OFFICIALS of the far right-wing Conservative Party smiled as voters arrived at the party table earlier this month on their way to cast early ballots for the Sept. 6 general election. In this system of early voting, voters may go to the polls for four weeks before polling day without providing any reason for doing so.
Most of the 6,000 or so whites in this remote farming town, situated about 180 miles west of Johannesburg, seem to want to maintain the rigid racial segregation pioneered by the ruling National Party more than four decades ago.
And in pursuit of this goal many voters in this district have turned to the Conservative Party.
They are united in their belief that National Party rule will eventually lead to a black majority government. They differ on whether to prepare for the inevitability of black rule - or to resist to the last person.
During the past decade, the National Party relaxed some of the protections for whites by legalizing black trade unions, granting black property rights, and abolishing the system of black influx control known as the Pass Laws.
In the cities and industrial towns, most hotels, cinemas, theaters, commercial centers, and some public facilities - like parks - have been integrated despite laws forbidding racial mixing.
But in far-flung rural towns like Zeerust little has changed. And that is the way the whites want it to stay.
``I don't hate blacks,'' says 85-year-old Marthinus Grobler who once represented the National Party in parliament. ``I know them and I speak their languages,'' he says.
``But I don't want them in my house and I don't want them to marry my daughter. I don't want them to run my country,'' says Mr. Grobler, a life-long missionary worker among blacks.
``Why is it that we Afrikaners are expendable in the eyes of the world?'' he asks.
The recent meeting between President Pieter Botha and Nelson Mandela, the jailed leader of the outlawed African National Congress (ANC), has left the farming people of this remote town confused.
``Mr. Botha has put the security police out of business,'' says Friedrich Breytenbach, owner of the Abjaterskop hotel. ``I can't see what their role is because there is no enemy anymore.''
Their anger lines the streets in the form of posters in the Conservative Party's yellow and blue colors.
``After National Party action, ANC satisfaction,'' proclaims one poster. Another asks what Mr. Botha is up to with Mr. Mandela. ``National Party equals black rule. Conservative Party equals self-rule,'' says another.
Most Conservative Party supporters accept that they will never win enough seats in the 166-seat white assembly to halt the National Party's efforts to dismantle some segregation laws and opt for a system of limited power-sharing with blacks.
In the present assembly the Conservatives have only 22 seats compared to the Nationalists' 122 seats. The relatively liberal Democratic Party, a recently formed coalition of three liberal groups, has 19 seats. There are three seats vacant.
Some recent political polls have shown that the Conservatives could win as many as 55 seats and the Democrats up to 35 seats, thus threatening the Nationalists' majority. But more sober projections give the Conservatives 30-35 seats and the Democrats 25-30 seats in the new parliament, leaving the Nationalists' with a comfortable majority.
Since early voting began Aug. 3, more than two thirds of the 300-odd people who have come to cast their ballots in Zeerust have voted for the Conservatives, according to party officials.
``I dare not disclose my party affiliations,'' said 31-year-old Jan de Klerk, an insurance salesman in the neighboring town of Lichtenburg who supports the National Party. ``If I did I would lose business,'' he said.
Ben Zietsman, a mine manager from Lichtenburg, says that there will be black rule within five years. He supports the National Party and would be prepared to live under a black president such as Zulu leader Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi.
But he rejects a simple one-person one-vote solution, and says he hopes a compromise will be reached between the races to avoid a repetition of failed democracy in Africa.
The corn- and cattle-farmers of this arid, drought-prone land are tough, uncompromising people who insist that black rule will lead to the destruction of the way of life of the country's 3 million or so Dutch-descended Afrikaners.
``I know things have got to change,'' said Leo Whitfield, an English-speaking farmer who supports the Conservative Party. ``But the bottom-line is that it's my country and I won't be a second-class citizen in my own country.''
He and his Afrikaner neighbors cling to the belief that segregation and racial purity are the only way of ensuring continued prosperity.
``If blacks have a majority here we won't have a land anymore,'' said Jan Steyn, a 41-year-old farm machinery salesman who has four children between the ages of 16 and 3. ``We won't have the right to govern our land and we won't have a future for our children.''
The wording of slogans on the party posters is overshadowed by the even more blatant language of many Conservative Party supporters who thwart the leadership's efforts to create a more respectable, less overtly racist image for the party.
Some vent their anger on the United States which they hold responsible for bludgeoning South Africa to accept an integrated society.
``Tell the Americans to keep out,'' said Ernst de Waal, a 57-year-old glazier. ``The funny thing about the Americans is that they have got the niggers there, but they are still fighting for the rights of niggers in South Africa.''
Many react to the threat of black rule with blatant hatred, aggression, and a fear that is tangible.
A farmer living opposite a multiracial drive-in cinema near the town of Lichtenburg has hung a massive noose from the tree next to his white-washed pillars. On the pillar is a plaque with the picture of a vicious dog bearing its teeth above the words: Trespassers will be eaten.
Menacing threats like these overshadow the apartheid signs which offend the dignity of blacks in many rural towns.
In Zeerust, the far right-wing council - which swept to power last year - keeps the central park locked so no one can use it, and all other public facilities are strictly for use by whites only.
Two of the town's three hotels are open to blacks, but in one of them, the bar is reserved for whites only. The third hotel has an outbuilding for blacks. Its restaurant and bar remain segregated.
``This is the way my white customers want it,'' said Friedrich Breytenbach, the owner of the Abjaterskop Hotel and chairman of the local council.
But he concedes that things could change in the future.
``If I opened my doors to blacks and it increased business, I would do it,'' he said.
Mr. Breytenbach is adamant that he will stay in Zeerust even if black rule comes one day. But he wants a refuge where he can go if the situation becomes intolerable.
``Like the Jews know they have Israel to go back to if things go wrong, I want a white homeland where I know I can be safe,'' he says.
Three years ago his sister and her husband fled to Paraguay to escape the prospect of black rule. But they were unable to start a new life and are due to return to Zeerust soon.
Mr. Breytenbach is prepared to settle for a white homeland which includes none of the country's gold mines or rich mineral resources.
``I would make my money here in Zeerust and would return to the homeland periodically to help build it up,'' he says.