ABOUT 3.3 million white voters are eligible to participate tomorrow in a watershed referendum on political reform.
The poll amounts to a choice between a phased transition to majority rule or a right-wing government, which could escalate civil unrest, observers say.
"It is a choice between danger and disaster," says liberal Democratic Party leader Zach de Beer, articulating the fears and confusion of a white minority buffeted by soaring crime, political violence, economic recession, and declining white living standards.
Initial confidence among political scientists that President Frederik de Klerk would win about 60 percent of the white vote has ebbed in recent weeks. Even a shock victory for the "no" lobby is not being ruled out.
Diplomats and political analysts say that a decisive "yes" vote would enable Mr. De Klerk to quicken the pace of negotiations with black leaders on a transitional government.
"I think in this scenario one would see swift progress toward a deal and the right-wing threat would be largely defused," says a Western diplomat.
It would also increase confidence among local and foreign investors and raise the prospect of new loans, foreign aid, and investment in the country, he adds.
South African businessmen have backed the largest advertising campaign in the country's history to argue for a "yes" vote.
But a marginal "yes" vote could leave De Klerk with residual problems from the right wing and wavering support in the security forces for his plans for a transfer of political power. It would leave open the possibility of a concerted resistance campaign by the right wing aimed at making the country ungovernable.
Conservative Party leader Andries Treurnicht has said he would accept the referendum outcome "for the time being" but added that it would not alter the reality of having to accommodate separate ethnic groups.
A "no" vote would lead to the resignation of De Klerk and the ruling National Party government. A general election would follow in which the Conservative Party would be the favorite.
About 27 million black South Africans, who are excluded from the poll tomorrow, are watching from the sidelines with intense interest, aware that the outcome could mean the difference between a return to apartheid repression and the beginning of a new order in which they would gain the right to vote.
"If the whites make a mistake and vote for repression they are in for a hard time," says African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela, who, while opposing the whites-only poll in principle, has urged whites to vote "yes."
"There would be unprecedented turmoil in this country if whites voted 'no'," he warns.
Mr. Mandela says the result of the referendum should not be allowed to disrupt the interracial negotiating forum, the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA), which is close to agreement on a phased transition to majority rule and the method for drawing up a democratic constitution.
But Mandela hinted that if a Conservative government was prepared to negotiate within CODESA there would not necessarily be a return to armed confrontation.
Conservative leader Treurnicht has called for negotiations between ethnic leaders to form a commonwealth of southern African states modeled on the European Community. His plan would secure self-determination for whites in a "white state" - alongside a multiracial state and 10 to 12 independent black states.
The outcome of the referendum vote could be decided by English-speaking voters in the metropolitan areas who are being persuaded to vote "no" in response to immediate fears about escalating urban crime.
Referendum workers in the "yes" camp fear that there could be a massive abstention by potential "yes" voters because of a combination of apathy, confusion, and helplessness felt by many English-speaking voters.
"I feel that the Conservative Party will be able to get a better deal for whites," says Ian Zacharowitz, an English-speaking resident of Bloubosrand, a Johannesburg neighborhood where residents recently resorted to street protests and barricades to reverse a decision by the authorities to move black squatters to an adjoining piece of open land.
"We are insecure; we don't know which way things are going," Mr. Zacharowitz says. "If there's a "yes" vote there will be a civil war and I'll have to fight."
De Klerk has warned of total isolation, economic collapse, and civil war if whites reject reforms. But a "yes" vote, he says, could open the doors to investors and lay the foundation for future stability and prosperity.
Treurnicht, who has drawn large audiences, has successfully exploited white fears about a communist government and the death of Christianity in South Africa. He has portrayed De Klerk as a traitor who is prepared to negotiate himself and the Afrikaner people out of power.
De Klerk has insisted, however, that no communist principles will be contained in a new democratic constitution.
In his punishing daily schedule of meetings and appearances nationwide, De Klerk has carried a strongly reformist and liberal message that has aroused little more than polite applause from loyal National Party supporters.
He tells them that there can be no peace and stability in a system that is unjust toward black South Africans and condemns them to live in impoverished tribal homelands or as second-class citizens in the metropolitan areas.
"What do you think those 26 million blacks are going to say [if you vote 'no']?" he asks. "We know that the black man is not going to say: 'Yes sir, no sir.' "