The recent announcement by the New National Party that it has adopted the Freedom Charter and intends to work closely with the African National Congress is significant to South African politics, and not a historic event, like many people erroneously assert.
A historic event is something much more profound. The NNP’s decision finally to merge with the ANC is nothing really new, as the party has been steadily moving in this direction since the late 1980s. Of course there were detours, twists and turns along the way as the NNP shied away from the ANC, moved to the Democratic Alliance and now returns again.
And in this regard, despite NNP leader Marthinus van Schalkwyk being a weak politician, much blame should not be put on him. What has merely happened is that, finally, the NNP has emphatically decided that its future is with the ANC and there is no turning back this time around.
Many interpretations have of course been offered about what this really means for the country and its politics, the opposition, the government and so on. The analyses range from glee to derision — the first mostly expressed by people inclined to support the ANC, and the latter held mostly by people in favour of DA politics.
The former point of view asserts that the NNP has at long last seen the way and is actually aligning itself with the new South Africa — 10 years later, one might add. The latter critique interprets it as a further blow to the opposition.
What is interesting about the much-vaunted “swallowing” of the NNP by the ANC — an idea that is being put out by opposition parties, especially the DA — is the retort by the NNP that at least it has not been swallowed by the Democratic Party (DP) in the guise of the DA.
On a much more considered note, what exactly does this imminent demise of the NNP and its merging with the ANC mean for the country and its politics?
Clearly this cannot be a blow to opposition politics because the NNP has been waning since 1999 and faced near-total collapse this year. In fact, with the benefit of hindsight, it can be surmised that the party was already doomed once it realised that it could not, as the architect of apartheid, let that system continue and opened talks with the ANC in exile.
There is nothing dramatic or “historic” about the demise of the NNP — its basis to exist was apartheid and the gradual destruction of that pillar on which it stood meant that it was eventually going to disappear.
It is also unfair for the DA to lambaste the NNP for having failed because it was the DP that actually hastened the death of the NNP in 1999 when it effectively “cannibalised” its support base by poaching conservative Afrikaners under the banner of the “fight back” slogan.
The positive thing for South Africa to come from the death of the NNP is that finally there is emphatic evidence that the party that stood for crass racism is dying and has indeed decided to embrace a society that eschews any reference to any racial analysis of politics.
Symbolically, the party of racism is disappearing and most significantly is merging with the ANC — its arch-enemy, which has always maintained the fight against racism.
Thus, at this level, South Africans should welcome this development in that it further cements the erosion of racial politics in South Africa. The fact that the NNP has moved to the centre of the spectrum in embracing a non-racial South Africa seriously undermines the notion of racially constructed politics.
What this will do is to put pressure on that other side of the political spectrum — opposition politics — for the merging of the DA and the Inkatha Freedom Party truly to represent a block that will be in competition with the ANC/NNP. This is not a far-fetched notion given the tentative working relationship between these two parties in the past election. They should pursue such an alliance rigorously and take a leaf out of the book of the NNP further to erode the conceptualisation of South African politics in racial/ethnic terms.
If this comes to pass, as it surely will, then the country’s politics will be richer — political competition will be defined by ideas as identity politics are shunted to the background. Real, quality debates that are not obfuscated by simplistic pandering to emotive, racial and ethnic politics will become primary in political discourse.
This will indeed be the “historic” moment in South Africa when politics will be understood in terms of a “conservative/liberal” understanding of society that will be carried by the DA/IFP to challenge the “radical” politics of the ANC/NNP.