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South Africa's life-or-death referendum

If most white South Africans are unalterably committed to the racist system of apartheid, any political accord between President F. W. de Klerk's government and the country's black majority will be virtually meaningless. That's why de Klerk can hardly avoid holding a national referendum to allow white South Africans to register their opinions of the concessions he already has made, as well as those he has vaguely promised.

De Klerk says he will resign if he loses that referendum, which is expected to be held before the end of March, but the stakes go far beyond that. A vote against de Klerk's initiative would send an unmistakable message that a majority of white South Africans are prepared to go down fighting before agreeing to grant the country's black population its political rights. That would leave blacks with little recourse but to fight for their freedom. The resulting bloodshed could be horrific.

A referendum of such historic proportions has become necessary because recent local elections have strongly suggested that a majority of white South Africans have lost confidence in de Klerk's program of reform and conciliation. The ultra-right-wing Conservative Party defeated de Klerk's ruling National Party in a special parliamentary election Wednesday. The National Party suffered a similarly embarrassing defeat only three months ago.

Those election results have emboldened the neo-Nazi groups that have been most open in opposing de Klerk's plan for a negotiated settlement that gives blacks their full political rights. Interestingly, though, a large percentage of white voters in Wednesday's election supported the Conservative Party candidate despite having publicly pledged their loyalty to the National Party. That suggests that they, like many of David Duke's supporters in the United States, are ashamed to admit their racism.

Representatives of the African National Congress and other black political groups now negotiating with de Klerk have to deal with extremist pressures of their own. If the coming national referendum does not demonstrate de Klerk's ability to bring most whites along with his vision of a post-apartheid South Africa, those seeking a peaceful transition from their country's racist past are likely to be overwhelmed by louder and more insistent voices. The coming referendum may be the last chance for the majority of white South Africans to reveal their better instincts, assuming they exist.