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As white voters prepare to go to the polls Tuesday in South Africa, the chronically troubled country finds itself at a historic crossroads.

Down one path lies continued progress toward dismantling the hated racial segregation policy called apartheid and toward more sharing of political and economic power between the white minority and the black majority.Down the other path lies a return to the bad old days of racially segregated neighborhoods, schools, and other public facilities. Since black hopes for social justice would be dashed, it also would be a return to more internal violence. And it would entail more international sanctions against South Africa and more isolation.

In the referendum, President F.S. de Klerk and his ruling National Party are asking white voters to declare where they stand on negotiations to end apartheid and give South African blacks political equality in a democratic government. If he wins, the negotiations will continue. If he loses, de Klerk will resign, opening the way for a general election and a likely effort to turn back the clock.

The referendum was forced after an embarrassing loss last month by a National Party candidate in a parliamentary by-election. Some black leaders look on next Tuesday's referendum as creating the opportunity for a possible white veto of recent reforms. But the risk had to be run some time, since de Klerk earlier promised white voters an opportunity to vote on a proposed new constitution.

The choice next Tuesday should be clear. South Africa should stay the course and persist with the dismantling of apartheid even though power-sharing won't be trouble-free in view of South African blacks' inexperience in government and the anti-apartheid movement's links with communism.

But blacks can learn self-government just as they can learn about the bankruptcy of communism as demonstrated in Eastern Europe. Moreover, though a shift to power-sharing seems bound to be rough, it's certainly preferable to the civil war that could easily be brought on by a return to apartheid.

If President de Klerk prevails on Tuesday, the United States and its allies should be prepared to roll back the economic sanctions imposed on South Africa as an inducement to abandon apartheid.