CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- South Africa has come to an important turning point on the road to political reforms that are supposed to put power in the hands of its black majority.
After two years of clearing obstacles from that road, the country is poised to move forward to a new government, a new constitution and a new era in which apartheid will be a relic of the past.
The road-clearing process was easy compared with what lies ahead because that process, which consisted mainly of repealing the racially discriminatory laws of apartheid, was directed entirely by the powerful white-minority government.
Now comes the tough part: negotiations between the white government and the representatives of 30 million blacks on the terms for a new democratic government. Blacks are looking forward to what they will gain, but whites who have had the laws stacked in their favor for decades are worried about what they will lose in a new political age.
To test those concerns, President F.W. de Klerk announced a plan last week that has sparked South Africa's latest controversy. He called for a referendum in which whites would get a chance to veto changes in the constitution.
Mr. de Klerk and his cabinet ministers insist they are not giving whites a veto but are keeping a promise to the constituents who in 1989 gave them a mandate for change.
"I know we would not have received that mandate from the white voters, we would not have won the election, if we did not tell the voters that we would come back to them," said Foreign Minister Roelof F. "Pik" Botha. "Now to come and tell us that we must betray a commitment of that nature does not make sense," he said.
But it is the white referendum that doesn't make sense to government critics, and most significantly to its chief negotiating partner, the African National Congress.
"The ANC position on a white veto is that it is completely unacceptable," said Allan Boesak, a prominent activist and member of the ANC's national executive committee.
"Mr. de Klerk should really understand that at the time he made that promise it was within the context of a racist election for white people," said Mr. Boesak. "Since then he himself has helped to bring about substantial changes in the political climate so that even to them it must be something of a contradiction to go back to racist categories of testing opinions."
The proposed referendum poses a threat to the constitutional negotiations, which formally began Dec. 20 with a meeting of 19 political organizations representing blacks, whites, Indians and "coloreds," the South Arican term for people of mixed race.
Organizations on the far left and far right boycotted that meeting, but the two most important players were there -- the National Party, which runs the government, and the ANC, Nelson Mandela's popular and influential political organization.
It is generally recognized -- to the consternation of some -- that whatever political solution is devised in South Africa will require the acceptance of those two groups.
"It is desirable to get everybody involved [in the negotiations process], but the only thing that will for certain wreck the process is if either the National Party or the ANC walk out," said Zach de Beer, a liberal member of Parliament who acted as chairman of the December talks.
Although top ANC leaders deny they are contemplating a walkout over the referendum issue, there is a serious threat that the whole process will bog down because of it.
"I think it would be totally disastrous not only for Mr. de Klerk but for the country as a whole," said ANC general secretary Cyril Ramaphosa.
Other black leaders also threaten massive resistance campaigns the sort that crippled South Africa in the 1980s and led to a tough state of emergency in which tens of thousands of government opponents were detained.
But the threat that Mr. de Klerk seems most concerned about at the moment is on his political right rather than the left.
Militant far-right organizations have promised violence if the negotiations proceed and Mr. de Klerk "gives South Africa to the blacks," as they put it. Perhaps more important to the political process, the right-wing Conservative Party is picking up support among whites outside the party, who are nervous about their future under a black majority rule government.
That could explain why Mr. de Klerk is so determined to show the 5 million whites in South Africa that his party is still concerned about what they think and what they want.
The trouble is, if he goes through with his referendum and whites say "no," both his party and the negotiations are in deep trouble. He says he would simply go back to the drawing board and try to negotiate another constitutional arrangement that is acceptable to whites. But others saythat if he makes himself the "white president" again after two years of promoting a nonracial South Africa, he will discredit himself and the process, especially if the whites reject him.
"A 'no' vote would leave the Conservative Party as ostensibly the representative of the white people," said Mr. de Beer, "and then they would have to be talked to."
What they want to talk about is the creation of an independent white state to be excluded from any nonracial democracy that emerges from the reform process.
If that fails -- and at this point no other significant party wants to talk about a white state -- the CP hopes to force a new parliamentary election, which party leaders believe they can win. They think there are enough whites unhappy with Mr. de Klerk's reforms to ensure a Conservative victory and allow them to turn back the clock on reforms.
If the CP were to come to power, it would want to reverse the last few years and return Nelson Mandela to prison, party spokesman Piet Gouws told reporters last week. It might also ban the ANC and other black political groups which were unbanned two years ago.
Mr. de Klerk does not plan to hold another white parliamentary election. He intends for the reform process to be complete and a new constitution to be in place before he is required, under the current white constitution, to hold new elections.
But still he has reason to worry about the increasing popularity of the CP among whites. Some analysts say that concern should give added urgency to his plan to negotiate a political settlement with blacks before he is deserted by the white electorate.
"The better the CP looks the more urgent to get on with the negotiated solution involving the majority of people," said Mr. de Beer, the liberal member of Parliament.
He and others say that under the circumstances they cannot fathom why the South African president has decided to hold a referendum which could stall or stop the process.
But Mr. de Klerk exudes confidence when he speaks about his prospects for winning a referendum, which would be held among voters of all races and would thus be the first national poll ever to include black South Africans.
The votes would be counted by race, however, so the government can determine what white voters think. And government officials invariably say they expect to win among whites.
One official said the result depends very much on how you ask the question, and they don't intend to ask it in a way that will frighten whites.
"I don't lose any sleep over the question of the referendum," Mr. de Klerk said last week. He said the sooner it can be held, the better for the country.
Some Cabinet officials said the referendum could be held later this year, which they say would clear the way for an interim government and an interim constitution under which South Africa's first truly nonracial election would be held.