Colin Eglin’s cherished vision of his Progressive Federal Party as an embryonic alternative government was shattered as the general election results poured in yesterday.
Eglin conceded as much when he said: ”I cannot deny that the results pose a major setback for the PFP and the concept of a reform alliance developing into an alternative government for South Africa.” His belief that the election was an opportunity to build a government-in-waiting, rather than merely to establish a stronger opposition, was exposed as a myth as the PFP suffered a nett loss of six seats to the ruling National Party and was left vulnerable in several more.
The decisive shift to the right of the white electorate constituted conclusive proof of a fundamental truth about South Africa’s parliamentary politics: governments of the day have only been ousted by parties to their right. The movement to the right, with the NP gaining seats from the PFP but shedding supporters to the Conservative Party, raises fundamental questions about the role and future of parliamentary parties seeking to nudge South Africa toward a non-racial society.
The opposition by white voters at the polls on Wednesday has to be compared with the opposition of blacks on the factory floor. Where fewer than 350 000 voters cast their votes for the PFP, the New Republic Party and the trio of independents, about one million black workers are conservatively estimated by the Labour Monitoring Group to have risked their jobs by staying at home in protest against the whites-only election. An additional one million students and scholars stayed away from their classes.
Can the liberal parliamentary parties ever achieve enough leverage to fulfil their declared aim or do they merely add a facade of democratic respectability to a racially-based system designed to perpetuate white paramountcy? These questions were asked by the former PFP leader, Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, last year when he resigned in disgust from parliament. They have been given new urgency by the poll results.
Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu minced no words on the issue yesterday. ”Get out of parliament.” he urged the PFP. ”You have given the world the impression that we have a multi-party democracy when it is now quite clear we have a final charade”
The catalogue of disaster for the PFP was unrelieved in Natal, where the PFP-NRP alliance failed to make headway. While many observers anticipated that the pro-Indaba stance would win votes for the alliance, it did not do so. Instead it was the anti-Indaba NP which gained five Natal seats, three from the moribund NRP and two from the not so robust PFP. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that whites in Natal saw the NP’s rejection of the Indaba as a comforting bulwark against black rule — even by well-disciplined and pro- capitalist cadres of Inkatha — and not as a missed opportunity to do a deal with ”moderates”.
The disaster for the PFP and its allies was faintly mitigated by the independent Nationalists. Wynand Malan won in Randburg, Esther Lategan put up a credible performance in Stellenbosch and the articulate Denis Worrall came within a whisker of unseating President PW Botha’s loyal lieutenant, Chris Heunis, at Helderberg. But these results are dwarfed by the shift to the right. They remain, for the moment, anomalies rather than — as Malan and Worrall proclaimed boldly at the polling booths — evidence of a ”new spirit” and a ”new vision”. The shift to the right was starkly manifest in the final election results.
The NP improved its tally of seats from 116 at the dissolution of parliament to more than 120. Its gains were largely at the expense of the PFP. While the NP captured seats from the CP, they were seats which were favourable to the NP. The sitting CP MPs won them originally under NP colours in the 1981 general election before they broke away from the NP under Andries Treurnicht a year later to form the CP. The rise of the ultra-right-as a looming force in white parliamentary politics was manifest in two facts: the CP made a nett gain of at least, four seats at the expense of the NP and ousted the PFP to become the official opposition.
The CP’s post-election status as the official opposition (unless the PFP can form an alliance with both ‘the NRP and Wynand Malan) means that for the first time since the 1948 election, the majority opposition is a party to the right of the government. That is an ominous development for the NP, given the precedents of right-wing parties taking over as the government.
Two further points should be noted about the overall shift to the right of the white electorate. First, the NP made inroads into largely English-speaking urban seats which were considered to be virtually unassailable. Even the redoubtable Helen Suzman, South Africa’s longest- serving MP and doyenne of South African liberalism, had to suffer the indignity of a reduced majority.
In the Johannesburg area the NP captured Hillbrow, Bezuidenhout and Edenvale. In Pietermaritzburg it captured two more supposedly ”safe” PFP seats. Second, the CP won in poorer, Afrikaner-dominated urban seats, disproving a popular — and comforting — view that its support base is largely confined to predominantly Afrikaner rural areas in the Transvaal.
In middle sized Transvaal towns, the CP attracted many votes, unseating the Minister of Agriculture, Greyling Wentzel, in Bethal, Deputy Minister Hendrik Tempel in Ermelo, and giving the former Minister of Law and Order, Louis le Grange, a bad fright in Potchefstroom. But it won seats, too, in the heavily populated Witwatersrand, which, as the NP noted in the days of Smuts, is the key to power in South Africa. Seats won by the CP on the Rand included Roodepoort, Randfontein (where ex-Info Minister, Connie Mulder, won a long fight to return to parliament) and Nigel.
The CP, formed by dissident right-wing rebels in the NP in 1982, might have won several more seats if it had reached an pact with the smaller ultra-rightist Herstigte Nasionale Party. In at least eight seats the combined ultra-right vote was larger than that of the victorious NP. But the demise of the HNP is clearly foreshadowed in its disastrous showing at the polls.
Consequently, at the election, due in 1989 (if the NP has the stomach for it), the ultra-right will not be divided. There will he only one ultra-right party: the CP. The CP’s strong surge in the Transvaal, where it won all its seats, turned many ”safe” NP seats into marginal seats.
The scheduled re-allocation of seats from the Cape to the Transvaal will make matters worse for the NP in the 1989 election. Nat MPs in these marginal seats will be nervous of further reform and almost certainly try to slow it down. Even before the CP gains, Botha was constantly looking nervously over his right shoulder whenever he contemplated substantive reform measures to placate the angry, disenfranchised black majority. He is unlikely to he less conscious of the CP now.