JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — 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 voters in a nationwide referendum.
He suggested that, if he wins, it will be the last referendum of white voters only in the country.
He announced that on March 17, whites will 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, will continue apace, De Klerk said. If they vote no, he said, he and his government will 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, and its spokesmen declined 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 are expected to decide soon whether to campaign for a no vote or to boycott the referendum.
De Klerk said his referendum question is 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. "It would be meaningless if we win the referendum, if we succeed in attaining in negotiation exactly what we say we are going to negotiate, to once again go back and say you must re-authorize it," he said.
But he added that a second referendum might be necessary, if the final, negotiated version of the constitution differs substantially from what the government has promised white constituents. "This referendum brings us to a momentous moment in the history of our country," De Klerk said. "The sword of Damocles will hopefully be removed. I'm sure we will win."
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 a significant say in a powerful second house.
The government is already negotiating with the ANC and other major political groups, and substantial progress has been reported. The negotiations, called the Convention for a Democratic South Africa, will continue throughout the referendum campaign.
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.
The Conservative plan essentially is a return to the scheme introduced by De Klerk's National Party predecessors, who created nine black homelands on unproductive land within the borders of South Africa and tried, without success, to deny blacks the right to South African citizenship. Under that system, blacks needed special permission to live near white cities.
Four of those homelands have been nominally independent for more than a decade; the remaining five are self-governing regions.
De Klerk's government has admitted the failure of the homeland policy. Passbooks, once required for blacks working in white areas, were abolished in the mid-1980s. And De Klerk has removed the legal pillars of apartheid that created racially segregated neighborhoods, prevented blacks from purchasing land in 87% of the country and registered all South Africans by race at birth.
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 will urge a yes vote in the referendum, even though his party has sharp differences with the government over the shape of a new constitution.