PRETORIA, South Africa -- Emotions ran high at polling stations across South Africa yesterday as 3.3 million white voters chose between President F. W. de Klerk's reform program and attempts by his right-wing opponents to turn back to apartheid.
With the nation's voteless black majority watching from the sidelines, whites were asked to vote yes or no on a reform program that promises a new constitution under which all South Africans have equal rights.
The debate went on at the polling places even as South Africa's whites went to cast their ballots.
"If they vote no, our country will not last one month," said the Rev. Jan Botha, the minister of a fundamentalist church here.
Mr. Botha stood near the entrance of the Arcadia School, a busy polling place where Mr. de Klerk himself voted early yesterday.
On the left side of the entrance was a polished wooden coffin and a warning that Mr. de Klerk's reforms would be the death of whites. On the right were signs urging whites to "Vote yes for peace."
"Apartheid policies injured many people tremendously," the minister said in a voice loud enough to be heard by Conservative Party supporters at the booth on the right. "In the eyes of God everybody is equal. I can't claim rights for myself that I'm not prepared to let everybody else have."
Three elderly men approached from the Conservative camp. "If you're going to talk that rubbish, go to the other side," one said, gesturing to the National Party booth a few yards away.
Mr. Botha maintained that uneducated whites were voting no because they did not understand the consequences of apartheid.
"Are you calling us uneducated?" asked a young man in a T-shirt. "You're for the ANC, and look how much damage they've done," he said, referring to the African National Congress, the dominant black organization in the country.
It was a tense day as whites flooded the polling places around South Africa for the crucial referendum that would decide the nation's political course.
No incidents of violence were reported, despite the presence at some polling stations of uniformed members of the pro-apartheid, neo-Nazi Afrikaner Resistance Movement. Police were positioned at every polling place; some were outfitted in riot gear and seated atop armored cars.
Officials said voter turnout was high, which was expected to work in Mr. de Klerk's favor. The president said he was confident, and his Cabinet aides said they expected a victory of more than 55 percent. Results were scheduled to be announced today.
The voters were asked to answer a single question in the referendum: "Do you support continuation of the reform process which the president began on Feb. 2, 1990, and which is aimed at a new constitution through negotiation?"
If they answer yes, negotiations will continue between the government and the black majority on a new constitution that gives blacks the right to vote in South Africa for the first time in history. If they vote no, Mr. de Klerk says he will resign and call an election for a new government. A no vote would be a rejection of everything he has done for two years, since he legalized political opposition groups and began a process aimed at transforming the country to a democracy.
Mr. de Klerk called the referendum in response to growing claims by the right-wing Conservative Party that a majority of white voters were opposed to the reform process. Conservative leader Andries Treurnicht says the president is handing over the country to blacks and calls Mr. de Klerk a traitor to his race.
In campaign stops around the country over the past three weeks, Mr. de Klerk told voters he is trying to save South Africa from economic ruin, international isolation and internal chaos. He has received massive support from business leaders, who mounted a major advertising campaign aimed at convincing whites to vote yes.
"We all know the consequences of a retreat towards the false security of apartheid," said a front-page editorial in Business Day newspaper yesterday. "Our friends abroad will again distance themselves, the investors who see the new South Africa as a place of opportunity will think again, the banks which are again ready to lend to us will take flight."
South Africa was considered a pariah nation for years because of apartheid, and the country's economy suffered heavily as a result of economic sanctions imposed by most nations around the world.
Since Mr. de Klerk began his reform program, sanctions have been lifted by all but a few countries, cultural exchanges have been started, and South Africa's sports teams have re-entered international competition -- to the delight of fans here.
Foreign governments have made it clear that an attempt to turn back the clock to apartheid would result in a new round of sanctions and isolation.
The African National Congress has called on whites to vote for reform, although it said it is opposed to the idea of a referendum in which the white minority once again decides the fate of 30 million blacks. Many black South Africans, from political leaders to the man on the street, have warned that if whites reject the path of peaceful negotiations toward democracy the nation could be plunged into civil war.