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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

De Klerk's 'Liberated' Party Mulls Outsider's Role

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- When Frederik de Klerk announced Thursday that his white-led National Party is pulling out of South Africa's multiracial unity cabinet, a party leader quipped, "We are now also liberated."

But now that the party is liberated, the question is what it intends to do -- out of power for the first time in 50 years and having ceded nearly full control of the government to President Nelson Mandela's African National Congress.

It can, as it pledged, be a true opposition in parliament and continue to participate in Mandela's policy of racial reconciliation. Or it can return to the rhetoric of its past and represent solely the interests of the white minority. And if that fails, it can try to appeal to blacks and siphon off support from the ANC.

Just what the party will do next is the question buzzing all over South Africa, making it the new wild card in South African politics. Already, National Party officials have begun positioning themselves as the new underdogs and drawing faintly familiar ideological and political battle lines between their party and the ANC, whose slow delivery on economic policies and promises makes it vulnerable to attack on many fronts.

There is one thing the National Party cannot do, analysts say. Despite the visions of grandeur that de Klerk expressed Thursday, when he said his party would one day become the largest in South Africa, many observers predict the National Party likely will never rise again.

As the former white-minority party of apartheid, responsible for the system of racial repression against the black majority, the party is seen as being laden with too much heavy baggage.

The party built up significant credibility when it freed Mandela in 1990 and negotiated an end to apartheid through the nation's first all-races election held in 1994. But that credibility has its limits. Black people here remember how deeply the party's policies harmed them and how it once branded the ANC as the party of terrorist, communist Soviet pawns and a threat to decency.

"If the NP can't break out of its white base, it's going to be reduced to a marginal party," said Robert Schrire, a political scientist at the University of Cape Town, who added, "I don't think it can expand its base. ... The National Party is irretrievably a captive of its past."

Although it voted for the new constitution Wednesday, the National Party quit the Cabinet the next day.

De Klerk began Friday to outline his lines of attack on the ANC. In a speech to the American Chamber of Commerce in Johannesburg, he said the new constitution "does not show enough appreciation that fiscal discipline and macroeconomic stability" are necessary for economic growth. He also said the government was too slow to privatize state assets as it has pledged.