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The referendum in South Africa next week is a master stroke. It risks the hopes of a new post-apartheid South Africa against those who would resume rigid segregation, but President F.W. de Klerk should win his calculated gamble easily and then be able to help guide South Africa securely toward serious power sharing.

Although de Klerk's National Party has lost a succession of parliamentary by-elections in right-wing constituencies to the die-hard Conservative Party, he seized the political high road by demanding a whites-only vote next week. The referendum question asks whites whether or not they want to continue reforming South Africa through negotiations with black Africans.Could whites reject what still is an unproven and open-ended process? Could they follow their largely rural compatriots and insist upon a return to apartheid? Are they so upset with the rapid transition of South Africa away from apartheid that they would halt progress?

The outcome of the referendum will provide answers to those questions. But as desperately pro-apartheid as many Afrikaners and other whites may feel, it is unlikely that they will vote "no" in more than modest numbers.

Going back to the old ways is unthinkable for most whites. There would be a resurgence of black-white violence. The eagerly sought return to national prosperity would be deferred for years, if not indefinitely. Foreign investment and borrowing possibilities would end. The opportunity to send a South African team to the summer Olympics would be aborted, and all renewed sporting ties with the rest of the world, as well as contacts in other spheres, would be cut off.

Some Afrikaans-speaking whites seek the security of legislated apartheid more than they want to feel a welcome part of the modern world. Despite the recent Conservative victories, however, their numbers are comparatively few. Extrapolating from the party votes in the 1989 general election and factoring in the swing against the National Party in last month's by-election gives de Klerk a margin that could be as high as 63 percent to 37 percent in the referendum.

Once he wins the referendum, de Klerk will have achieved far more than an endorsement of his policies of reform. He will have achieved a mandate for change that can be parlayed into the end of white politics as South Africa has known it since 1910.

There will be no need to consult whites in another referendum after a proposed new constitution for the country is formulated by the ongoing Convention for a Democratic South Africa. Indeed, there need never be another whites-only election.

The threat from the right will have been neutralized, whereas continued by-election losses would have bolstered the Conservatives. The African National Congress will know that de Klerk is negotiating from strength, with the backing of the Democratic Party. Foreign governments will have further reason to trust and work with him.