More than two-thirds of the white electorate of South Africa looked over the abyss and decided with eyes wide open to back away from it, into an uncharted future. It was a vote to have a majority, black-dominated regime in a few years' time, and against a racial war and national isolation now.
The 68.7 percent support for President F. W. de Klerk's policy of negotiating a sharing of power, on a turnout of 85.5 percent of the eligible white electorate, endorses the scrapping of apartheid laws. It provides a mandate to the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA), a multi-racial constitution-writing body that has supplanted the parliament as the true legislature of the country.
The timing of the referendum, which President de Klerk made a mandate as well on his continuing in office, highlights his skill in understanding the South African white electorate. His negotiations with the African National Congress and its leader Nelson Mandela were coming under fire. There was backlash against the erosion of apartheid. The Conservative Party opposition had stunned him with two victories in special elections for parliament. His abrupt call for a plebiscite forced white voters to consider where the country is going.
The alternative would be the racial civil war that, however declared, never quite broke out. It would repudiate the aspirations of the black majority and other non-whites, offering them no alternative to violence. Had the white minority voted to repudiate majority rights forever, few people in or out of South Africa would have considered the referendum valid. That would have isolated South Africa in world opinion and subjected it to sanctions to a greater degree than ever.
All this, the white electorate could see. Despite the Conservative siren call to what some consider the good old days, there was no alternative to a "yes" vote that would give whites peace in their own country. World opinion, of which the divestment movement in America has been a constructive part, played a role in this thinking.
Since the vote went the right way, Nelson Mandela and others in CODESA reacted positively, world opinion was impressed and the movement to end economic sanctions grew overnight in Europe. Mr. de Klerk, the Gorbachev of South African apartheid, received the mandate he needed to continue its dismantling and to prepare a new constitution before the present parliamentary terms expire in 1994.
Called in haste, the last all-white national election voted an end to all-white national elections. That allows South Africans to forget about fighting CODESA, and to let that group concentrate on drafting a truly equitable constitution.