South Africa's white people have no real alternative to President F. W. de Klerk's private map to black majority rule in two years. The dismantling of apartheid cannot be undone. White abandonment of much of the country for a "white homeland" is neither tenable nor popular. The isolation that would accompany a reversal of policy would outstrip all that went before.
But it is not clear the majority of the white minority knows that. Witness the thumping defeat of Mr. de Klerk's National Party by the intransigent Conservative Party in an election to fill a vacated parliamentary seat in Potchefstroom, an Afrikaner district the National Party had held since 1948. Fear of the unknown, fear of power in the hands of a previously suppressed majority, prevailed.
The shock of the upset provoked Mr. de Klerk, who had invented his own constitutional path from white to multiracial power, to amend it. The parliament in office until 1994 has a decisive white chamber, window-dressing "colored" and Asian chambers and no black representation. An appointed Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) is drafting a new constitution. In it, the government and the African National Congress of Nelson Mandela struggle and cooperate. Mr. de Klerk's notion has been that there will never be another all-white general election, but there must be by 1994 an all-white referendum to ratify the transfer of power. Meanwhile, CODESA has replaced parliament as the center of decision.
In the fallout from Potchefstroom, Mr. de Klerk called a white referendum to approve or disapprove his course of action. If he loses, he resigns. Date and wording of the referendum are not given. This is Mr. de Klerk's bid to counter the Conservative Party claim to have supplanted him among whites. His sometime ANC allies denounce an all-white referendum as having no validity.
In their special election campaign material, the Conservatives showed Mr. de Klerk and his former enemy, Mr. Mandela, together. His referendum will force whites to consider what alternative they think they have. The choice is between Mr. de Klerk's way and chaos. Many South Africans will be holding their breath.