THE referendum in South Africa next week is a master stroke. It risks the hopes of a new post-apartheid South Africa against those who would resume rigid segregation, but President F. W. de Klerk should win his calculated gamble easily and then be able to help guide South Africa securely toward serious power sharing.
Although Mr. de Klerk's National Party has lost a succession of parliamentary by-elections in right-wing constituencies to the diehard Conservative Party, he seized the political high road by demanding a whites-only vote next week. The referendum question asks whites whether or not they want to continue reforming South Africa through negotiations with black Africans.
Could whites reject what still is an unproven and open-ended process? Could they follow their largely rural compatriots and insist upon a return to apartheid? Are they so upset with the rapid transition of South Africa away from apartheid since 1990 that they would halt progress?
The outcome of the referendum will provide answers to those questions. But as desperately pro-apartheid as many Afrikaners and other whites may feel, it is unlikely that they will vote "no" in more than modest numbers.
Going back to the old ways is unthinkable for most whites. There would be a resurgence of black-white violence. The eagerly sought return to national prosperity would be deferred for years, if not indefinitely. Foreign investment and borrowing possibilities would end. The opportunity to send a South African team to the summer Olympics would be aborted, and all renewed sporting ties with the rest of the world, as well as contacts in other spheres, would be cut off.
There are Afrikaans-speaking whites who seek the security of legislated apartheid more than they want to feel a welcome part of the modern world. Despite the recent Conservative victories, however, their numbers are comparatively few. Extrapolating from the party votes in the 1989 general election, and factoring in the swing against the National Party in last month's by-election, gives De Klerk a margin that could be as high as 63 percent to 37 percent in the referendum.
In 1988, nearly 48 percent of the electorate voted for the National Party and 20 percent for the liberal Democratic Party led by Dr. Zach de Beer. The vote total for all conservative groups was 32 percent. There was an 11 percent swing at the Potchefstroom by-election in February away from the National Party.
IN addition to such numbers, De Klerk's hand has been strengthened by the bold way in which he declared a referendum immediately after losing at Potchefstroom. Previous leaders of the National Party always backed down when threatened politically from the right.
In 1978 and 1979, Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha said that South Africa must "adapt or die." Reform was essential if a black revolution were to be contained. But when the right wing attacked his policies, he refused to risk the loss of conservative support.
De Klerk has chosen to maintain the pace of reform. Together with Dr. de Beer, once the arch antagonist of his party, De Klerk has taken to the campaign trail. Uncharacteristically for South Africa, he and his colleagues are barnstorming the country, American-style, asking for a "yes" vote. Businessmen are raising funds to advertise in favor of "yes" and to mobilize support among whites in the cities.
Once he wins the referendum, De Klerk will have achieved far more than an endorsement of his policies of reform. He will have achieved a mandate for change that can be parlayed into the end of white politics as South Africa has known it since 1910.
There will be no need to consult whites in another referendum after a proposed new constitution for the country is formulated by the ongoing Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA). Indeed, there need never be another whites-only election, particularly one in which the Conservative Party could show strong support.
The threat from the right will have been neutralized, whereas continued by-election losses would have bolstered the Conservatives. The African National Congress (ANC) will know that De Klerk is negotiating from strength, with the backing of the Democratic Party. Foreign governments will have further reason to trust and work with him.
De Klerk has understood since 1989 that South Africa must change the fundamental basis of its politics or continue to risk the economic and moral decay that accelerated so rapidly under Mr. Botha. Whatever constitutional compromises emerge from CODESA, and whatever whites and blacks give up to achieve a more perfect union, he and other leading whites believe that there can be no turning back.
For that fundamental principle De Klerk and the National Party have appropriately staked their futures. It will be for the principle, as well as in widespread recognition that there are in fact no other viable options, that whites will vote "yes" in sufficient numbers on March 17.