JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — White South Africa's problem, as voter Peter Gray sees it, is that the Conservative Party would create "economic disaster" by antagonizing the world, and the liberal Democratic Party would allow black revolutionaries to trample over the white minority.
What the country needs is "something middle of the road but more liberal-minded" than in the past, the banker believes.
That's why Gray, and many whites like him, will probably be voting, somewhat reluctantly, for the National Party in South Africa's Sept. 6 parliamentary elections, one of the most important in 41 years of apartheid and Nationalist rule.
"I want South Africa to speed up (apartheid) reform," Gray said recently as he and his wife waited in a primary school gymnasium in Johannesburg's northern suburbs to hear President Frederik W. de Klerk address a political meeting.
"But we South Africans are scared by what we've seen happen to whites in the rest of Africa," Gray added. "We're in a minority, and we would need protection. How they're going to do that is the question."
In two weeks, 5.5 million whites, Indians and mixed-raced Coloreds will select racially segregated chambers of Parliament while the country's 26 million disfranchised blacks watch from the sidelines.
De Klerk's National Party is all but guaranteed a majority in the controlling white chamber, despite stiff challenges from the Conservatives on the right and the Democrats on the left. But its margin of victory, and the enthusiasm of its support, may be at the lowest level in its history.
Many white voters remain skeptical about the Nationalists' promises of "new action" and dialogue with black leaders. Even a few government supporters have complained that the campaign lacks the ideological fire of days gone by.
In the ward represented by the retiring leader of liberal white politics, Helen Suzman, De Klerk was heckled relentlessly in one of his first outings since being sworn in as state president following this month's sudden, ignominious resignation of Pieter W. Botha, 73.
Above the door to the Houghton Primary School, a National Party campaign poster read: "Reject Racism." But a cluster of hand-lettered signs near it suggested how difficult it is to change attitudes among white South Africans. Above the sign reading "Firearms must be handed in at the lobby" was another put up just for the event: "Right of admission reserved."
Inside, an all-white audience had filled all 400 plastic chairs and standing space, spilling into the lobby, where a Democratic Party heckler and a De Klerk supporter almost came to blows.
The battle in this ward is between the National Party's Dr. Shlomo Peer, a retired businessman and Jewish immigrant, and the Democratic Party's Tony Leon, a charismatic young Johannesburg City Council politician. Not surprisingly, the two men are getting competing signals from voters.
"People are frightened of the left," Peer said in an interview. "They are telling me they want economic and political security."
But Leon says he has tapped "a real and conspicuous feeling that the National Party just hasn't delivered." Leon notes, for example, that the economy has deteriorated sharply, with inflation running at more than 15%, home loan rates of 20% and a steady weakening in the value of the South African rand.
For those and other reasons, white support for the National Party is softening for the first time in four decades, according to Steven Friedman of the South African Institute of Race Relations.
"It is no longer an act of betrayal for many whites to vote against the ruling party," Friedman wrote recently. "The Nats are increasingly having to win white support rather than take it for granted."
The National Party currently holds 120 of the 166 seats in the white chamber of Parliament, the Conservatives 22 seats and the Democrats 19. Opinion surveys last month indicated that the National Party is losing votes to both the left and right, and political analysts think the Conservatives could pick up as many as 20 seats and the Democrats could add a dozen or more. That would saddle the government with its largest white opposition in years.
To lure undecided voters from opposite ends of the political spectrum, De Klerk has been widening his party's hold on the mainstream. The status quo in South Africa will have to change, he tells his audiences. But not too quickly, he adds.
The National Party vows to maintain racially segregated residential areas, schools and hospitals, but it also says it wants to change the constitution to share political power with blacks and eventually rule the country by consensus, rather than one-person, one-vote.
On the right, the Conservative Party platform calls for a return to 1960s-style apartheid and it advocates dividing South Africa into separate geographic regions by race. In the "white state," for example, blacks could work but their activities would be monitored, and whites would govern.