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In the aftermath of white South Africa's historic vote against the system of racial division known as apartheid, there is a distinct sense of relief, a feeling of a catastrophe avoided. This doesn't mean that all problems are now resolved. In fact, a long and difficult road still lies ahead in making the transition to black majority rule. But there is new hope that the prospect will be a peaceful one.

The vote was only a referendum, not an actual change in government, yet it sent a powerful message in response to President Frederik de Klerk's racial reforms. Voters had been asked if they supported the abolition of apartheid and wanted a new constitution giving the vote to blacks.With all the results in, 68.7 percent voted "yes." and 31.3 percent voted "no." There had been many complaints about the balloting being whites-only, but that did have an advantage: The resulting vote left a clear picture about how whites feel about changing the system.

Prior to the vote, blacks had been muttering about violence as the only alternative if de Klerk's reforms were rejected. That dire possibility now seems to have faded and has been replaced by a more hopeful feeling. Both sides should take advantage of the more cheerful climate to come to terms on the structure of South Africa's future government.

Black leaders have rushed to assure whites that they should not fear or have reservations about a black majority government. Warnings of Marxism, chaos and stripping whites of their property, were a major theme of opponents to black rule before the election.

The reassurances of blacks are helpful, but whites obviously will have some concern, despite their vote. After all, the country is headed toward a whole new system of government and shifts in power and control. Change and the accompanying uncertainty cannot help but be a source of some uneasiness.

A more immediate impact should be the lifting of any remaining trade restrictions against South Africa. Officials in Denmark, the most reluctant to end sanctions, were the first to announce the immediate junking of sanctions.

Despite the landslide proportions of the vote, the fact that nearly one-in-three whites appear opposed to change is a potential problem. The Conservative Party wants to keep apartheid but has pledged not to resort to violence. Everyone must work at that goal. All it would take are some violence-prone hotheads - black or white - to cause trouble far beyond their numbers or influence.

Still ahead are what are sure to be lengthy negotiations between de Klerk's National Party and 18 other groups on drafting a new constitution. These talks have been in progress for about three months. National elections don't have to be called until 1994, and de Klerk considers that his deadline for having a new constitution in place.

If the talks go well, they could result in some kind of interim government that includes blacks for the first time, although de Klerk has emphasized that he would be in charge.

The transition to black majority rule will work best if it is slow and measured, with a careful blending of responsibilities and a growing feeling of trust and involvement. Impatient blacks may want instant, overnight change, but that would not be in anyone's interest.

South Africa has moved a long way in recent years - with many thanks to de Klerk and his National Party. All it will take is a little more patience and cooperation to bring about a democratic, multiracial society.

Again, that won't solve all problems of a once-divided nation, but it would be a splendid beginning.