PRESIDENT Frederik de Klerk told Parliament yesterday that he would resign if whites voted against him in a whites-only referendum on his political reforms to be held as soon as possible.
"If I lose the referendum I will resign, and you can have an election," he told the minority Parliament in Cape Town.
Mr. de Klerk said he would give whites an opportunity in the near future to decide whom they wanted to negotiate their constitutional future. If he lost the referendum - the date and wording of the question will be announced next week - he and the National Party government would resign, paving the way for a whites-only general election, he said.
His surprise move followed an election victory by the right-wing Conservative Party in the western Transvaal voting district of Potchefstroom, a National Party seat for four decades.
The Conservatives exceeded their most optimistic expectations by turning a National Party majority of 1,583 into a 2,140 Conservative majority on a record 75 percent voter turnout. The result confirmed a national trend in recent by-elections which indicates that about 56 percent of rural Afrikaners support the Conservatives and 44 percent the National Party.
But the outcome of the Potchefstroom ballot also presents the ANC with a dilemma: If they push De Klerk too hard, they could end up negotiating a new constitution with hard-line Conservative Party leader Andries Treurnicht.
Dr. Treurnicht said the poll result confirmed that De Klerk no longer represented a majority of whites and he demanded a whites-only election, something De Klerk has so far rejected.
Addressing himself to De Klerk he said: "You don't represent the white nation at CODESA [the Convention for a Democratic South Africa]. You can't speak on our behalf."
De Klerk said the Conservative Party position was undermining the process of reform. "This is something that must be settled," said De Klerk. "It's in the interests of the negotiating process that we must settle it."
The Conservatives currently hold 42 seats in the 178-seat white assembly; the National Party has 104 seats; and the liberal Democratic Party has 32.
After the Potchefstroom poll, political analysts are divided on whether the National Party would retain its parliamentary majority. But most analysts believe that De Klerk will be able to win a referendum by capitalizing on the support of liberal whites and his personal popularity.
De Klerk said that if the white voters decided against the continuation of the interracial negotiating forum, or CODESA, he would quit. But he added that black leaders should not read this as an attempt to introduce a white veto on constitutional change.
"We need time to sort this problem out as the ANC needed time to sort its problems out," he said.
The Conservative Party welcomed De Klerk's shock announcement and accepted the challenge. The Democratic Party also welcomed the move. The radical Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) called for CODESA to be scrapped.
"I am surprised De Klerk reacted in this way to Potchefstroom," said Andre du Toit, professor of political studies at the University of Cape Town. "I thought he had a stronger nerve," he said, adding that it could have been growing dissent in his own ranks that made De Klerk opt for a strategy which would get ambivalent supporters to rally around him.
Following the National Party setback in Potchefstroom, analysts were divided on whether it would retard or accelerate the negotiating process.
"It is more urgent now for De Klerk to get what he wants from the negotiating process," said a Western diplomat. "But it could also be more difficult. Much will depend on how the ANC reacts to his dilemma."
De Klerk had said he would not hold another whites-only election but would test white opinion at a referendum on a nonracial constitution.
The defeat of the ruling party came at a time of growing white uncertainty about the political future, fear of the prospect of black majority rule, a crippling drought, deepening economic recession and escalating political violence and urban crime.
De Klerk elevated the poll to the level of a national contest when he said, following another Conservative victory in a rural seat last year, that Potchefstroom would be a better test of white attitudes.
"I still believe that De Klerk has - in the country as a whole - the support of 6 out of 10 whites," said Laurie Schlemmer of the Human Sciences Research Council, a state-funded think tank.
Schlemmer added that De Klerk's position was becoming increasingly uncomfortable and the ANC should assist the government in trying to help boost flagging white morale.
Other political analysts were less optimistic.
"It is a devastating result for the National Party," said veteran political scientist Willem Kleynhans.
"If ANC President Nelson Mandela ignores this fact there will be a revolution in this country," said Professor Kleynhans.
National Party officials conceded that the result was a setback but said that they would respond by speeding up the negotiating process. Ruling party officials are anxious that the poll could lead to a spate of defections to the Conservatives in the white assembly as legislators in vulnerable seats lose their nerve.
The ANC downplayed the result: "It should not affect the national negotiation process," said ANC official Saki Macozoma. "Potchefstroom is a tiny fraction of the total potential electorate in South Africa."
The result will bolster the hard-line faction within the ANC that does not want the party to join CODESA but rather hold out for another whites-only election by using civil disobedience and national protest.