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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Democratic Party (DP)

The Democratic Party was launched in true American style at a glittering affair in Johannesburg on 8 April 1989. The party was an amalgamation of the Progressive Federal Party (leader: Dr Zach de Beer), the Independent Party (leader: Dr Dennis Worrall), the National Democratic Movement (leader: Wynand Malan), and the so-called "fourth force" of disillusioned Afrikaners.

This amalgamation united the en-tire white parliamentary opposition to the left of the government. This was a significant development because it highlighted the fact that there was in-deed strong support for a liberal party. Surveys indicated that about 25 per cent of the electorate would sup-port the party. In the 1989 general election the Democratic Party, how-ever, managed to draw only 20 per cent of white support. It is interesting that after the election F W de Klerk interpreted the combined NP and DP support, altogether 70 per cent of the white electorate, as being in favour of reform. This seems to indicate that he was then already prepared to make significant political changes in September 1989, for which he would have needed the support of liberal white voters.

The DP was initially jointly led by De Beer, Worrall and Malan. An important aim of the party is to form a bridge between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary groups. This must be achieved through the implementation of a policy of negotiation. Other principles of the party can be summarized as follows:

Protection of the fundamental human rights and liberties of all South Africans.

Representative government based on universal franchise.

An independent judiciary and sovereignty of the law.

Maintenance of law, order and security.

Limitation of the authority of central government.

Rejection of violence as a political instrument.

Healthy industrial relations based on collective bargaining.

Maintenance of a high growth rate in a system which encourages individual economic entrepreneurship.

According to the Democratic Party leadership, the party participated in election politics in order to gain power. The DP is committed to "engagement politics", meaning it is prepared to talk to everyone, from Carel Boshoff to the PAC. In its policy programme the DP is committed to:

A common voters' roll so that all South Africans can vote at every level of government.

Unrestricted formation of political parties.

Proportional election systems at all levels of government.

Acknowledgement of and respect for all religious and language differences.

A bill of human rights maintained by the courts.

An independent judiciary and the restriction of the sovereignty of the law.

A federal system with entrenched powers for the different levels of government.

An economy based on the principles of private entrepreneurship and minimum state involvement in the economy.

In the 1989 general election the Democratic Party's performance was considerably weaker than predicted. After many claims that DP gains might even result in a hung parliament (where no party gains an out-right majority), the party gained only 33 seats. Added to the 41 seats of the CP, the total number of opposition seats was not sufficient for a hung parliament. (The NP gained 93 of a possible 178 seats.)

The DP's presence and influence is felt in Parliament and in some aspects of local government. Its weak representation in Parliament, how-ever, limits its opportunities to act as political broker for extra-parliamentary groups. Consequently the reciprocal influence between the DP and business and labour spheres is limited. It also cuts the party off from a regenerative source of leader-ship and funding. One of the DP's basic problems, as has been the case with all white-dominated liberal par-ties, is that the rules of the political game do not permit it to deploy its potential multi-racial support base in the power centre. Should it decide to attack the fundamental legitimacy of white control, it runs the risk of losing its support among precisely that base it needs to function effectively in parliamentary politics.

An example is the pro-white prejudice of the security forces in the protection of the constitution. Over the years liberal white parties that have tried to indicate how the National Party combines its own interests with "national interests" and how it uses the security forces to defend these interests have been attacked for being "soft on security" and unpatriotic. The DP's opposition to the philosophy that political power should be divided according to racial or ethnic groups could easily have been interpreted as animosity ("Boer hatred") by the "ethnically aware" Afrikaner component of the white voters.

The DP is committed to working towards a non-racial state based on a policy of social democracy, with a free-market economy as its point of departure. The vulnerability of such an approach to ethnic and racial mobilization as well as class differences is obvious. The DP has tried to meet this problem by proposing a system of federalism with proportional representation and an independent judiciary as a way of neutralizing possible conflict. Like the Americans, the DP firmly believes in economic growth and political democracy to ward off the threat of a racial war or socialist revolution in South Africa.

In its short existence the limitations of the DP have become apparent. It is primarily a middle-class party with a strategy for the protection of middle-class economic values. This hampers its attempts at bridge-building between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary forces. It is difficult for many DP supporters to see themselves in an alliance with those groups to the left of the spectrum which build their public appeal on promises of greater socio-economic equality and revolutionary transfer of government. The DP also finds it difficult to evoke enthusiasm in extra-parliamentary circles while at the same time maintaining its middle-class support base in white politics.

The DP's objective of extra-parliamentary liaison and the possible estrangement of its middle-class sup-port base not only created internal leadership problems, but led many DP supporters to have second thoughts about the viability of the party's policy. Any party with three leaders could not advocate a single policy.

The media exploited statements made by the triumvirate, playing the three leaders off against one another. A clear distinction developed between one group which saw itself as the builder of bridges, and another which saw itself as forming alliances with the ANC and other groups. Wynand Malan's resignation in July 1990 brought the internal differences between the leaders to a head. The defeat the party suffered in the Umlazi by-election in May 1990 showed that its support had declined dramatically in little more than six months after the general election, and that white voters were deserting the party. Its image was further weakened when it failed to put forward a candidate in the Randburg by-election in November 1990, following the resignation of Wynand Malan.

Many of the DP's problems resulted from the shift in NP policy under the De Klerk leadership. His promise to scrap apartheid completely, the unbanning of the ANC, PAC, SACP and other organisations, and the success of the Groote Schuur and Pretoria Minutes, created the impression that the DP had been left without a policy. In DP circles the main issue became the motivation for the continued existence of the party. In any by-election there will be great pressure on the DP to take a back seat in favour of the NP so as not to divide the pro-reform electorate, as was the case in Randburg. With the election of Dr Zach de Beer as the sole leader of the party in October 1990 it was speculated that he might be able to infuse the DP with new vitality.

The important contribution the Democratic Party has made to South African politics cannot be ignored. It succeeded in keeping issues related to liberal political values on the public political agenda. The party also helped to create a favourable climate for negotiation. The outcome of the Randburg by-election, in which a large number of DP members voted for the NP, and the appointment of Harry Schwarz, DP Member of Parliament, as ambassador to the USA, have, however, confirmed the gradual assimilation of the DP into the NP. In responding to the challenge of re-organising a mainly white party into an organisation that can encompass the needs and aspirations of all South Africans, the DP released a five-point plan for a new South Africa. In this strategy document it spelt out its resolution to be an entity connected with liberal democracy.

The government's continued pace of reform after 1 February 1991 created a new dilemma for the DP. While a section of the DP MPs demonstrated their solidarity with the ANC by participating in a mass march during the opening of Parliament on 1 February 1991, other MPs welcomed the government's reform initiatives. This apparent split in the party makes it doubtful whether the DP in its entirety will form an alliance with a party like the NP.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.