The early division in the South African party system was between those who promoted Afrikaner nationalism and those Afrikaansspeaking and English-speaking persons who worked together toward goals on which both sides could agree. When General Louis Botha formed the first cabinet in 1910, he combined the moderate Afrikaners and English into the South African National Party, which confronted an English-speaking opposition. Soon afterward, however, General J.B.M. Hertzog formed the National Party (NP), dedicated to placing the interests of South Africa above those of the British Empire and to developing the Afrikaner group until it was as powerful as were English South Africans.
Hard-pressed by Hertzog's NP in 1920, General Jan Christiaan Smuts, who succeeded Botha, fused the South African National Party with the English-speaking Unionists, establishing the alignment of the English-speaking, except those in the Labour Party (LP), with moderate Afrikaners. The LP allied itself with Hertzog, who achieved office in 1924. Together they carried through the so-called civilized labor policy, designed to safeguard a wide area in the economy for white labor.
Economic crisis during the Depression forced a new alignment of parties that brought Hertzog and Smuts into coalition in 1933 and fusion in the United Party (UP) in 1934. Daniel F. Malan broke with Hertzog in 1934 to form the "purified" NP, dedicated to a more exclusive and radical Afrikaner nationalism than Hertzog had ever preached.
When World War II broke out, Hertzog wished to remain neutral. Smuts swung the House of Assembly in support of the Allies and became prime minister with the support of all English-speaking South Africans and a substantial group of moderate Afrikaners in the UP. Malan won the 1948 election, the first whose campaign was waged chiefly on the racial issue. The sharpest division between the two parties arose from NP efforts to remove the Coloureds from the common voting roll.
The basic division in the party system was between the NP, which favored the policy of apartheid, or totally separate development of the different races, and the UP, which favored social and residential segregation but economic integration. The members of the NP were mainly Afrikaans-speaking and those of the UP were English-speaking, but each party had a considerable number of members of the other language group. Beginning in 1950, the Nationalists implemented their program of apartheid. Between 1953 and 1987, the NP won nine successive parliamentary elections under four party leaders: Malan (in 1953); Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd (1958, 1961, 1966); Balthazar Johannes Vorster (1970, 1974, 1977); and Pieter W. Botha (1981–87). Vorster, who succeeded Verwoerd as prime minister after the assassination of Verwoerd in 1966, left the office in 1978 to become president. In the following year, however, he was forced to resign because of a political scandal involving the misappropriation of government funds to finance clandestine political and propaganda activities in the United States, Norway, and other Western countries. The Nationalists' program met with little effective opposition from the UP, which formally disbanded in 1977. In that year, leaders of the UP and its splinter group, the Democratic Party, which had formed in 1973, established the New Republic Party (NRP), with support from English-speaking voters in Natal and the Eastern Cape. The NRP endorsed continuing white rule, but with a softening of apartheid. In the same year, another merger produced the Progressive Federal Party (PFP), which drew its main backing from English-speaking voters in urban areas and stood for universal suffrage within a federal system, with guarantees of minority rights. In the 1987 elections, the NP increased its representation from 116 (in 1981) to 123 seats. The PFP fell from 26 to 19 seats; the NRP lost 4 of its 5 seats. In 1989, the last national race-based parliamentary elections, the NP suffered a setback, winning just 48% of the vote and 93 seats. The PFP dissolved itself in favor of the Democratic Party, which took 33 seats.
The Conservative Party (CP) opposed any form of power sharing with nonwhites. It was led by a former cabinet minister, Andries Treurnicht. The CP became the official opposition party after winning 23 seats in the 1987 elections and 39 in 1989.
Several Coloured and Indian parties participated in the August 1984 elections for the houses of Parliament created for their respective ethnic groups. The Labour Party, a Coloured party headed by the Rev. Allan Hendrickse, won 76 of the 80 directly elected seats; it opposed the new constitution, advocated repeal of all discriminatory measures, and said that it was campaigning on behalf of all nonwhites but was vague on the question of whether it would accept a unitary state governed on the principle of one-person, one-vote. All five Indian parties participating in the elections favored protection of minority rights and rejected government in a unitary state on the basis of one-person, one-vote. The National People's Party won 18 and Solidarity 17 of the 40 directly elected seats; the two parties formed a governing alliance in January 1986.
In 1985, the government repealed a law that had prohibited people of different racial groups from belonging to the same political party.
Several extraparliamentary organizations of Africans and Asians have formed on a national basis. The African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Indian Congress have cooperated with each other and have sought to cooperate with white liberal organizations. Banned in 1960, the ANC turned from its earlier tradition of nonviolence toward sabotage and other terrorist acts. In 1987, the government offered to legalize the group if it renounced violence. In 1987 and onward, talks were held outside the country between the ANC and diverse groups of white South Africans.
Notable among the more militant African groups was the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), which broke away from the ANC in 1959 and was banned in 1960. The ANC and PAC had been recognized by the UN General Assembly as "the authentic representatives" of the people of South Africa. During the 1970s, a loose coalition of African student groups known as the Black Consciousness Movement developed under the leadership of Steven Biko. The United Democratic Front (UDF) was founded in 1983, claiming at its peak to be a multiracial alliance of nearly seven hundred groups representing nearly two million people. It dissolved itself in August 1991, after having continued resistance to apartheid while the ANC was in exile. Considerable ferment occurred among political parties in the run-up to the 1994 elections. The Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) headed by Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, at first had a cozy relationship with the NP, but that dissolved once the NP began negotiating in earnest with the ANC. Not until just days before the elections in 1994 did the IFP agree to run candidates. It captured over 10% of the national vote and managed to win the election for the provincial government in Natal. The Freedom Front (FF) became the electoral vehicle for Gen. Constand Viljoen, former head of the Defense Force. He contested the results (2.2% of the vote, nine seats) despite resistance from the CP and other right-wing bodies. The FF sought to work within the system to achieve the creation of an autonomous Afrikaner state.
In February 1993 the ANC allowed minority parties to participate in the government for five years after the end of apartheid. Also in February 1993 the first nonwhites entered the cabinet, thus broadening the base of the NP.
The 1994 elections resulted in an overwhelming victory for the ANC, headed by Nelson Mandela, as did the 1995 local elections. The new government included six ministers from the NP and the IFP.
Any political party that wins 20% or more of the National Assembly votes in a general election is entitled to name a deputy executive president; any party that wins 20 or more seats in the National Assembly is entitled to become a member of the governing coalition. As of 1997 the ANC, the IFP, and the NP constituted a Government of National Unity.
In the second post-apartheid parliamentary elections in 1999, the ANC won handsomely, taking 266 of 400 parliamentary seats (66%), just one seat shy of the two-thirds majority required to change the constitution. The remaining seats went to 12 other parties as follows: Democratic Party (DP) 38; Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) 34; New National Party (NNP) 28; United Democratic Movement (UDM) 14; African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) 6; Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) 3; United Christian Democratic Party (UCDP) 3; Vryheidsfront/Freedom Front (VF/FF) 3; Federal Alliance (FA) 2; Minority Front (MF) 1; Afrikaner Eenheids Beweging (AEB) 1; and Azanian People's Organization (Azapo) 1.