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Pretoria pulls out all stops for 'yes' vote on constitution

Generosity while in the teeth of a recession. Caving in to liberal political pressure. Relaxing the guard against the international community's ''total onslaught.''

These are all signs that South African Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha is in a fight for his political life.

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And the extraordinary feature of Botha's fight: He may need the support of South Africa's English-speaking community to survive. It is the first time the Afrikaner government has been reliant on the English in this way, political analysts say.

White South Africans go to the polls Nov. 2 to accept or reject Botha's proposed constitution for the country. Like the prime minister's political track record since assuming office in 1978, the draft constitution is full of apparent contradictions. It ends exclusive white rule by bringing Coloreds (persons of mixed race descent) and Indians into the central government, albeit as junior partners. But it entrenches the exclusion from government of the black majority.

The new constitution is the result of the reform rhetoric Botha has mouthed for the past five years. Its defeat by whites could bring Botha's downfall, or at least undermine his leadership and force him into a search for a new mandate, analysts here predict.

With so much at stake, the government is campaigning for a ''yes'' vote with a fervor that equals, if not exceeds, that found in a general election. In recent weeks it has:

* Reduced the price of gas by 3 or 4 cents, even though international efforts to deprive South Africa of oil through boycotts persist.

* Backed down on introducing a quota system in South African universities to limit the admission of nonwhites to white institutions. Pressure to abandon the plan came largely from the more liberal English universities, which usually carry little clout with the Afrikaner government.

* Announced a 12 percent pay hike for South Africa's 1 million civil servants amid severe recession and continuing drought in this country.

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Prof. William Esterhuyse, a political scientist at the University of Stellenbosch, estimates that the government will need 40 percent of the English-speaking vote to carry the referendum.

''It's the first time the government has needed the English vote,'' Mr. Esterhuyse says, ''and they are beginning to reach out to the English in a very tentative way.''

The reaching out is tentative because of the deep animosity that still exists between South Africa's Afrikaners, representing close to 60 percent of the whites, and the English. The two groups fought each other in the Boer War at the turn of the century.

Botha needs the English because of sizable defections on the right within his own Afrikaner base. The new constitution precipitated the formation of the right-wing Conservative Party last year - which along with the smaller, further right Herstigte (Reconstituted) National Party could lead 30 percent of the Afrikaners to the ''no'' column in the referendum, some analysts say.

But at the same time, Botha must be careful. The English are generally perceived as holding more liberal views than the Afrikaners, and they make up the backbone of the official opposition Progressive Federal Party. Leaning too far toward the English could cost Botha Afrikaner votes.

Being wooed by the government is something of a traumatic experience for the English. Since the Nationalists came to power in 1948 the English have been more or less a liberal debating society. In some ways, they have been able to have their cake and eat it, too: enjoying their position as privileged whites while lambasting the government's policy of apartheid.

Suddenly the English are relevant in a real political sense and the community appears deeply divided over how to use its power. The Progressive Federal Party is urging a rejection of the new constitution, but its own constituency appears split down the middle on how to vote.

The one area where the English have held real power is in the economic sphere. But even there the traditional antigovernment attitude is wavering. Major business organizations have generally given Botha a pat on the back for taking a step in the right direction, however incomplete it may be in their eyes.

Even English-language publications are split, with some urging a ''yes'' vote and others a ''no'' vote.

It appears that just as Botha's plan has split the Afrikaners, so, too, it has split the English. And some analysts expect a realignment in white politics should Botha carry the referendum.

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