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De Klerk's National Party To Take On Opposition Role

By Michael Hill
The Baltimore Sun
CAPE TOWN, South Africa

The day after South Africa celebrated the passage of its new constitution, the National Party that presided over the end of apartheid pulled out of the country's Government of National Unity, opting instead for the role of an opposition party.

"We are not taking this decision in a negative spirit," said F.W. de Klerk, the National Party leader. "It is not a crisis. We are not sour."

The decision means that de Klerk is ending his odd-couple partnership with President Nelson Mandela. When de Klerk was president - the last under white rule - he freed Mandela, who was imprisoned for 27 years for fighting the apartheid system of racial oppression the National Party imposed on South Africa.

Mandela and de Klerk shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize and, though their personal relationship has soured in the past few years, their cooperation was often seen as a symbol of the ability of blacks and whites to bridge the enormous gap that separated them under apartheid.

For the past two years, since Mandela was elected president in the first non-racial election, de Klerk has served as his deputy president, continuing the image of cooperation and reconciliation. The decision to leave the government, which takes effect on June 30, means he will vacate that post and give up the seven seats his party holds in the Cabinet as part of the power-sharing arrangement.

Mandela, whose ruling African National Congress now will have all but the two Cabinet posts occupied by members of the Inkatha Freedom Party, said he regretted the decision but saw it as part of the inevitable process of the country's political growth.

"It would have been better if we had continued to work together as we had done and that does not mean to say we haven't the confidence that we can carry the country alone," Mandela said shortly after the decision was announced Thursday.

"We hope their decision does not mean obstructing the process of transformation or defending apartheid privilege," he added.

At a news conference, de Klerk emphasized that this move will allow his party to leave its role as a junior partner in the government, where it was inevitably overshadowed by the ANC, and instead become a full-fledged opposition party.

"We feel that the stage has now been reached where we will be able to serve the national interest more effectively by concentrating fully on a responsible opposition role," he said.

The move makes sense politically as the National Party tries to re-invent itself, moving from the standard bearer of Afrikaner nationalism that propelled it into power in 1948 and kept it there until 1994 to the kind of broad-based multi-racial party it needs to become to survive in the new South Africa.

Roelf Meyer, the chief constitutional negotiator for the National Party, said that the power sharing arrangement was always awkward politically.

"It affected not only the National Party, but also the ANC," he said. "Whatever we did, we had to be aware of each other. Now we will have a real opportunity to express ourselves on every matter where we differ from the ANC."

The National Party probably will seize upon the crime issue, a hot button with whites but also a growing concern among blacks, as a way to cut across the racial boundaries that divide parties in this country.

It will undoubtedly emphasize its support for the death penalty - popular among blacks and whites - which was effectively outlawed by the new constitution at the insistence of the ANC.

"It is the end of an era," Meyer said, indicating that the last six years, since Mandela was freed and the ANC unbanned by then president De Klerk, have been devoted to working out the foundation of a new democratic government. " it means we have seen the realization of a normal democracy. So it is the beginning of a new era."

The new constitution adopted Wednesday eliminates the Government of National Unity after the next election in 1999. This move was opposed by the National Party in constitutional negotiations and the change was a factor in the decision, according to de Klerk.

"It would be unnatural to continue in the Government of National Unity while everybody knows that the principles on which it rests have already been discarded in the new constitution," he said.

The Government of National Unity was set up by the negotiators who struck the deal that led to the country's first non-racial election in 1994.