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For residents of this fiercely conservative Afrikaner community, the overwhelming "yes" vote last week in the whites-only national referendum on ending minority rule shattered a dream that started going wrong more than 150 years ago.

In 1837 a group of hardy and deeply religious Boer farmers seeking to escape British rule in the south set off into uncharted Africa on a journey known as the Great Trek. Their goal was to find the land they believed God had promised to his "Chosen People," the Afrikaners.A few years and 1,000 miles later, one group of zealots came across a little river flowing north that, they concluded, must be the source of the Nile. A pyramid-like structure rising out of the bush heightened their conviction that they had reached Egypt and the Promised Land.

They were 3,500 miles off the mark and the "pyramid" was in fact a small hill revered by local inhabitants as the home of ancestral spirits. But the settlers stayed anyway and called their town Nylstroom, or Nile Stream.

More than a century and a half later, their descendants put up a fierce fight to save the promised land from the looming prospect of black rule. But just as those early settlers got their geography horribly wrong, so their descendants last week grossly misjudged the power of the reform movement.

The referendum results nationwide - 68 percent in favor and 32 percent against - silenced the right wing's loud boast that a majority of whites had flocked to the Conservative Party since 1990, when President F.W. de Klerk began negotiating a new constitution that would extend equal rights to blacks.

Gloom hung over Nylstroom as its 5,000 white residents contemplated their loss. The constituency of Conservative leader Andries Treurnicht and a bastion of Afrikaner nationalism, Nylstroom lies in the heart of the only one of 15 regions to return a "no" majority in the referendum - the district of Pietersburg in the northern Transvaal province.

"I don't understand it. I can't believe it. It makes no sense," said the local Conservative Party chairman, Hannes van Zyl. "We were crushed. But we can't give up; we'll never give up."

But Wim Booyse, a private political consultant and expert on the right wing, thinks the result eliminates any chance that the right can disrupt the reform process. "No way can they stop it now," he said. "They can't even dent it anymore."

The humiliated and deeply divided Conservative Party is expected to join the negotiating process rather than risk complete political isolation. If hard-liners like Treurnicht continue to refuse to join, a split is likely, with pragmatists leading a splinter faction into the negotiations.

"The Conservative Party has to decide whether it wants to be part of the solution or part of the problem," a senior party official said.

A more serious problem will be the extremist right-wing Afrikaner Resistance Movement led by Eugene Terreblanche, who swiftly pledged violence to secure his goal of a white homeland. But only about 10,000 of the 875,000 whites who voted "no" to reform are thought to feel allegiance to his party.

There is also a risk of violence from extremists who owe no allegiance to any established group and who have been held responsible for a number of terrorist bombings in recent years. There has been considerable speculation that these shadowy neo-fascists - former army officials who learned their trade in South Africa's border wars - have links with the security services, and that a right-wing coup from within the army is a distinct possibility.