A majority of those who streamed into the office of the South African Consulate General on Wednesday to cast absentee ballots on reforms in their country predicted they were witnessing the last whites-only voting their government would ever sponsor.
And many who voted long-distance in Beverly Hills predicted that most South African citizens living or traveling in the United States approve of President Frederik W. de Klerk's efforts to dismantle apartheid.
They noted, however, that it is an irony that only whites can vote on whether to allow blacks to participate fully in governing South Africa, including electing its leaders.
"The majority (of South Africans) are still disenfranchised," said Anthony Gordon, who came to the United States to study law at Harvard and who remained here without giving up citizenship in his homeland. "It's a referendum, but it's a selective referendum."
Gordon, however, maintained that the referendum was no less important, because it would give De Klerk the mandate from whites that he needs to proceed with confidence.
The absentee voting for the March 17 referendum began Wednesday in South African embassies and consulates around the world. It is being encouraged by the De Klerk government to ensure that the wishes of as many whites as possible are reflected, said Harry Schwarz, South Africa's ambassador to the United States, in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C.
The government, Schwarz said, is particularly concerned that 2,000 South Africans who are in Australia for international cricket games be able to vote in the referendum. Consequently, the government on Wednesday morning extended the absentee voting period from two to three days.
But many of those interviewed at the Beverly Hills consulate said they believe De Klerk realizes that South Africans who were living abroad probably left their homeland because they disapprove of apartheid.
De Klerk has vowed to resign if his policies are rejected and has predicted that the country would then slip into chaos.
At the Beverly Hills consulate, the 25 people who crowded into a small reception area at lunchtime to vote agreed there would be turmoil in their homeland if the reforms are turned down.
The alternative to reforms, said Dennis Sapires, a lawyer who left Johannesburg six years ago, "is probably civil war.
"I believe that it is important that free elections be held as soon as possible," he added as he left the makeshift balloting room, where he said he cast a vote in favor of reform. "The more quickly and smoothly this happens, the better for everybody in the country."
Before voting, he and the others had to first show a consulate worker their passport and an identity document known informally as a "book of life," because it lists a South African's personal history--including birth certificate, marriage and driver's licenses and such things as gun permits.
Some of those who did not have the required documentation said they were not permitted to vote, but were registered on a list of people who could be allowed to vote later.
As the voting took place Wednesday, Consul Wesley Johanneson, second in command at the consulate, moved about, making sure the voting was going smoothly. He, however, could not participate because he is black.
Johanneson said it was not proper for him to comment on his personal feelings about the matter.
Contacted by telephone, other black South Africans in the Los Angeles area criticized the referendum's whites-only stipulation.
"It is a racist approach to the solution," said Dr. Daniel Matemotja, a physician who arrived in the United States 12 years ago and who is a member of the anti-apartheid African National Congress.
No matter what happens in the referendum, Matemotja said, "we are going to be free."