KROONSTAD, South Africa -- To Louisa van Niekerk, it's a God-given fact that blacks and whites should be segregated and it's wrong to create a single nation that mixes the races in South Africa.
"God made us different. Why did God make us different if he wanted us together?" asked Mrs. van Nie-kerk, a farmer's wife in the conservative heartland of South Africa. "God made the sheep and the goats and the cattle, and they stay apart. Even the black birds and the white birds live apart."
It is not a question of racism or hatred of blacks, she explained in a soft voice and measured words. "We love them, but we like to live separately. Because they're not like us. They're quite different."
Mrs. van Niekerk, 54, and her husband Manie, 61, are adamantly opposed to plans for a democratic South Africa, where everyone would vote and have equal rights regardless of race. They opposed the changes of the past two years, when the government abolished apartheid laws and opened negotiations with black political groups on a new constitution.
"Black people can't cope with all these changes. They're very slow people," said Mrs. van Niekerk, sitting in the study of the family's large farmhouse. "We must raise them up slowly. Even if they want to go fast, I don't think they can cope with it. I don't think they have the capacity."
Across the parched countryside of the Orange Free State, a farming and mining region known for hard work and hardened views, thousands of whites share the van Niekerks' opposition to a new South Africa.
They hate the government's reforms as much as they hate the drought that destroyed this year's corn crop. To them, the reforms will result in the destruction of the whites, who are outnumbered 6-to-1 by blacks in South Africa.
The van Niekerks are members of the Conservative Party, the conservative political party whose growing popularity among frightened whites has become a threat to the anti-apartheid reform program of President F. W. de Klerk.
Like many of their neighbors in the rural areas, they plan to vote against Mr. de Klerk on March 17, when a referendum among the country's 3 million white voters will be held to decide the fate of the reform process and the future of Mr. de Klerk's government.
The South African president says he needs a mandate from whites to continue the reforms and promises to resign and call a general election for a new government if he loses.
If that happens, though it seems unlikely at this point, it will be fine with the pro-apartheid Conservatives who say Mr. de Klerk betrayed whites by repealing the laws that kept them on top.
"In 1989, Mr. de Klerk and his party lied to the people," said Mr. van Niekerk, whose weather-beaten face reflects years of working in the punishing sun.
He said Mr. de Klerk never told whites he planned to end apartheid, and in fact, promised that the government would maintain segregated neighborhoods and schools.
In campaign speeches around the country, Conservative Party leader Andries Treurnicht accuses Mr. de Klerk of selling out "the white nation" to the black communists. Campaign posters on trees and poles in towns across the Free State urge whites to "Stop de Klerk sellout to the ANC," referring to Nelson Man
dela's African National Congress.
The president responds that he is saving South Africa from a future of chaos and international isolation. He also promises whites that he will negotiate guarantees that will protect them as a minority even after the black majority gets the vote.
"Mr. de Klerk can talk until he is blue in the face, but how do you protect a minority's rights when you negotiate with the majority," asked Mr. van Niekerk. He says whites would be overrun by blacks, and he fears that a new black government would seize land and property accumulated by whites during decades of apartheid, when blacks were prohibited from owning land in most of the country.
A successful farmer, Mr. van Niekerk owns 12,000 acres of farming and ranch land in the Free State, where he grows corn and wheat and raises cattle and sheep. He employs 35 black farm laborers whose wives and children live in small, red-brick houses on his land. And, he has built two, one-room schools which serve the children of his laborers.
He says he has worked for everything he owns and treats his laborers fairly. "I'm a CP member and I have had people working for me for 32 years. Would they stay so long if I was a racist?" he asked. He says he wishes blacks the same thing he wants for himself -- a good life in their own country.
"I want to see a person stand up from the ground, and I'll help him. But he must show me that he wants help. He must help himself. That's one of the biggest problems with the blacks."
He said blacks cannot handle responsibility, a charge that his wife quickly seconded.
She doesn't know any blacks except the uneducated farm laborers who live and work on their land.
The van Niekerks are Afrikaners, descendants of the original Dutch settlers who came to southern Africa more than three centuries ago and who clung to the concept of a white fatherland here despite black opposition and foreign sanctions.
Mr. de Klerk said his National Party, which has ruled the country since 1948, tried for many years to divide South Africa into different states based on ethnicity. But he said the policy of apartheid did not work and could never work because blacks and whites are too dependent on each other.