PRESIDENT Frederik de Klerk has chosen a high-risk strategy to keep South Africa's progress toward pluralistic democracy from being knocked off track by pro-apartheid forces. He's going to put before white voters the question of whether they want him to continue the process of negotiating with the African National Congress (ANC) a new political charter for the country.
The referendum is set for March 17. It's an all-eggs-in-one-basket political tactic designed to meet the challenge head-on, instead of letting the Conservative Party, which talks of establishing a white homeland, chip away at De Klerk's credibility in successive by-elections. The Conservatives' victory among whites in the university town of Potchefstroom prompted the decision to go for broke.
The ANC initially criticized De Klerk's call for a white referendum, seeing it as an attempted "white veto" on the process of democratic change. But the ANC needs De Klerk as a negotiating partner, and its leaders can probably sympathize with the president's plea for patience while he attempts to put his own political house in order. Street demonstrations against the referendum, as threatened by some black militants, would undermine De Klerk and help the Conservatives' cause.
By rallying that portion of the Afrikaner vote still faithful to the National Party and the 40 percent of whites who are English in background and often more liberal, De Klerk hopes to win. If he loses and resigns, as promised, South Africa's political future becomes a void where anything might happen.
De Klerk might have chosen other ways to confront the Conservative challenge - perhaps a national referendum, with black and white votes counted separately. But he has selected his strategy, and it is in the interest of all groups in South Africa who want constructive change to help him see it through.