JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Seldom does the fate of a nation ride on a single question, but that is the case in South Africa now.
The question, announced by President Frederik W. de Klerk yesterday, will be put to South Africa's whites in a referendum March 17 that will decide the nation's path.
The answer could point to continued negotiations with the country's black majority on a new constitution and a new political era. Or it could lead to the fall of Mr. de Klerk's government, the end of constitutional negotiations and possibly an era of chaos and renewed international isolation.
"I sincerely believe this referendum brings us to a momentous moment in the history of our country," Mr. de Klerk said in a nationally televised address from his office in Cape Town.
The question was framed by the president and his Cabinet ministers at an urgent weekend meeting. Mr. de Klerk said a positive answer would give him the mandate he needs and should remove the doubts about his leadership planted by a Conservative Party victory in a special election last week.
Following their triumph in the Potchefstroom election, which had been widely viewed as a barometer of white sentiment, Conservative Party leaders charged that Mr. de Klerk's National Party no longer spoke for whites. They called for a end to constitutional negotiations and for the establishment of an all-white state.
Mr. de Klerk responded by saying he would call the referendum and saying his government would resign if he doesn't win.
"I have to know that those who gave me a mandate in the first place are still standing by me and are authorizing me anew to go ahead," he said in his address yesterday.
He said it would be the last whites-only test for constitutional reform in South Africa, where the 5 million whites vote and the nearly 30 million blacks don't.
Zach de Beer, leader of the liberal Democratic Party, predicted that a loss for Mr. de Klerk would result in "dreadful conflict," with angry blacks responding to a white vote against democratic reforms.
"There would almost certainly be a civil war," said Mr. de Beer, who added that his party would support the president fully in the referendum.
It was unclear if the Conservative Party would wage a fight or decide to boycott the poll, which is expected to be close. Conservative leader Andries Treurnicht has said Mr. de Klerk should call a general election for a new government rather than a referendum. Mr. Treurnicht was closeted with his advisers after the president's announcement.
The African National Congress, the government's main negotiating partner in the constitutional talks, said it would respond after its leaders had a chance to meet.
But ANC General Secretary Cyril Ramaphosa said the organization would not be pleased with a Conservative victory, telling reporters, "If the CP wins, then South Africa would be thrown back into a different time zone and the ANC would have to reconsider its strategic objectives."
Mr. Ramaphosa called the referendum a "sideshow" and said the ANC insisted that the vote not be allowed to delay the constitutional talks which began in December and which remain the "main show" in South African politics.
Analysts say the referendum is a brilliant strategy, given the position in which Mr. de Klerk found himself after two years of dragging white South Africans toward an uncertain future in which blacks would ultimately run the country.
It shifted the focus from the loss in Potchefstroom to the question of what whites throughout the nation want -- or fear -- the most. Mr. de Klerk said his path is uncharted but is the only route to peace and prosperity for South Africa since the apartheid route had clearly failed.