A string of electoral successes by a far right-wing party is forcing South Africans of all political shades and skin hues to think about what just a year ago was unthinkable.

The question asked with increasing frequency and urgency is: can the white-supremacist Conservative Party take power in South Africa, and if so, what will life be like?For many, a taste of what would happen came at a recent special election in Standerton, southeast of Johannesburg, when Conservative Party loyalists insulted and spat at television crewmen because they were black.

On the face of it, the Conservatives' courtly, diffident-looking leader, Andries Treurnicht, has far to go before being sworn in as South Africa's president.

His party has only 23 seats in the 178-seat House of Assembly (parliament) which has been dominated for the past 40 years by the National Party of President P.W. Botha.

But the Conservatives have momentum. They scored resounding victories in three special elections in March, and when party spokesmen talk about supplanting the Nationalists as the ruling party, nobody laughs any more.

Treurnicht and his backers have touched a chord in the country's white minority, particularly the three million Dutch-descended Afrikaners.

Many whites are scared of what the future will hold, scared of losing their privileged position, scared of being swamped by other races, party spokesmen preach.

"It (the Conservative Party) appeals to the two most powerful emotions, fear and hope," writes Willem de Klerk, a former editor of the Afrikaner newspaper Rapport who is now professor of Communications at Rand Afrikaans University outside Johannesburg.

Nationalists, on the other hand, appeal to far weaker emotions such as reasonableness and vague expectations for the future, de Klerk wrote in an analysis published in the Johannesburg Sunday Star newspaper.