THIS ultraconservative coal-mining town east of Johannesburg is not the sort of place white liberals usually stand up to be counted. But the distinctive blue and yellow colors of the moderately liberal Democratic Party adorn the streets all the way to the party's campaign office in downtown Witbank.
Analysts here say Witbank may be typical of an increasing number of South African communities.
Signs indicate that the new party, launched in April when the defunct Progressive Federal Party merged with two liberal splinter groups, is appealing to a far broader spectrum of whites. The Progressives' support came mainly from affluent neighborhoods in metropolitan centers.
Political analysts say the Democrats appear to be gaining support among Dutch-descended Afrikaners - particularly in cities - and to be wooing back some English-speaking voters who flocked to the ruling National Party in the last election.
However, as the newly formed Democratic Party gains wider support from English-speaking whites across the country, the party could very well become a spoiler in the Sept. 6 general elections, thus boosting prospects for the pro-apartheid Conservative Party.
The Democratics hold only 19 seats in the 166-seat white National Assembly. The far-right Conservative Party, with 22 seats, is South Africa's official opposition.
Some political analysts predict that the Democrats could increase their quota to 35 seats and the Conservatives to 42 seats in the September balloting.
Witbank is one of more than 100 voting districts where the Democratic Party, which advocates a nonracial democracy in a federal system, is entering the fray prior to the elections.
The decision by the Democrats to contest districts where their intervention in fierce battles between the ruling National Party and Conservative Party could result in Conservative victories has become a point of controversy that the Nationalists are exploiting.
But Democratic officials say the time has come for English-speaking whites, who have traditionally been more apathetic than their Afrikaner counterparts, to take a political stand regardless of the consequences.
``This is the first time that I have found a political home,'' says Mark Edwards, the Democratic campaign manager in Witbank. ``I would never have voted for the Progressive Federal Party. It created the image of being an elitist party,'' the 36-year-old civil engineer adds.
The Conservative Party advocates a return to rigid apartheid. In 1987 the party captured the Witbank seat in a straight fight with the National Party, which advocates a gradual dismantling of apartheid, with a narrow 842-vote majority out of 16,642 votes cast.
This time the Nationalists face a four-way fight. While the party is making a concerted drive to regain the seat, the entrance of the Democratic Party will almost certainly thwart them.
The Herstigte Nasionale Party (Reconstituted National Party), a far-right offshoot which is even more extremist than the Conservatives, is unlikely to win more than a few hundred votes.
Democratic officials in the town are confident that they can win about 3,000 votes. But they say their objective is not to play a spoiling role.
``We are not here to split the vote,'' said Lorna Bannatyne, a Democratic official. ``We have to grant people an option they believe in.''
Jacobus Venter, the Democratic candidate in Witbank, is a soft-spoken Afrikaner who grew up in a Nationalist home but later became disillusioned with the party's policies.
``Clearly, the only solution is to get rid of apartheid,'' says the 42-year-old electrical contractor. ``You cannot reform it.''
The Democratic Party has a troika of leaders which includes the former Progressive leader Zach de Beer, liberal Afrikaner Wynand Malan, and South Africa's former ambassador to Britain, Denis Worrall.
But it is Dr. Worrall, who quit his ambassador's post in London to challenge the ruling party in 1987, who has drawn many former Nationalist supporters into the Democratic fold.
He presents an image of establishment acceptability, which his more liberal colleagues have failed to do.
``The National Party cannot escape its past,'' Worrall told a packed election meeting in Witbank recently. ``It remains the party of the past and the party of apartheid.''
He urges whites to abandon their present position as a political minority and to seek common cause with black South Africans who share the same values and aspirations. In this way, he says, whites can become part of a wider political majority.
Despite the likelihood that the Conservatives will emerge as the biggest minority party, the National Party has focused all its resources on fighting the Democratic Party.
The arena for the fight is the issue of negotiations with black leaders. This is a radical departure from previous campaigns where the Nationalists have exploited whites' fears of being overwhelmed by the black majority.
In the 1987 election, the Nationalists frightened white voters into the government fold by amplifying the threat of guerrillas of the outlawed African National Congress (ANC) massing on the country's northern borders.
In recent months, the political landscape has changed dramatically. Jailed ANC leader Nelson Mandela has been invited to tea with former head of state P.W. Botha, and National Party officials have broken a 41-year ban on talking to ANC officials.
Acting President Frederik de Klerk, who has a more affable style than former President Botha, has adopted the rhetoric of negotiation.
Mr. De Klerk still hedges this rhetoric with a commitment to racial groups as a point of departure for political negotiations. However, he has created the expectation, unthinkable only a year ago, that the government could soon enter exploratory talks with the outlawed ANC.
Democratic leaders appear worried that De Klerk has captured negotiations as the National Party's own issue.
Mr. Malan is a co-leader of the Democrats who is warding off a formidable challenge from a high-powered Nationalist candidate in the urban Johannesburg seat of Randburg.
He adopted a defensive stance at an election meeting earlier this month when dealing with De Klerk.
``He is using the language of the Democratic Party,'' Malan said. ``He sounds like a Democrat, but the content is still that of the National Party. It is reactionary.''
As the white election nears, anti-apartheid groups have mounted a nationwide campaign of defiance against apartheid laws in a resurgence of black resistance throughout the country.
This has presented the De Klerk administration with a dilemma. If it crushes the protests with brute force as it has done in the past, it will alienate those leaders who will ultimately have to be party to the negotiations. Heavy-handed action will also alienate the support of the US and British governments which the Nationalists have declared as vital.
When hundreds of anti-apartheid supporters staged demonstrations recently at two beaches in the Cape, they were set upon by vicious dogs and beaten by police wielding whips.
The Democratic Party, which was initially ambivalent about the defiance campaign, was quick to exploit the harsh police action in the war of words over negotiations.
``How can you negotiate with people if you chase them with whips off the beaches all the way to the negotiating table?'' Malan asked his attentive audience.