The Progressive Federal Party (PFP), successor to the Progressive Party (PP), was formed after a group of liberal members of the United Party (UP), broke away to form a parliamentary opposition against apartheid. The cause of the split was the UP's inability to find a clear-cut alternative to the National Party's apartheid policy.
The PP took its stand on constitutional reform, calling for:
- an entrenched Constitution incorporating a Bill of Rights
- an independent judiciary
- a federal Constitution in which the powers of the provinces would be constitutionally protected.
It stood for an economy based upon free enterprise. It would be 35 years before the members of the Progressive Party saw their ideals realized in South Africa's interim Constitution.
In the 1961 election only Helen Suzman kept her seat in Parliament for the PP. Thus began one of the great parliamentary performances of all time. Suzman sat alone for 13 years, the sole principled opponent of racial discrimination in the whole South African Parliament. She fought against detention without trial, pass laws, influx control, and job reservation on grounds of colour, racially separate amenities, Group Areas and forced removals. She demanded trade union rights for black people and fought for better wages and working conditions.
In 1974 six more PP members won seats in Parliament. Soon after this the PP merged with a new breakaway group from the United Party, the Reform Party, to become the Progressive Reform Party in 1975. In 1977 another group of UP members left the Party to form the Committee for a United Opposition, which then joined the PRP to form the Progressive Federal Party.
During 1987 Denis Worrall resigned as South African Ambassador in London to return to politics. He formed the Independent Movement to fight the 1987 general election. Only Wynand Malan won a seat for the party and when he left the Independent Movement, Worrall formed the Independent Party. Malan, together with others, formed the National Democratic Movement. The PFP had lost a number of Parliamentary seats in the 1987 election and in 1988 Zach de Beer became the PFP leader. He continued negotiations, which culminated in the IP, NDM and PFP disbanding to form the Democratic Party in April 1989.
The National Party government immediately called a general election for September of that year, in which the DP improved its position while the NP lost seats both to the DP and to the right-wing Conservative Party.