by Timothy Elphick
SOUTH Africa's Catholic bishops have appealed to voters in the country's whites-only referendum on a non-racial society to block the advance of neo-fascist groups hoping to halt future reforms.
A statement issued this week by the Southern African Bishops' Conference said that the nation needed to see "a clear apology for apartheid and a firm commitment to a future democratic South Africa".
"It is in the best interests of all South Africans to know, as clearly as possible. where the white community stands on the issue of a negotiated settlement for a non-racial society," the bishops said.
President F W de Klerk has threatened to resign from office if his reform programme is defeated in the referendum. But black opposition parties have condenuaexl the vote on March 17 as provocative, pointing out that a poll on the future of a non-racial South Africa should not have been called without referenv to the black majority.
The referendum will ask whites to vote on the question:
"Do you support continuation of the reform process begun by the state president and which is aimed at a a new constitution through negotiation."
The bishops said that rightwing Afrikaner groups were using their recent by-election victory over the ruling Nationalist Party in the Transvaaal city of Potchefsrtroom, which is believed to have panicked de Klerk into calling the referendum, to "claim legitimacy for their political agenda and to become increasingly aggressive".
"Given the reality of South Africa's history, neither the far right nor the white population as a whole can be ignored. The transition to a new South Africa, which cannot he stopped, can either be peaceful or fraught with more conflict and bloodshed," they said.
Sr Margaret Kelly, general secretary of the bishops' National Justice and Peace Commission, said it would he counter-productive for whites to veto the. referendum. She voiced fears that "a revolution" could result from a right-wing victory on polling day.
supporting President de Klerk, the referendum offers a chance for white people to come forward and offer a massive boost to the negotiation process," said Sr Kelly.
But a statement from the South African Council of Churches, to which the Catholic Church belongs as an observer member, attacked de Klerk for being "panicked" into turning to the white minority to bolster confidence in his government.
"We believe that this action adds to insecurity and instability in our society, and that it could lead to a delay in the negotiation process at best and a full racial conflict, even civil war, at worst. The air of expectation of a new society, where all people of all races are free to express themselves in security and peace with justice, must not be allowed to become fogged my minority demands of a racist nature," the church body said.
On Sunday the country's farright groups launched a joint "vote-no" campaign ahead of the referendum the first time they have come together for electoral purposes