In South Africa, A Showdown With History

South Africa's whites face a stark choice when they vote in a Mar. 17 referendum on whether to continue negotiations with the black majority on a hand-over of power. A strong "yes" would likely give new oomph to the talks, where much progress has been made. But a "no," in the opinion of many observers, would lead to both heightened violence and economic decline. "It's a very important watershed in South African history," says Chester A. Crocker, former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. Crocker believes that if the whites opt out of the negotiations now, they risk forfeiting their power "to shape their future."

President F. W. De Klerk called the referendum after his National Party suffered a humiliating defeat to the pro-apartheid Conservative Party in a parliamentary by-election Feb. 19. De Klerk was coming under increasing fire from white rightists for negotiating a transition to black rule. So he proclaimed the by-election in the Afrikaner university town of Potchefstroom as a showdown. He was confident of winning because his party had easily carried the constituency in the September, 1989, general elections.

BROADER TEST. But the Conservatives won with 56%. Now, De Klerk feels compelled to stage a broader test in March to shore up his crumbling support. "I have to settle this once and for all," he said. He argues that the Conservatives' claims to represent majority white opinion have to be squelched for talks with the African National Congress to proceed.

Political oddsmakers favor De Klerk in this high-stakes gamble, but he has lost touch with rural Afrikaners and is vulnerable to another shocker. Even with a win, De Klerk faces continued trouble from the right, which may hold out for a white homeland.

De Klerk has pledged to resign if he loses the referendum. Such a move would lead to a general-election victory by the Conservatives, who are led by Andries Treurnicht, a former Cabinet minister who broke with the National Party 10 years ago charging it was becoming too liberal. Treurnicht wants a return to the old apartheid policies. He would likely try to ban black political organizations, including the 1.3 million-member trade unions. He might also try to resegregate public facilities and send the police to expel blacks from white residential areas. Such moves would be met by fierce resistance. "If the Conservative Party wins, South Africa will be thrown back into a different time zone, and the ANC will have to reconsider its strategic objectives," warned ANC Secretary General CyrilRamaphosa.

ANC RESTRAINT. A "no" vote also would send the economy into a tailspin. European diplomats in Pretoria are warning whites of the dire implications for investment. The Bush Administration, which is offering Export-Import Bank credits and help with International Monetary Fund loans as carrots to spur the talks, would consider reimposing the economic sanctions lifted last year.

The last thing the ANC, which sees power almost in its grasp, wants is to turn back the clock. While the ANC resents the white minority's voting on the country's future, it sees itself as having a stake in bolstering its negotiating partner, De Klerk. The ANC has recently made concessions to De Klerk on such issues as the length of an interim government, minority rights, and regional autonomy.

Such points are evidence that the whites still retain considerable bargaining power. On Mar. 17, they will have to make up their minds whether it is wiser to capitalize on that clout now or to try to fight the tide of history.

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