Between the Great Fish River and the Great Kei River lies Ciskei, one of the most beautful but most poverty-ridden and overcrowded parts of South Africa. Today, voters in that tribal homeland decide whether they should become "independent."

Results of the referendum will not be known for about 10 days, but it is expected that there will be an endorsement of Ciskei Chief Minister Lennox Sebe's decision, announced in September, to follow in the footsteps of three other homelands -- Transkei, Bophuthatswana and Venda -- that have formally seceded from South Africa to become "national states" under that country's apartheid policy.

Invoking the ancestral spirits of his people's religion and the threat of imprisonment, Sebe recently warned his constituents not to go to the polls today unless they planned to vote for independence.

"If you choose the worst, to betray the nation, do not go to the polling stations," Sebe said. "The spirits of our great chiefs will make a piercing cry: 'Deliver him or her to the officer and be cast into prison.'"

The decision of the former schoolteacher surprised many observers because it goes against the recommendations of an eight-member international commission Sebe appointed to advise him on whether Ciskei should choose independence.

Ciskei, with an area of 440 square miles, is about one-third the size of Rhode Island.

After a year of intensive research, the Quail Commission, which included two prominent American academics as well as two white South Africans, concluded that independence for Ciskei would have serious and harmful political and economic consequences for the 2 million Xhosa-speaking blacks designated as Ciskeians by Pretoria. The commission said independence should be accepted only if Pretoria agreed to certain conditions.

The most serious repercussion for these people, two-thirds of whom live and work in white controlled South Africa, would be the loss of their South African citizenship. They would become foreigners in what most consider their own country -- South Africa.

Since all the independence negotiatons so far have been in private between Sebe and Pretoria, it is not known whether all the conditions set by the Quail Commission have been met.

These included South African agreement to give Ciskei equitable financial support; a pledge that Ciskeians could seek work in white South Africa; enlargement of Ciskei to include the city of East London; and a guarantee that ethnic Ciskeians outside the territory be allowed to retain South African citizenship if they wished.

Sebe's decision comes as Pretoria has openly admitted the failure of its old version of apart heid and moved to replace it with a confederal system.

The fact that none of the three independent homelands has yet gained international recognition and that none of the 10 homelands, independent or not, is economically viable on its own, let Pretoria to this conclusion.

Nonetheless, South Africa still sees independence as a way of solidifying the conservative, tribally based authorities it has helped to set up in the homelands. The Afrikaner-dominated central government still maintains that in any future confederal body, blacks must be represented in ethnic blocs assigned to homelands.

Many blacks view this as dressed-up apart heid -- a way to fragment the black majority of almost 20 million so that the 4 million whites can retain political and economic control.

The government of Prime Minister P. W. Botha also plans to redirect national economic development so that homelands will share more equitably in the wealth of the country. But those plans, still in the drawing stage, face political and economic resistance from whites. For example, the government was hoping to include the white King William's Town is Ciskei, which has no major urban area. But residents of the town, the home of the slain black consciousness leader Steve Biko, objected so intensely that the government backed down.

Besides the loss of citizenship, Ciskeians will face discrimination as "foreigners" in the job market in the white-controlled industralized area of South Africa. An independent Ciskei forfeits its legal rights to a share in the benefits of the South African economy as a whole, a step it can ill afford.

Ciskei has a per-capita income of about $300 a year about 65 percent of that earned outside its borders in South Africa. It has no industry to speak of and a subsistence agriculture, importing between 50 and 90 percent of its food.

South Africa provides more than 70 percent of its budget and would continue to do so. Unemployment ranges between 25 and 39 percent.

"There just isn't anything like a viable economic structure in Ciskei," said Wesleyan economics professor Peter Kilby, who sat on the Quail Commission and who said he was "devastated" by Sebe's decision.