SOUTH Africa's 3.3 million white voters have given President Frederik de Klerk a decisive mandate to continue with negotiated reforms aimed at extending the vote to the black majority.
"It will be a great relief to people right across the country that whites have returned a 'yes' vote," African National Congress President Nelson Mandela said in a television interview.
Mr. Mandela said that he called Mr. De Klerk early yesterday to wish him well on his birthday and good luck in the referendum.
"Today we have closed the book on apartheid," De Klerk said in an address outside the Parliament. "The white electorate has reached out through this landslide victory for the 'yes' vote to all our compatriots.... Today is the real birthday of the real new South African nation."
Conservative Party leader Andries Treurnicht said that the disappointing results had been affected by unprecedented media propaganda, foreign interference, and intimidation by employers of their employees.
The result was widely welcomed by the international community.
"This is a great day for South Africa," said United States Ambassador William Swing. "It is an important step in the transition to a new and fully democratic system in this country."
The pro-reform camp won a two-thirds majority (with a "yes" vote of 68.7 percent compared to a "no" vote of 31.3 percent). The voter turnout was unexpectedly high at 86 percent: 1,925,065 voted "yes"; 875,676 voted "no."
"The outcome will strengthen De Klerk's hand at the negotiating forum, CODESA [the Convention for a Democratic South Africa], and endorse his policy platform, which includes a tough set of checks and balances aimed at ensuring powersharing," says Mervyn Frost, a political scientist at the University of Natal at Durban.
As the referendum results were being announced in Cape Town, thousands of blacks thronged the streets, protesting against the government's lack of consultation with black groups over the drawing up of the national budget, which was announced yesterday.
The decisive "yes" vote will mean that recent international efforts to lift sanctions, facilitate international trade, and restore Pretoria's access to international loans will go ahead.
Several major South African corporations had urged their employees to vote "yes" in the referendum. At least one multinational had hinted it might have disinvested in the event of a "no" vote.
There was rejoicing in sporting circles where South Africa's participation in World Cup cricket in recent weeks has boosted support for De Klerk.
In a radio phone-in program Tuesday in Johannesburg, a majority of callers said the South African cricket team should withdraw from the World Cup competition if a "no" vote prevailed.
"We can't have it both ways," one caller said. "If we want to return to apartheid, we can't expect to remain in international sport."
In addition to expressing fear of sanctions and international isolation, many callers confessed their shame at having excluded blacks from the political process for so long.
"This referendum is an opportunity for all of us to say sorry to all the millions of blacks who have not been able to vote," one radio caller said. High turnout decisive
The decisive factor in the extent of the "yes" victory was the fact that the country's 1.1 million English-speaking voters turned out in large numbers to support De Klerk.
The Johannesburg Stock Exchange reacted positively to the referendum results; stock prices, which have fallen in recent weeks, moved upward yesterday.
Trading in the South African rand, the clearest barometer of foreign investor interest, also accelerated after reaching a two-year low last week.
The two-thirds pro-reform vote is likely to quicken progress toward a negotiated settlement at CODESA and weaken the ability of the right wing to block a new deal. New authority
"It gives CODESA a new authority," says a Western diplomat. "For the first time the negotiating process has been explicitly underwritten by a decisive majority of white voters."
It could also aggravate deep divisions within the Conservative Party between members who support negotiations and those who want to mount a nationwide resistance campaign to force a white general election.
"The right wing must now choose between partition and participation," says Wim Booyse, a Pretoria investment analyst.
"Once they have resolved this they will have to find a face-saving device to enter the negotiating process," he says.
The size of the extreme right-wing forces that would opt for violent resistance would then be calculable, Mr. Booyse adds.
Some analysts believe that the Conservatives will eventually abandon their insistence on a sovereign white state and opt for minority guarantees in a federal system that would enable regional states a maximum degree of autonomy.
National Party Secretary-General Stoffel van der Merwe said yesterday that he hoped the Conservatives would join the negotiating process.
But Conservative legislator Pieter Mulder insisted that the final solution would need to accommodate the partition option.
"If one or other side tries to force its solution on the rest of South Africa, it will not work," Dr. Mulder said.
Professor Frost agrees that the Conservatives would have to be included in the constitutional reform process to ensure stability. Interim agreement close
The ruling National Party and the ANC are close to agreement on powersharing in an interim government. Elections would follow for a constituent assembly that would draw up a democratic constitution.
Political scientists predict that an interim government could be in place within four months and an elected multiracial constituent assembly by early next year.
The voting results indicate that whites voted closely on party lines: Those voters who supported the ruling National Party and the liberal Democratic Party in the 1989 general election voted "yes"; those who supported the right-wing Conservative Party in 1989 voted "no."
The substantial gains made by the Conservative Party in by-elections since 1989 were wiped out.