President Frederik W. de Klerk, in a daring challenge to his right-wing critics, announced Thursday a nationwide referendum for white voters to test support for his program to reform apartheid--and promised that his government will resign if he loses.
The balloting, which De Klerk said will be held within six weeks, may be the most important in modern South African history. A defeat for De Klerk would bring down his presidency, the two-year-old apartheid-reform program and the power-sharing talks recently launched with the black majority.
"It is time to test the claim that the National Party and I do not any more represent the views of the white voter," he told the white chamber of Parliament in Cape Town. "We must settle this question now.
"If I lose that referendum," he added, "I will resign . . . and the National Party government will resign." Those resignations would force new white elections two years before they are legally required.
The president's surprise decision came a day after a resounding defeat for his ruling National Party at the hands of the right-wing Conservative Party in a local parliamentary by-election, the third such loss in recent months.
It also followed suggestions of growing fear among whites--both on the right wing and within De Klerk's own party--who have been sheltered by the apartheid system and now face the prospect of a new constitution and a new government controlled by the black majority.
De Klerk, whose party has controlled South African politics for 44 years, has acknowledged the loss of some white supporters because of uncertainty about the future but also because of the economic recession, a devastating drought and skyrocketing crime rates.
Most political analysts said Thursday that they believe the government can win any referendum for whites only; a recent public opinion poll showed that 58% of whites support apartheid reform.
But De Klerk has suffered a steady erosion of his support to the right-wing Conservatives, who now have at least a third of the white electorate on their side and say they can win any referendum. The Conservatives, who refuse to live in a country governed by blacks and want a separate "homeland" for whites, are sure to pour substantial resources into the referendum campaign.
Although De Klerk maintains that most whites still support his reform policies, the Conservatives have accused the president of greatly exceeding his mandate from the voters who elected him in 1989. They have demanded that he call a new parliamentary election, something he is not legally obliged to do until 1993.
It was a combative De Klerk who challenged the right-wing Conservative Party on Thursday to a referendum duel. Win the referendum, he taunted Conservatives, "and you can have your election. The referendum will determine who the white voters want to represent them" in negotiations with the black majority, De Klerk said. "There it is on the table."
Later, De Klerk said he was confident, "though not overly so," of winning. He said he plans to announce a date for the referendum, as well as the wording of the ballot question, next week; he invited South Africans to submit their suggestions for the question.
"All South Africans will have their future profoundly affected by this referendum," predicted Zach de Beer, leader of the liberal Democratic Party and a key participant in talks with the black majority. He said the future of black-white negotiations in South Africa depends on De Klerk's winning.
Political analysts saw De Klerk's decision as a risky but necessary bit of brinkmanship. His mandate to negotiate the future of privileged whites with the black majority was being called into question, even as the negotiating forum, the Convention for a Democratic South Africa, was beginning to make progress. He needs to renew that mandate to justify his role as the chief spokesman for South Africa's whites.
"De Klerk has his back to the wall," said Robert Schrire, professor of African studies at the University of Cape Town. "He has to act boldly, and this referendum puts the battle on his own terms and his own terrain."
The Conservative Party accepted the challenge, and vowed to prove that De Klerk does not have a mandate to share power with blacks or grant them a vote in national affairs. "The CP will accept your challenge," party spokesman Casper Uys told De Klerk. "We have faith in the good judgment of the white man in South Africa. The Afrikaner will reject you . . . because the Afrikaner nation is not willing to commit suicide."
Spokesmen for the African National Congress, the government's chief black opponent, on Thursday reiterated the ANC's opposition to any ethnic-based elections, black or white. But it stopped short of suggesting, as it has in past white elections, that whites boycott the vote.
The ANC has acknowledged that De Klerk needs the unqualified support of his white constituents to be an effective negotiator and to keep the negotiating forum functioning as a decision-making body.
De Klerk previously had promised a white referendum to test support for any decisions on a new constitution or transitional government. That referendum remains a possibility for later this year, assuming De Klerk remains on the job.
De Klerk's decision was forced by his party's loss to the Conservatives in a by-election in Potchefstroom, a mining town west of Johannesburg that has long been a National Party stronghold. It is the same town where De Klerk got his undergraduate and law degrees in the late 1950s, and he had been considered something of a favorite son by many.
The Conservative Party seized the Potchefstroom parliamentary seat in the western Transvaal by 2,140 votes from the National Party on Wednesday, overturning the ruling party's majority of 1,583 in the 1989 general election.
Jaine Roberts, a researcher in The Times' Johannesburg bureau, contributed to this report.