With the future of white-minority rule on the line, white South Africans converged on voting booths Tuesday in numbers never before seen here to deliver a final verdict on negotiations with the black majority.
"It's unbelievable," said Philip Nel, a harried polling officer in Johannesburg's northern suburbs, where voting lines stretched out the door and down the sidewalk. "This is the biggest turnout I've ever seen--and I've been doing this since 1958."
Thomas Stinton, a 68-year-old retired salesman, turned up early to vote yes in Johannesburg, "because I would never forgive myself if I didn't vote today. It would have haunted me for the rest of my life. Every time I saw a black, I'd have felt guilty inside."
But Driene du Plooy, a 43-year-old bank clerk in Kempton Park, said she voted no because of the rising crime rate and her fear that a black-controlled government, even with built-in protection for whites, would lead the country to ruin.
"We who grew up on the farms know how you must work with the blacks," she said. "They're the kind of people you've got to keep your finger on. You can't put them in charge."
As she spoke, though, a young white woman walking past shouted to her: "There's no turning back on reform!"
Louis Visser, a 50-year-old flying instructor in Pretoria, explained his no vote this way: "If it boils down to one-man, one-vote in this country, then the white man is out for good."
Although the campaign had been rocked by right-wing attacks on government officials, the voting Tuesday was relatively peaceful. A few isolated arguments were reported. Police also ushered away from one polling place about 10 men from the neo-Nazi Afrikaner Resistance Movement who had placed tires around their necks to remind voters of the grisly "necklace" deaths that characterized township violence during the 1980s.
In the country's black townships, where more than 250 people have died since the campaign began, police reported four deaths Tuesday. Black leaders have attributed much of the increase in black-on-black violence to attempts to undermine the negotiating process.
Political analysts said the large turnout would likely favor the yes forces, because many of those who had intended to stay away from the polls support reform but also are unhappy with many of the government's other policies. If those voters cast ballots, the analysts said, they would probably vote yes.
Interviews with voters and party leaders across the country suggested that, as expected, whites in the conservative, rural heartland were voting no in large numbers, while strong yes majorities were being recorded in Johannesburg, Cape Town and other major cities. In Pretoria, the seat of government, the vote was running about 50-50, analysts said.
As the voting ended at 9 p.m. (11 a.m. PST), officials estimated a 70% to 80% turnout. Ballot boxes were sealed overnight, and counting was beginning early today, with the results expected by midday. About 3.3 million whites--60% of them Afrikaners, or descendants of the first European settlers of South Africa--were eligible to vote.
Across the country, expressionless black South Africans watched whites trek to the polling stations in schools and town halls where the future of blacks was being decided, as it has been for 44 years.
The African National Congress, the main black opposition group, has criticized South African President Frederik W. de Klerk for staging a whites-only referendum, arguing that all South Africans should be able to decide such an important matter. Nevertheless, the ANC called on its white members to vote yes so that negotiations with the government could continue.
De Klerk voted near his Pretoria residence before leaving for Cape Town, where Parliament reconvenes today. Asked how he voted, he replied: "You can bank on it, I voted yes. I am confident."
His chief opponent, Andries Treurnicht of the right-wing Conservative Party, cast his vote in his hometown in the Transvaal province, and he predicted victory for the forces against reform.
De Klerk and his supporters hammered away during the three-week campaign on the theme that the country would slide into chaos if voters turned down his referendum. The president, who has promised to resign if the referendum is defeated, said a no vote would result in township uprisings, renewed international sanctions and sports boycotts--and an end to foreign investment.
Right-wing leaders countered that sanctions against South Africa would be unlikely; they predicted that De Klerk's reforms would lead to a government run by the ANC and its allies in the South African Communist Party. If that happened, they said, a violent white uprising would be inevitable.
"Either way you look at it, yes or no, there's going to be trouble in this country," predicted Billy Browne, a 33-year-old unemployed salesman who voted no.
Henoch Kruger, a bank official in Johannesburg, was undecided until the moment he got his ballot, caught between a feeling that De Klerk is moving too quickly toward an agreement with the black majority and concerns about the militancy of the right wing.
"It really is a choice between danger and disaster," said Kruger, a father of two. "I think it's one of the most difficult decisions I've ever had to make in my life."
In the end, Kruger voted yes--with reservations. "I think I've made the right decision," he said. "But I just hope it's a close vote, so that people will go back and look at the reform process again."