WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Don't be surprised if President F. W. de Klerk wins the March 17 referendum among white South Africans, and wins it by a landslide. It would be a reward for political sleight of hand as much as for courage and would mark a watershed in that country's politics.
First, for all but the most hard-bitten white extremists, there really isn't much choice.
The question, to which 3 million-plus voters will be asked to vote yes or no, seems simple, even mundane: ''Do you support continuation of the reform process which the state president began on 2nd February 1990, and which is aimed at a new constitution through negotiation?''
Mundane it may be, but it is an exquisite piece of political craftsmanship, a fusion, really, of two questions: Do you support Mr. De Klerk? and Do you support the abolishment of apartheid?
Individually, either question might draw a welter of negative votes. But joined together, they make refusal an act of national suicide, or at best a declaration of civil war.
If that sounds melodramatic, think of the reality that each white voter will be facing when he or she steps up to the polling booth with pencil in hand on voting day.
''Yes'' is handicapped by a forbidding uncertainty. But white South Africans have lived enough of it in the last two years to know that it is bittersweet; laced with high doses of crime and unemployment, political turbulence, economic hardship and an eventual transfer of power to an as-yet-undefined black majority. But the mail will probably still be delivered, the garbage collected, choice foods will continue to fill the stores and the long evenings will provide leisure time aplenty.
''No'' would bring an immediate crisis. Mr. De Klerk would have to carry out his promise to resign. The resultant election would bring civil turmoil, repression and bloodshed on a scale yet unseen in that already strife-torn nation. Unless there was a military takeover, Andries Treurnicht's Conservative Party would be sure to win. Sanctions and diplomatic isolation would return, far more virulently than before. The mail, the garbage, the supermarkets and the leisure would certainly not be guaranteed.
A staunch Treurnicht-supporter admitted to me during another white election a few years ago that ''the Conservative Party is really the same as the Nationalists [of Mr. De Klerk] They're just 10 years behind.''
Such fatalism, I believe, has permeated most white South Africans, and is why ultimately Mr. De Klerk will win. It's not that the De Klerk road is wildly popular among whites; it's because the Conservative Party doesn't offer them an alternative except apartheid, a recipe that has already brought confrontation and civil war.
What, then, of the by-election in Potchefstroom that precipitated the referendum; the one in which the Conservative Party won a once-safe National Party seat with an 11-percent swing to the right? Didn't Mr. De Klerk himself say before the poll that this would be a true reflection of national white opinion?
Yes he did, and whatever his reason for saying so, it was nonsense. Surely it was not said out of ignorance, because both Mr. De Klerk and his wife, Marike, studied there. Could he have deliberately set up the Conservatives for a fall? That is too devious and risky to be credible. But the truth may be somewhere between the two extremes.
A sleepy little university and farming town on the western fringe of Johannesburg's ultra-conservative, blue-collar mining belt, Potchefstroom reflects a peculiar segment of Afrikaner life. But it is far from being a ''microcosm of white South African society,'' as Mr. De Klerk described it. It has few of the English-speaking moderates who have in the last five years supplanted Afrikaners as the backbone of the National Party. In fact, the Conservatives ousted the Nationalists from control of the city council in local elections in October 1988.
Much has been made of the fact that Potchefstroom was a safe parliamentary seat for the Nationalists for more than 40 years. But then there was no viable right-wing opposition to the National Party until 1981, when Mr. Treurnicht and his supporters broke away and formed the Conservative Party. Until then, the Nationalists were the right.
While the Conservative Party gained on the Nationalists in most rural and blue-collar areas during the 1980s, the government was able to hold onto Potchefstroom only because the incumbent, Louis le Grange, the police minister who later became the speaker of parliament, was almost as conservative as his Conservative Party rivals. His death brought about the by-election, and his successor was a virtual unknown.
Another factor to disqualify Potchefstroom as a bellwether of the looming referendum is simply the difference implicit in the two kinds of polls.