JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — Johannesburg, South Africa. -- In his 29 months in office, President F.W. de Klerk has been a bold gambler by the standards of white South Africans.
Considered a cautious right-winger while serving under previous presidents, he surprised South Africa by moving swiftly after his election in 1989 to enact political reforms and begin negotiations with the black majority.
For black South Africans, his reforms were so long overdue they were hardly worth praising. But for the country's 5 million whites they represented a fundamental and frightening shift for which many were unprepared -- as the latest crisis in South African politics demonstrates.
Virtually overnight, Mr. de Klerk was releasing from prison men whom whites, for decades, had thought of as terrorists. He was allowing back into the country people who had been repeatedly labeled dangerous communists. And, worst of all from the perspective of many whites, Mr. de Klerk, who promised in 1989 that he would never talk with terrorists, was suddenly negotiating with the African National Congress -- which had been banned for almost three decades as a terrorist group.
Throughout this process, the South African president has been attacked by blacks for not moving fast enough, and attacked by right-wing whites for moving too fast. Liberal whites criticized Mr. de Klerk for what they saw as his failure to explain to his constituency why he suddenly was leading them away from apartheid policies he embraced in the past.
Many of those whites responded by deserting Mr. de Klerk's National Party, which lost a series of elections for local town councils and parliamentary seats.
The latest and most embarrassing defeat came this month in a special election for a parliamentary seat in the conservative town of Potchefstroom, which added new impetus to a campaign by the right-wing Conservative Party against Mr. de Klerk and against reform.
As a result of the Potchefstroom defeat, Mr. de Klerk has embarked on his boldest gamble yet -- a whites-only referendum in the midst of his country's political transformation. Convinced that he must seize back the momentum in order for the reform process to work, he announced that white voters would be given a chance to say emphatically on March 17 whether they support the reform process and want it to go on.
The referendum carries big risks for both Mr. de Klerk and the reform process, but Mr. de Klerk is not a reckless man. Some political analysts and commentators are calling him a brilliant strategist for taking a step that could at once neutralize right-wing whites and strengthen his hand in negotiations with blacks.
"Mr. de Klerk is a master of nimble political footwork," said David Welsh, a political scientist at the University of Cape Town. "If he can finesse the Conservative Party on this one, it gets them off his back."
Of course, he needs to win to achieve that, and there is a fast-growing body of opinion that he will walk away with a sizable victory. A poll in The Star, South Africa's largest circulation newspaper, published just over a week ago said that if the referendum were held that day Mr. de Klerk would win it 3-to-1. That compares to earlier assessments by various analysts that the referendum was either too close to call or just slightly in Mr. de Klerk's favor.
There are several reasons for the shift. Newspaper and television commentators have been almost unanimous in their predictions of gloom and doom if Mr. de Klerk should lose the referendum. Businessmen, scared to death of a new round of sanctions, raised 1 million rands ($400,000) in two days for an advertising campaign to support Mr. de Klerk's initiative. And foreign governments began immediately making it clear that they would do exactly what the businessmen fear -- impose new sanctions and isolate South Africa once again if whites choose to reverse course now.
As the consequences of a Conservative victory sink in, the chances of a resounding de Klerk victory seem to increase. Now, most informed South Africans are predicting a clear victory for Mr. de Klerk -- perhaps with more than 60 percent of the vote.
"Even people who are conservative minded are facing reality," said Wim Booyse, a political scientist who does risk analyses for corporations thinking about investing in South Africa. "People are now faced with the reality of re-isolation, economic sanctions, sports boycotts, the whole works."
Given that choice, he said they know that they can't turn back now and try to re-introduce apartheid, even under the new name the Conservative Party is using -- self-determination.
But some whites are truly unhappy because they feel they've been rooked. Conservative Party leaders repeat daily the charge that Mr. de Klerk never told whites what he would be doing.
"I would like to vote 'yes' on the referendum," a caller to a radio talk show said last week, "but I can't trust Mr. de Klerk. He lied to us," he said, echoing the comments of other callers.