ON the surface, little has changed in this remote northern farming town over the past four years despite the dismantling of statutory racial discrimination and the social ferment in major cities like Johannesburg, 200 miles away.
Whites still wield economic and political power and blacks, facing unemployment exceeding 60 percent, are wary of displaying their political allegiances for fear of losing their jobs.
But talk with people here, and it becomes immediately apparent that the monumental shifts taking place at the national level have reached even this stronghold of white conservatism in the Western Transvaal.
Just behind the town's major supermarket lies one of the two busiest venues in Zeerust, the local office of the African National Congress (ANC). The other center of activity is the department of Home Affairs, where a continual stream of prospective black voters seeks identity documents that will entitle them to participate in next April's elections.
Blacks are mobilizing for victory at the ballot box, and conservative whites are resigning themselves to the inevitable.
``I have accepted the changes,'' says Friedrich Breytenbach, a farmer and chairman of the town council's management committee. ``You cannot stop the process now.''
Political leaders on both sides of the color line are trying to grapple with the huge problems of development in the black townships in awkward cooperation.
Most of the inhabitants of the black township of Ikageleng, adjoining the town, come from the impoverished Bophuthatswana homeland - creation of the system of grand apartheid that envisaged a constellation of independent black states as labor pools to serve ``white'' South Africa.
But whites have lost the confidence they had even two years ago and have begun to fear for the future as the countdown to the country's first nonracial ballot on April 27 gets underway.
``The turning-point for me was when whites voted with a two-thirds majority in favor of continuing with reform,'' says Mr. Breytenbach, referring to the whites-only referendum in March 1992 that gave President Frederik de Klerk's reforms a 70 percent ``yes'' vote.
White farmers, gripped by years of drought and dependent on government loans and subsidies, fear that an ANC-dominated government will call in their loans and expropriate their land at below-market prices for the resettlement of blacks.
ANC President Nelson Mandela has given repeated assurances that landowners have no fear under an ANC government. But radical forces to the left of the ANC have already begun lobbying for what many regard as an inevitable redistribution of land, as is currently taking place in Zimbabwe on the basis of state-determined compensation.
The transition-to-democracy package approved by multiparty negotiators last week included a historic provision in the bill of rights, which enshrines the principle of restitution for those deprived of their land by state policies since 1913. This is likely to intensify the fear of farmers.
Disillusioned with right-wing leaders, Breytenbach quit the Conservative Party and says he will not vote in the forthcoming election because their is no party that represents his views.
``My only solution now for survival as part of the Boerevolk [Afrikaner people] is for me and my family to migrate to an area where we [Afrikaners] can form a majority,'' he said.
``You first have to form a majority before you can negotiate,'' he said, dismissing last-ditch efforts by right-wing leaders to secure a homeland in the remaining weeks before the transition to democracy is finalized.
Breytenbach has already bought himself a stand in the distant west coast fishing village of Lamberts Bay and a farm at Clanwilliam in the hope that this will become an area in which Afrikaners will eventually form the majority.
Meanwhile, in a feverishly busy ANC office, sparsely furnished but liberally bedecked with the posters and revolutionary slogans from the liberation era, Patrick Mafore explains that the black inhabitants of Zeerust need whites to stay and help rebuild a nonracial society.
``The ANC will not push white people out of their businesses and off their farms,'' says Mr. Mafore, chairman of the ANC-aligned civic association in Ikageleng and deputy chairman of the local ANC branch.
``If we kicked them out we would be kicking out the very people who provide the jobs and services and who produce the food for our people to eat,'' Mafore says. ``But whites must be in a position to accept the changes. They can contribute by training and employing our people so that they can club together and build a new country.''
Mafore believes that white taxpayers, after decades of preferential treatment, should be prepared to contribute to the upgrading of the disadvantaged black township of Ikageleng.
Zeerust's white town council and the black civic have sharp differences over the means for integrating local government into a single body which would serve the whole community and ensure a more rapid pace of development in the black township.
The white council wants to integrate the two bodies on the bases of an existing ward system that ensures that whites, who number only 5,000 to 6,000, would retain a majority despite the fact that the black population is nearly twice the size. The black civic leaders, aligned to the ANC, want a ``one person, one vote'' system on the basis of proportional representation.