JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - South Africa's New National Party, the political force that ran a dictatorship during four decades of apartheid and then ceded power peacefully in democratic elections in 1994, announced Saturday that it was folding for lack of voter support.
The leaders and members of parliament from the party will be offered immediate membership in the African National Congress, the majority black party that trounced it in 1994 elections, said NNP spokeswoman Carol Johnson.
The New National Party will exist in name until September next year, the next time parliament allows members to switch loyalties. But it will effectively cease operations in the next few weeks when its chairman, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, applies for ANC membership.
It was unclear how many NNP politicians and supporters would follow van Schalkwyk, but Johnson said its leaders would begin a campaign this month to urge them to join the ANC.
For South Africans, the announcement was in some ways a turning point. During most of its rule from 1948 to 1994, what was then called the National Party ran a dictatorship devoted to preserving white minority power by suppressing the black majority. From 1960 to 1990, the National Party outlawed the African National Congress, then a nonviolent, black-rights organization, forcing its members into an increasingly violent underground movement.
"It is of huge symbolic significance," said Robert B. Mattes, a political analyst at the University of Cape Town, "that the party which for a long time was the champion of Afrikaner nationalism and later of white nationalism is now bound for the dustbin of history."
In political terms, however, the announcement has scant practical importance. Since 1994, when it commanded a fifth of the electorate, the New National Party has steadily lost support and power. In national elections in April, the party won 1.7 percent of the vote and held seven seats in the 400-seat parliament.
Most members have defected to the Democratic Alliance, a liberal, predominantly white party that attracted about 12 percent of the vote, or the Freedom Front, a largely Afrikaner party that got about 1 percent.
At its end, the New National Party had shed all vestiges of its racist, dictatorial past. Its scion, former President F.W. de Klerk, shared the Nobel Prize with Nelson Mandela for their joint efforts to dismantle apartheid.
But political analysts say de Klerk's party was never able to negotiate the difficult transition from 40 years of iron-fisted rule to a role as a loyal democratic opponent. From 1994 to this year, the leadership moved from holding Cabinet posts in a unity government run by the African National Congress, to independent opposition, to a marriage of convenience with the Democratic Alliance, to a purely political affiliation with the ANC.
None of the changes drew new voters and, analysts say, might have accelerated the loss of support by leaving voters confused about what the party stood for.