WHITE voters in this sleepy university town go to the polls Feb. 19 in a ballot that could have a decisive impact on the pace and content of a negotiated settlement with the black majority.
The ruling National Party, which has held the parliamentary seat since it came to power in 1948, is facing a concerted challenge from the right-wing Conservative Party, which has steadily eroded President Frederik de Klerk's white support since he began major political reforms two years ago.
"Whether the National Party wins or loses, Potchefstroom will be a turning point in white politics," says political scientist Wim Booyse, director of Peace and Conflict Studies in Pretoria.
The election, which is to choose a replacement for the National Party candidate who died last year, has become a contest to determine which party has support among whites.
"This election is really a test of who represents the Afrikaner in this country," says Conservative Party candidate Andries Beyers.
"It is about who speaks for white South Africa."
It could also be crucial in determining Mr. de Klerk's own political future. He has committed himself to gaining majority white support in a referendum on a transitional powersharing deal negotiated with black leaders.
Potchefstroom, a town which could be set in the Midwest of the United States, is surrounded by drought-stricken corn farms and, further to the east, the gold mines of western Johannesburg.
The town has a special significance for De Klerk: It was here that he graduated as a lawyer and it is also the headquarters of the minority Afrikaner church - the Gereformeerde Kerk (Reformed Church) - to which he belongs.
It is probably this sentimental attachment which led him to declare that it was Potchefstroom that would be the real test of white opinion.
Black South Africans are watching the contest with keener interest that any previous whites-only ballot because it could make the difference between a negotiated settlement and another round of violent conflict.
"Seeing the way De Klerk is moving forward in negotiations it is necessary to be sympathetic to him," says African National Congress Youth League official Patrick Maloi, who lives in Potchefstroom's township of Ikageng.
"He is the only person we can negotiate with," says Mr. Maloi. "If the Conservative Party wins we fear there will be more bloodshed."
If the National Party loses the contest it will undermine De Klerk's claim to speak on behalf of the white majority.
It could also weaken his position in the interracial Convention for a Democratic South Africa, where he seeks to broker a deal that would offer whites protection from black domination in a new South Africa.
A Conservative victory would give the right-wing groups an enormous psychological boost and give further credence to their claim to be the true representatives of whites.
"It would also strengthen the Conservatives' insistence on another white election rather than a referendum which they would have less chance of winning," says Mr. Booyse.
De Klerk refuses to hold a whites-only election. Political analysts say he has more chance of winning a referendum.
In the early stages of the contest most analysts were predicting a narrow majority for the Conservatives, who lost by 1,500 votes in 1989 and 500 votes in 1987.
But in recent weeks the National Party has sent 10 Cabinet Ministers to the district in a last-minute bid to swing voters behind De Klerk.
This made analysts reluctant to predict a winner. But on Feb. 17, the government made what could become a costly mistake, announcing drastic cuts in white education which would result in at least 4,000 - but up to 11,000 - teachers being retrenched and a hike in white school fees.
"This was a blunder which will almost certainly cost the National Party the seat," says Booyse.
De Klerk's dilemma is how to retain his white support base while, at the same time, winning greater black support to secure his long-term political future.
"If he wants the National Party to be a significant player in government in a new dispensation he will have to go all-out to sign up colored [mixed-race], Indian, and black voters," says political scientist Willem Kleynhans.
"That means the National Party will become a non-white party with a small minority of whites," says Professor Kleynhans. "But with the course he has now chosen [holding a referendum] De Klerk will lose everything if he loses majority white support."
As the government and the African National Congress move closer to an accord on an interim government and a democratic constitution whites are becoming increasingly nervous and uncertain of the future.
A crippling drought in the interior of the country, a deepening economic recession, and escalating political violence and violent crime has reduced white morale to the lowest ebb this century.
"Add to this the real fear of black domination under a majority government and you realize what a serious situation De Klerk is facing," Kleyhans says.
African National Congress President Nelson Mandela said this week that if De Klerk loses Potchefstroom it should persuade him to move even faster at the negotiating table to reach agreement on an interim government.
Election analysts said that if the Conservatives won by a margin of more than 1,500 to 2,000 votes, nervous Nationalist legislators could begin crossing the floor to the Conservatives in Parliament, thus precipitating a split in the ruling party.