JOHANNESBURG — PRESIDENT Frederik de Klerk, leader of the National Party (NP), which invented apartheid and now claims to have abolished it, has embarked on the daunting task of winning the votes of black South Africans in the country's first all-race ballot in April.
The essence of Mr. De Klerk's message to potential black supporters is that the ``new National Party'' is the party that ``rung the neck of apartheid'' and ended sanctions and South Africa's international isolation.
``Each day our support among black voters is growing,'' De Klerk said in a television interview Feb. 6.
It is, he says, the only party committed to free market principles and economic growth as the prime factor in allowing socioeconomic development. De Klerk argues that his primary rival, Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC), is feeding unrealistic expectations to blacks that could be met only through excessive state intervention, which would hinder economic growth.
Recent opinion polls indicate support for the NP at between 14 and 18 percent of the national vote. Of the country's 22.5 million voters, about 16.2 million are black South Africans who have never voted before.
About 72 percent of blacks are expected to vote for the ANC, 5 percent for the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party, 2 percent for the militant Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), and only 1 percent for the NP. Following De Klerk's landmark speech in February 1990 - when he announced the legalization of the ANC and release of Mr. Mandela - he won 3 percent of black support.
By mid-1992, the NP's rating among blacks hit an all-time high of 8 percent. But this has steadily dropped as Mandela's accusations about the role of government in political violence have taken root.
But for a party that was exclusively white until three years ago, the NP, under De Klerk's leadership, has some reason to be pleased.
The 2,000 delegates who attended the party's federal conference on Feb. 3-4, reflected as multiracial an audience as one could find in South Africa.
It was a more representative racial mix than an equivalent conference of the ANC, which, despite its nonracial approach, remains a predominantly black party with a sprinkling of whites and more significant support in the mixed-race ``colored'' and Indian minorities.
David Chuenyane, a former member of the militant PAC who is now the most senior black official in the NP, told the Monitor that intimidation of black NP supporters in the townships was the most serious problem facing the NP in the election campaign.
Mr. Chuenyane, who has survived six attempts on his life since he joined the NP in late 1992, believes that the NP will soon have more blacks than whites.
Chuenyane believes that the NP's transformation - vividly reflected in its new symbols, songs, and culture - is genuine, and that apartheid is as dead in the party as it is in South Africa.
``The NP has experience and expertise, which come from being in government,'' he said.
Chuenyane, vice-chairman of the NP's Johannesburg and Soweto region, has emerged as one of two blacks in the party's top 12 candidates for Parliament in the April poll. De Klerk says other potential black candidates are too afraid to come forward.
During the past few weeks, the De Klerk election roadshow has been blazing a trail through black townships.
He has had a rough ride. In several townships in the eastern Transvaal he was drowned out by ANC-supporting youths shouting ``Down with de Klerk.''
He was angered by the fact that individuals whom he visited in the townships had to be put under police protection after the youths threatened to kill them.
In terms of the election rules, political parties are supposed to be free to campaign wherever they like. Mandela has made several appeals to ANC supporters to show tolerance and allow the NP and others to campaign freely in the townships.
Of the NP's astonishing visual transformation, political scientist Robert Schrire of the liberal University of Cape Town said: ``Almost all parties find it quite easy to camouflage themselves. But the fact is that the NP is still the party of non-African voters.
``The bottom-line is that the NP has not managed to attract the support of credible black leaders with community support,'' Professor Schrire says, putting the NP's ceiling among black voters at 5 percent.
Five percent of the black vote would give the NP more than 1 million black votes. It would not be a mean achievement for the party that invented apartheid.