Former South African president Frederik W. de Klerk, the country's last apartheid-era leader, has quit the New National Party to protest its decision to merge with the African National Congress.

De Klerk told the Saturday Star newspaper that the New National Party, the successor to the National Party, which created the system of racial separation called apartheid, had made a mistake by relinquishing its independence last week and joining the African National Congress. The ANC controls the presidency, the Parliament and all nine provincial governments.

The two parties are coalition partners, with the leader of the New National Party, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, serving in President Thabo Mbeki's cabinet.

But a complete merger, de Klerk said, amounted to forfeiting the party's right to take positions different from those of the ANC. He said the nation's voters need more options.

"There is an urgent need for a new political home for moderate South Africans of all races, freed from the baggage of the past and sensitive to the interests of all our communities," de Klerk said, according to the newspaper report.

Analysts have said the decision by the New National Party to join the ANC amounted to political suicide after years of dwindling support.

During de Klerk's presidency, from 1989 to 1994, Nelson Mandela was released from prison. In 1994, the country held its first multiracial elections and Mandela became president. Afterward, de Klerk served for two years as deputy president. The two men shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the end of apartheid.

The New National Party, which has drawn its support from the country's white Afrikaner minority, issued a statement saying that while it respected de Klerk's decision, it would continue with its plans.

-- Craig Timberg