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S. Africa's Right Wing Flounders

But low morale, disarray on the right does not ensure De Klerk a mandate in referendum

SOUTH Africa's white right wing, caught off-guard by the snap whites-only referendum to be held March 17, is floundering in its campaign for a "no" vote and appears increasingly divided and demoralized.

This was reflected by a poor turnout and low-key speeches at a conservative rally here over the weekend, the low morale of farmers in the drought-stricken western Transvaal, and the confusion over policy in the leadership of the Conservative Party.

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President Frederik de Klerk called for the referendum to test white support for democratic reforms after the Conservative Party defeated the National Party in the recent Potchefstroom parliamentary by-election.

But the right wing received an unexpected boost when former President Pieter Botha called for a "no" vote on the grounds that the negotiating forum, the Convention for a Democratic South Africa, had developed into a forum for the phased capitulation of whites. President De Klerk rejected his predecessor's intervention and said it was motivated by "personal resentment."

In Pretoria, a bastion of Afrikaner conservatism, less than 4,000 people turned out Saturday for what was billed as the city's main referendum rally.

The meeting brought together Conservative Party leader Andries Treurnicht, Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB) leader Eugene Terre Blanche, and Jaap Marais, head of the ultra-right Herstigte Nasionale Party (Reconstituted National Party), in a rare display of right-wing political unity.

All three speakers said a "yes" vote would lead to communist domination and the end of Christianity in South Africa. They portrayed De Klerk as a traitor who was signing away the rights of his people and handing the country over to black communists.

"The referendum is not one between the Conservative Party and the National Party," Mr. Terre Blanche thundered. "It is a referendum between God and the communists."

Scores of blacks peered over the railing surrounding the city's central Church Square, apparently unafraid of the khaki uniforms, swastika-like emblems, and racist posters on display.

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Dr. Treurnicht urged right wingers not to lose their will to win and said that the referendum presented them with their greatest challenge to date.

"We don't want to be free only until March 17, but also on March 18, and for generations to come," Treurnicht said.

Terre Blanche, with his fiery style of oratory, insisted the real issue was that farmers would be threatened by an African National Congress government.

"Referendum or no referendum this is our land and we will see that we keep it," he said. Divided leadership

The Conservative Party, the parliamentary opposition from which a plethora of extra-parliamentary and paramilitary groups take their cue, has been sending conflicting signals about its future policy to white voters over the past two weeks.

Some party officials have promised that the party would not return to apartheid policies if they won a general election. Others insist that they would bring back laws to restrict the movement of black people and enforce segregated residential living.

Koos van der Merwe, a Conservative legislator who heads the party's moderate wing, has gone so far as to suggest that the party's policy of a separate homeland for the 3 million mixed-race "colored" people should be scrapped and they should be integrated into the ranks of the Afrikaners.

Mr. van der Merwe has urged the party to enter interracial negotiations and promote its cause by promising to strike a harder bargain for whites than the National Party would.

In the drought-stricken corn-belt of the western Transvaal, where up to 80 percent of farmers are facing bankruptcy, the referendum has taken a back seat.

"I haven't decided which way I will vote in the referendum," says Abraham van Zyl, a farmer near the western Transvaal town of Delareyville whose family is receiving emergency food aid.

"If I vote 'no' there will be trouble and if I vote 'yes' there will also be trouble," he told the Monitor. "Politics is not very important here these days. The most important thing is to survive."

"My worry is that if the blacks take over the land there will be no food for anyone," he says. No turning back

The Reverend Francois Sieberhagen, minister at Delareyville's Dutch Reformed Church, says people appeared to be losing interest in politics and the referendum was not a major topic of conversation.

"Since last year, people just don't want to talk politics," he says. "People think things have gone too far and there is not much they can do about it."

But the increasing disarray in the ranks of the right wing is not being interpreted as evidence that De Klerk will achieve the landslide "yes" vote he needs to continue negotiations aimed at transforming the country into a nonracial democracy.

Most political scientists predict that De Klerk will win the referendum with between 54 percent and 65 percent of the vote. But while the right wing is in disarray, there are still signs that widespread apathy, disillusionment, and confusion among white voters in the middle might make the outcome even closer.

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