PRESIDENT Frederik de Klerk's decision to stake his political future on a snap whites-only poll on reform March 17 could precipitate a political realignment in South Africa.
The announcement Feb. 24 by Mr. De Klerk that the referendum would be the final test of white opinion before a negotiated settlement has cemented some emerging alliances and thrown the right-wing opposition into disarray.
It also has created tensions within the African National Congress (ANC) regarding how far it should go in taking De Klerk's side in a whites-only contest.
The referendum asks whites: "Do you support the continuation of the reform process which the State president began on 2 February 1990 and which is aimed at a new constitution through negotiation?"
Two years ago, De Klerk legalized the ANC and other anti-apartheid groups.
"It is really the moment of truth for white South Africans," a Western diplomat says.
De Klerk's political gamble has won the full backing of the liberal white opposition, the influential business community, the print media, and the West.
Democratic Party leader Zach de Beer has thrown his full weight behind a "yes" vote on the referendum.
But the right-wing Conservative Party, fearful that it will lose the poll, is divided between those who want to boycott the referendum and those who want to participate and enter negotiations.
After two days of top-level meetings, Conservatives called on members to vote "no" and demand a general election, a decision that is unlikely to resolve tensions in the party.
Conservative leader Andries Treurnicht said Feb. 25 that if the party loses the referendum it would not mean it had lost the political war.
The strategy of those in favor of a boycott is to promote white apathy through creating the perception of a one-sided contest. They hope that this could deny De Klerk the clear pro-reform mandate he is seeking.
The ANC hopes the referendum will not undermine the work of the interracial negotiating forum, the Convention for a Democratic South Africa. CODESA has come out if favor of a "yes" vote and decided to continue its sessions during the referendum campaign.
"The referendum is an important issue for De Klerk and his colleagues but in relation to CODESA it is a sideshow," says ANC Secretary-General Cyril Ramaphosa.
ANC international affairs director Thabo Mbeki, a key figure in the negotiations, says the ANC would not accept the Conservative Party winning power in a general election.
"If the National Party resigned it would have to be replaced by an interim government," he says.
But the ANC is under mounting pressure to support De Klerk.
"They should now urge whites to support De Klerk in the referendum - or at least refrain from messing up the climate prior to the referendum," says Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, who quit Parliament six years ago to promote a negotiated settlement.
Since De Klerk gave notice of the referendum Feb. 20 radio talk shows have been besieged with a continual stream of anxious whites discussing their dilemma.
An informal poll conducted by Radio 702 talk-show host Dennis Beckett Feb. 24 had those for and against the referendum running almost neck and neck.
Most of those who said they would vote "yes" made clear they would do so because they perceived a Conservative victory as a formula for economic ruin and civil war. Progress on settlement
If De Klerk's bold gamble pays off, it could speed up progress at CODESA, where the ruling National Party and the ANC appear close to agreement on a phased transition to majority rule with guarantees for whites.
A referendum victory would also absolve De Klerk of his commitment to seek white approval for whatever powersharing package emerges from the talks.
"De Klerk's dilemma was that the negotiating process has moved too fast for his constituency," the diplomat says. Outline for transition
De Klerk said Feb. 24 that if the government won by a simple majority he would proceed toward "binding agreements with other parties" based on a power-sharing arrangement which would protect minority interests.
If he lost, he and the National Party government would resign - leaving the road open for a whites-only election in which the right-wing Conservative Party would be the odds-on favorite.
"The referendum brings us to a momentous moment in the history of our country," De Klerk said. "Nobody can reverse the process which has been begun. It has a momentum of its own."
Meanwhile, the ANC tabled detailed transitional proposals at a CODESA working committee session Feb. 24.
The refined proposals foresee two phases before a democratic government is installed. An Interim Government Council - structured on the same lines as CODESA - would oversee elections for a Constituent Assembly to draw up a new constitution. This phase would last six months.
Delegates to the assembly, which would also serve as an interim legislature, would be elected in a one-person, one-vote election according to proportional representation.
Parties would need five percent of the total vote to qualify for representation and decisions would require a two-thirds majority. The legislature would operate by consensus. This phase would last nine months.
The present Parliament would be dissolved after the interim elections and an elected interim Cabinet would be formed from all the parties that gained representation to the elected assembly.
A democratic constitution would be adopted thereafter.