JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- The South African government is facing the prospect that three white men might starve themselves to death and become martyrs for the political right in its campaign to block racial reform.
A lawyer for the men, all members of a radical right-wing group known as the Orde Boerevolk, said yesterday that they were in critical condition and that he feared one of the men might die at any time.
"They are frail, they are weak, they are dehydrated," said Wim Cornelius, who visited the men at a state hospital in Pretoria where they remain under arrest for two bombings last year. One of the men has been on a hunger strike for 50 days. The others have fasted for 43 and 36 days.
"They say they are political detainees, that they acted with political motives and that they should be released," Mr. Cornelius said. "They say if they are not released, they will die for the cause."
For Henry Martin, Adrian Maritz and Lood van Schalkwyk, the cause is a white South Africa.
Charged with two bombings that killed one man and injured more than a dozen people, the men are part of an increasingly vocal group of right-wing radicals who are making trouble for President F. W. de Klerk as he negotiates with black opposition groups.
They have demanded to be released on the ground that their crimes were political rather than criminal, and they have cited the release of more than 1,000 political prisoners affiliated with the African National Congress, which until February 1990 was banned.
The ANC said the deaths of the three would be "tragic and totally unnecessary." It did not explicitly call for the release of the right-wing hunger strikers, but an ANC spokesman, Saki Macazoma, said the group's statement of concern might make it easier for Mr. de Klerk to release the men and avoid a situation in which they would become martyrs.
Right-wing leaders, who have threatened war to stop Mr. de Klerk's racial reforms, have accused the president of selling out his own people by negotiating with blacks.
"We have members of the ANC who are in some way responsible for the deaths of people. And Mr. de Klerk is negotiating with them," said Piet Rudolph, spokesman for another right-wing group, the Afrikaner Resistance Movement.
He also noted that the government released dozens of ANC supporters from prison on humanitarian grounds when those prisoners staged a hunger strike this year.
"He's not dealing with the right in the proper way. He's trying to ignoreus," said Mr. Rudolph, who was arrested last year in connection with right-wing bombings. He was released after staging a prolonged hunger strike.
Koos van der Merwe, a member of Parliament from the right-wing Conservative Party, said the right-wing ranks include 300,000 to 400,000 men with military training and with a "frightening" arsenal of weapons.
"I wish to warn the government that it should take the right-wing culture of violence seriously," he said in an interview.
Other analysts say only a small fraction of the white population would be willing to resort to violence, but that fraction could cause chaos for a long time.
Mr. de Klerk has taken a hard line with right-wing whites, saying his government would crack down just as hard on right-wing terrorism as it has on left-wing.
The tension between his reform-minded government and the far right came to a head three weeks ago in a shootout between heavily armed extremists and riot police officers guarding a hall where Mr. de Klerk was speaking.