De Klerk campaigns U.S.-style President urges voters to support proposed reforms

March 04, 1992|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Staff Writer

Kempton Park, South Africa -- South Africa's President F. W. de Klerk was out campaigning in the American fashion yesterday, although the issue at stake is one that most civilized countries decided for themselves decades ago.

Here, it was a day for the faithful and firm of heart.

A half-dozen white-haired men and women stood at the entrance of the all-white Alan Park Home for the Aged, strong in the belief that Mr. de Klerk would not lead them astray.

Holding signs that said "Vote Yes" and wearing buttons that said "I love F. W.," they cheered Mr. de Klerk as his big gray BMW whisked into the old-age home yesterday on an American-style whistle-stop campaign swing.

"I trust him completely," said Kotie van Heerden, a 72-year-old widow with a kindly face. "I like the way he leads us. Being an elderly person you've got to have something to believe in."

Mrs. van Heerden and the rest of the greeting party pledged to vote for Mr. de Klerk on March 17 in a crucial referendum set to determine whether the nation's 3 million white voters support his political reforms.

If successful, the reforms will bring major changes, which are vehemently opposed by the right-wing, pro-apartheid Conservative Party, Mr. de Klerk's main white opposition. But the idea of political rights for the country's black majority did not frighten the president's supporters at the Alan Park Home.

"When you've lived as long as we have and you look back, you see a lot of changes," Mrs. van Heerden told reporters accompanying Mr. de Klerk on a whirlwind tour of working-class suburbs around Johannesburg.

With South Africa's future riding in the balance, Mr. de Klerk has launched a feverish two-week campaign aimed at winning a big victory and receiving a mandate from whites to continue with negotiations for a new nonracist constitution.

He is going to schools, soup kitchens, factories and town meetings in every part of the country, pressing the flesh and kissing every baby in sight. After leaving the old-age home, where he spoke to two groups of senior citizens, he visited poor whites at a soup kitchen, factory workers at an explosives-manufacturing plant, university students, businessmen, firemen, and a meeting of city councillors.

It is an uncommon campaign in South Africa, where Mr. de Klerk's National Party has run the country virtually unchallenged since 1948. Critics say they have taken their constituency for granted for so long that they showed little evidence of knowing how to fight a real campaign.

But the March 17 referendum is so vital to the future that Mr. de Klerk has pulled out all the stops. He is telling audiences all over the country that he needs a landslide victory to prove he has a mandate from white voters, and to show the world that South Africa remains committed to the course that has brought the lifting of painful sanctions.

"This is not a suicide plan. This is a survival plan," he told about a dozen whites at the Jan Hofmeyr Soup Kitchen in a poor white section of Johannesburg.

Reversing course now and trying to return to the days of apartheid would lead to chaos and isolation, he said, repeating a line that has become the main theme of his campaign.

In addition to the campaign by Mr. de Klerk and his top Cabinet ministers, the National Party has taken out full page ads in all major newspapers asking voters to support the president in the referendum.

They say the choice is basically between Mr. de Klerk and chaos, which the Conservative Party plan represents.

In a battle of the bogymen, the Conservative Party counters that Mr. de Klerk's negotiations will lead to "black domination" and communism.

Most white South Africans are anxious and concerned about what will happen to them under a black majority government in a new South Africa. But many seem to trust that Mr. de Klerk will get a good enough deal to protect the white minority.

"He has done wonderful things for the country," said Madelaine Robbertse, a 19-year-old accounting student at white Rand Afrikaans University in Johannesburg, as she waited for the president to arrive for a brief visit to the campus.

"If we vote 'no' there will be chaos in the country," she said, as three friends -- all white -- nodded in agreement.

Several hundred students waited for Mr. de Klerk, most wearing the "I love F.W." buttons that were passed out at every campaign stop.

Only one person expressed opposition. A young man in a T-shirt pushed forward as the president arrived and shouted, "F.W., the curse of God is on you and your government."

He was quickly pushed aside by a surge of the faithful, who wished the president well and pledged their support.

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