identity, continuing to emphasise such points of difference with the DP as its attitude to the death penalty. In this way he gave the NNP a breathing space so that it could regroup - and raise its price in an ultimate deal with the ANC.

There can be no doubt about the ANC's overwhelming desire to strike a blow against the DA and to extinguish its "alternative model" of government in the Western Cape. It is the reaction of the ANC government to the break up of the DA rather than the NNP's sheer opportunism or its future that should command attention. For a party with 65 per cent of the vote - and our survey on page 6 shows that the ANC's popularity has hardly fallen since the last election - to regard a party with 19 per cent of the vote as such a threat that it is willing both to change the Constitution and to take in a new coalition partner, is extraordinary. Yet the ANC plans to make these changes despite the fact that the newcomer brings precious little with it, that the move will increase the party's difficulties with its existing alliance and coalition partners, and that it is bargaining with a party that has a determination born of despair.

The ANC's response to the break up of the DA reveals, first, just how badly the ANC needs an enemy against which to define itself. Second, for all its bravado, it shows that the government is perfectly aware of its failures, of the growing disenchantment among its supporters and of the opposition's effectiveness in mounting its critique.

Clearly, the NNP is determined not to die with a whimper. What it is demanding from the ANC is almost ludicrously bold, and it has lured the ruling party into an uncomfortable corner. Unless the ANC can attract four NNP defectors in the Western Cape legislature - assuming changed legislation on crossing the floor - it has to take these demands seriously or abandon its bid for secure control of the province. The NNP, on its own or in some form of co-operation with another party, will control the balance of power and ensure for itself what politicians need and crave most - high visibility and a constant flow of publicity. If the NNP does not lose its nerve and disintegrate it might snatch at least a temporary victory from the jaws of defeat. Unless the ANC wants to endure this uncertainty it should get back to democratic fundamentals and, as former Western Cape premier Gerald Morkel has demanded, agree to new elections in the province. This, after all, is what the voters deserve.