United Party (South Africa)

United Party (South Africa)

The United Party was South Africa's ruling political party between 1934 and 1948. It was formed by a merger of most of Prime Minister Barry Hertzog's National Party with the rival South African Party of Jan Smuts, plus the remnants of the Unionist Party. Its full name was the United National South African Party, but it was generally called the, "United Party." The party drew support from several different parts of South African society, including English-speakers, Afrikaners and 'Coloureds'.

Hertzog led the party until 1939. In that year, Hertzog refused to commit South Africa to Britain's war effort against Nazi Germany. Many Afrikaners who had fought in the Second Boer War were still alive, and the atrocities committed by the British during that conflict were fresh in their memory. Hertzog felt that siding with the former enemy would be unacceptable to Afrikaners. Furthermore, he could see little benefit for South Africa in taking part in a war that he saw as an essentially European affair.

The majority of the United Party caucus were of a different mind, however, and Hertzog resigned. Jan Smuts succeeded him and led the party and the country throughout World War II and the immediate post-war years.


Smuts and the United Party lost the 1948 election to the National Party. It was never to hold power again. J.G.N. Strauss succeeded Smuts in 1950, and was in turn replaced by Sir de Villiers Graaff in 1956 until 1977. Attrition characterized his leadership years, as the party slowly declined because of electoral gerrymandering, changes to South Africa's voting laws, including the removal of the 'Coloureds' - South Africans of mixed ancestry, who had been staunch United Party supporters - from the electoral rolls, and defections to other parties.

There was much division in the party, between liberals and conservatives. Divisions came to a head in 1972 when Harry Schwarz, leader of the liberal "Young Turks" within the party, wrestled the leadership of the party in the Transvaal from Marais Steyn. His victory was a visible sign of strength from the liberals within the party. In 1975 Harry Schwarz broke away from the party with four other MP's, a senator and ten members of the Transvaal Provincial Council and formed the Reform Party.

In 1977, the United Party was renamed the New Republic Party, but a significant number of its parliamentarians refused to remain with the renamed party; some joined the anti-apartheid Progressive Federal Party and others eventually joined the ruling National Party. Elections in late 1977 left the New Republic Party gutted, with only 10 parliamentary seats, down from the 41 the United Party had held previously.

The UP's position on race relations in South Africa was a complex one; while the UP was more liberal in character than the National Party, it never clearly articulated its views on the best approach to them. Smuts himself alluded to the fact that at some unspecified point in the future, black South Africans might be asked to share power with the white minority, provided Black politicians demonstrated their commitment to 'civilized' norms of political and personal conduct. Generally, though, the UP seemed to have little difficulty in tacitly supporting apartheid. One of the reasons the UP fared so disastrously in the 1948 election was its lack of commitment to a clear policy on race relations. This stood in contrast to the National Party, which was firmly and unequivocally behind the notion of preserving white superiority at all costs.

The UP was against apartheid as a system, but also favoured the continuation of white minority rule. During the late 1960s the party tried to gain support by its resistance to the National Party's politics on giving land to the bantustans.

It is often said that the United Party was a more Anglo-African party.

"See also:" List of political parties in South Africa

External links

* [http://www.queensu.ca/sarc/Conferences/1940s/Baines.htm "Revisiting Urban African Policy and the Reforms of the Smuts Government, 1939-48", by Gary Baines]

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