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South Africans to Vote on Reform

By Scott Kraft
Los Angeles Times


President Frederik W. de Klerk, facing a make-or-break test of his government's apartheid reform program, Monday unveiled the question he will put to white voter in a nationwide referendum.

He suggested that, if he wins, it would be the last referendum limited to white voters in the country.

He announced that on March 17 whites would be asked: "Do you support the continuation of the reform process, which the state president began on the second of February 1990, and which is aimed at a new constitution through negotiation?"

If they vote "yes," negotiations for a unified, multiracial South Africa, with built-in protections for whites and other minorities, would continue apace, De Klerk said. If they vote "no," he said, he and his government would resign and call for new parliamentary elections.

"I shall accept your verdict," De Klerk said in a nationally televised address from his office in Cape Town.

The main opponent of reform, the right-wing Conservative Party, was locked in high-level meetings late Monday night and its spokesmen would not comment. Conservative leaders were known to be unhappy with the wording of the referendum question, which they believe is biased in the government's favor. And they were expected to decide soon whether to campaign for a "no" vote or to boycott the referendum.

De Klerk said his referendum question was reasonable and "offers the voters a clear and unambiguous choice. I have to know that those who gave me a mandate in the first place are still standing by me and authorizing me anew to go ahead," he said.

At a news conference later, he said he would interpret a "yes" vote, even by a majority of one vote, as authority to enter into binding agreements with the African National Congress and other leaders of the black majority -- without seeking further approval from the white minority.

The referendum, the third in South Africa's history, boils down to a test of the willingness of South Africa's 3 million white voters to proceed to dismantle apartheid, the 44-year-old system of racial separation that has subjugated 28 million blacks.

De Klerk's party supports a multiracial South Africa with universal adult suffrage but with key provisions to protect whites' interests. The provisions would include: a bill of rights; separation of executive, judicial and legislative powers; and a two-chamber parliament that would give minority parties significant say in a powerful second house.

The Conservatives want to carve South Africa into separate, independent states for whites and black ethnic groups. The states would be economically interdependent but would maintain their political sovereignty. The Conservatives have boycotted the negotiating convention, refusing to talk with black leaders without a guarantee of a separate white state, something neither the government nor the ANC will endorse.

Most political analysts believe that De Klerk will win the referendum, due in part to the support of the liberal white Democratic Party. Zach de Beer, the Democrats' leader, said Monday that he and his supporters would urge a "yes" vote in the referendum, even though his party has sharp differences with the government over the shape of a new constitution.