CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) _ Once sworn enemies over apartheid, two South African political parties announced an alliance Tuesday that would have been unthinkable under whites-only rule.

The New National Party, heir to the party that instituted apartheid, has joined forces with the ruling African National Congress, which came to power in 1994 after waging an armed struggle to overthrow the racist apartheid regime.

The parties said Tuesday their agreement paved the way for reconciliation among South Africans of all colors.

The coalition lays the groundwork for the predominantly white NNP to gain seats in national, provincial and local governments. The NNP has 28 seats in the 400-member parliament, and its influence has been waning.

The new coalition may also be able to take control of the council that rules Cape Town, the country's second largest city.

``This is a historic agreement and is based on trust, said Martinus van Schalkwyk, the NNP leader. ``It provides us with a key to reshaping the political landscape and ... breaking down the old racial divisions.''

The NNP had been allied with the Democratic Party in the Democratic Alliance, but the merger fell apart.

The Democratic Alliance criticized the merger, saying it simply meant the New National Party had been swallowed by the ANC.

``What the NNP has done can only be described as a monumental betrayal of its mandate and its voters,'' Democratic Alliance chairman Joe Seremane said in a statement.

Safety and Security Minister Steve Tshwete, a senior ANC member, defended the alliance, saying his party had a ``closer affinity'' with the NNP than with any other party in the country's parliament.

The ANC and the National Party, the NNP's predecessor, worked together once before in a constitutionally mandated government of national unity after 1994 _ an uneasy partnership that aimed at smoothing the country's transition toward democracy.

The National Party withdrew from the government after a new constitution was enacted.